On the first anniversary of the worst pogrom in American history, the World Trade Center, the Tappan Zee Bridge, and other New York landmarks were lit up in blue and white in solidarity with the American Jewish community. As Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted, this was done not only to honor Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life shooting victims but to mark the state’s day of action to combat anti-Semitism. It was at once a gesture demonstrating the historically extraordinary place of Jews within the United States and the extent to which American Jews are misunderstood by non-Jewish Americans more broadly. In an effort to honor the memories of eleven American citizens, killed on American soil by a white supremacist obsessed with conspiracies about Jews with foreign loyalties seeking to replace Americans with other foreigners, New York’s public landmarks were lit up in the colors of the Israeli flag. There is something clearly askance about this, and we as American Jews are largely to blame.
It is understandable that outsiders immediately identify American Jews first and foremost with Israel. They are following the signals that we send. The largest annual gathering of American Jews is the AIPAC Policy Conference. We fly Israeli flags outside and inside our shuls. When presidential candidates in both parties speak on what they perceive to be specifically American Jewish issues, it is Israel policy that dominates those conversations and debates. Much of the American Jewish institutional world is consumed with fighting BDS and winning the battle to have anti-Zionism treated as in no way distinct from anti-Semitism. If you are not enmeshed within the Jewish community and are seeking to identify with American Jews, it is no wonder that you would instinctively turn to identification with Israel as a way of signaling that solidarity. When we largely reduce our public-facing identity to our Zionism and connection to Israel, why are we surprised when non-Jews – both those who are well-meaning and those who are not – do the same?
There are many reasons why this situation is less than ideal, but here are two. First, because Israel is political in a way that Judaism is not, it politicizes far too many issues related to Judaism, with anti-Semitism being the most obvious example. President Trump’s comments about American Jewish “disloyalty” to Israel for those who vote Democratic and Ilhan Omar’s comments about political support for Israel being “all about the Benjamins” both trafficked in easily recognizable anti-Semitic tropes, and not coincidentally both were related to Israel. Far too many American Jews reacted to both of these incidents not based on the underlying and core problems on display, but either based on how they feel about Israel or where their partisan political allegiances lie. Not only is this unhelpful in pointing out and correcting instances of anti-Semitism that are not as starkly brutal as gunning down eleven Jews immersed in prayer on Shabbat morning, it only guarantees that anti-Semitism will inevitably become a political and politicized issue too.
Second, it hampers the development of a uniquely American Jewish identity that is focused primarily on issues related to American Judaism. This too is an unhealthy dynamic. All of the survey and anecdotal data that we have shows that American Jews overwhelmingly care about Israel and think it is important, but it is not the only important thing or even the most important thing. Over 90% of American Jews have favorable views of Israel, and yet it ranks dead last on a list of sixteen policy issues that American Jews consider when voting. If we as a community continue to project the idea that we are all about Israel all the time, other issues that are important to us will fall by the wayside, and we will perpetuate an identity crisis taking hold in some quarters – particularly younger ones – of American Jewish society that results in disaffection or apathy toward Israel becoming disaffection or apathy toward Judaism. American Judaism suffers if it cannot distinguish itself in meaningful ways from Israel.
This is in absolutely no way a plea to marginalize Israel, remove it as a key component of American Jewish identity, or embrace anti-Zionism as an ideal type of American Judaism. Not only do I philosophically believe in Zionism and the critical importance of Israel, it would be foolish to try to erase Israel from American Jewish consciousness when 9 out of 10 American Jews view it favorably. After two thousands years of public and private yearning for the resumption of Jewish political sovereignty in the Jewish homeland, rejecting that project as a component of Jewish identity following its astounding success strikes me as bizarrely myopic. But this is a plea for a rebalancing of the collective American Jewish identity portfolio. American Jewish identity should have lots of room for Israel, but it should not be conflated with Israel entirely. It leaves the American Jewish project adrift and not grounded in its own principles of what it means to be an American Jew, and leaves the impression of an American Judaism that is temporary rather than permanent. Unless the future of the American Jewish community is inevitably aliyah – and some reading this will agree with that sentiment – then Israel must be part of how we approach the world and ourselves but not to the extent that it subsumes everything else.
This raises many questions without any answers, and I confess to not having any good answers for how this rebalancing should happen or what it might ultimately look like. But it is time for us to start seriously thinking about what those answers might be. When an American president on the right thinks that we can be characterized entirely by our relationship to Israel, and a movement on the left demands that Jews denounce Israel as the price of entry into their public spaces, we should be paying attention to the warning signs but also thinking about how to assert our distinctly Jewish identity that goes beyond the one component that so many focus on.