Saturday, June 10, 2006

At the next table

At the sangria place this evening with Katherine, I overheard one of the two women at the next table ask, "So why, if you're not religious, are you so into Israel?" Or something like that. I of course turned around, no less so than if someone had asked, "Where'd you get that bright green vegan bag?" How many people in Nolita could this possibly have applied to?

The other of the two women then went on to explain how she'd moved to Jerusalem a couple years ago, how she'd come to want to do this, her ideology, and so on. Egocentrism quickly transitioned to curiousity, at which point I briefly spoke to these two women. Most of the story, though, I just got from overhearing their conversation. This woman-- not at all out of place in lower Manhattan, not someone I'd have even guessed was Jewish although I'll admit that I can rarely tell such things--had decided to leave the U.S. behind. Amazing the things you can hear if you just listen in to the folks one table over, not to mention how they are, often enough, connected.

Religiosity is the last acceptable excuse for parochialism. (Aptly enough.) If you choose to clump together with people like yourself because you need to be surrounded by those who pray to the same deity, feel equally horrified by gay marriage, to send your children to special schools for others of the group, then that's just faith, can't be argued with. Clumps based on race are, of course, "segregation," and thus both idiotic and problematic. Clumps based on class or sexual orientation are considered less than ideal but tolerable. But what of this other sort of clump, the one that makes this woman--not religious, sufficiently non-ethnic-looking for even the least P.C. issue of the J.Crew catalog--feel at home in Israel? That would be nationalism, which, in its simplest form, includes the desire to live in one's own nation. Jewish parochialism is, "I'll only chill with people who were in my youth group on Long Island." Nationalism is something else entirely.

Which brings me to Dylan's comment, re: the Wall Street Journal piece on Israel's decision to recognize only conversions to Judaism that take place in Israel. The stubbornness of the Israeli rabbinate is an issue of nationality versus citizenship. All Jews, in the Diaspora and in Israel, are part of the Jewish nation. How is "Jew" being defined? A Jew is one whose nationality (i.e. that mysterious bind neither racial nor cultural nor religious, a mix of some or all, but also something else entirely) is, at least in part, Jewish. All Jews are potential citizens of this nation, whose geographic location is the state of Israel, but not all with Jewish nationality wish to become citizens. Nationality and citizenship are both political categories, but citizenship involves responsibility and a higher level of identification.

For Israel to assert itself as not just the country with the most Jews, or the most Jewish country, but as the indisputable worldwide center of Judaism, the state needs to assert itself from time to time, not against the Palestinians, but against Diaspora Jews who want an equal share in determining Judaism but are unwilling to take on Israeli citizenship. This particular move--keeping plenty of honest-to-goodness Jews out of Israel when it's in Israel's interest to have them come--strikes me as silly. The motivation to make Israeli citizenship something a bit more extensive than just being a Jew makes sense; defining this religiously rather than through other forms of commitment does seem misguided.

The future of Judaism is in Israel. I don't claim to know anything about what it's "really like" to live in Israel, to be Israeli, to read from right to left with ease, but I know this much. In the Diaspora, all but the ultra-Orthodox will eventually marry out, die off. In Israel, everyone from the least religious to the most is aware of their Jewish identity and will pass it along to their children without having to make a point in doing so. This is just how it is. This explains why Israelis--at least those committed to a Jewish state-- might not be all that interested, as Dylan points out, in people like me. (This does not include heavily hair-gelled Israeli men who hang around the Village, East and West, whose interest in "people like me" seems not at all dependent on their opinions on the Diaspora versus Israel). People like me won't be around much longer, won't be much of a force to contend with. While a few last stragglers will throw money towards making Israel go one way or another, the grandchildren of these philanthropists will have only a vague recollection that their family once ate bagels a bit more often than other families did.


Seth said...

this would explain why the children or grand children of yordim have little to no Jewish identity. their parents or grandparents left it in Israel, assuming they would be able to continue just having a successfully culturally Jewish home. but as we know, that is something with extreme limitations in inheritance.

or on the other hand, there are the children or grandchildren of yordim who make it their mission to return to the place where they feel most at home (israel). but that alternative is much more rare.

Dylan said...

I suddenly have this horrible vision of a college discussion circa 2106:

"I'm 1/32 Cherokee."

"Well, I'm 1/8 Jewish."

I'm sure the real fractional Jews will outnumber the similarly partial Native Americans, but I wonder if fashionable bullshit claims will swing away from the Red man to the real Tribe.