II. Key Differences

The patterns of Israeli/Jewish American relations have been affected by three unique conditions in modern Jewish history. The first concerns Israel, which is, of course, the only modern Jewish community organized as a polity, as a nation-state. The second concerns American Jewry, which, as a minority, is the most truly free Jewish Diaspora in modern Jewish history. The third is that these two modes of Jewish existence, as a sovereign state and as a truly free minority, co-exist. Naturally, each of these two forms of Jewish existence has presented itself as the basis for a critique of the other, and both have emerged as alternative, often competing life choices.

The principal differences between Jewish existence as a polity and as a minority organized in voluntary associations have led to significant secondary consequences. Perhaps the most important of these is the difference between an essentially segmental Jewish existence in America and a comprehensive, encompassing frame of Jewish existence in Israel. In the American context, ethnic-religious and civic (or national) identities are split, while in Israel, as a matter of policy and potential, if not always of fact, they are convergent. This state of affairs means that America and Israel are bound to produce deeply divergent forms of Jewish experience and identity. Jewishness as a composite of religion, ethnicity and cultural traits in Israel has powerful articulations in the institutional and symbolic structures of the state and the agenda of both national and local politics. In America, it is bound to the voluntary frames of minority existence. In contrast to the constitutional separation of church and state in America, in Israel a direct symbiosis between religion and political power encourages Israeli political leaders to regard and use religion as a domestic political resource. To be sure, religion in America has also been used as a political resource, but only in Israel has Judaism – or, more accurately, the Orthodox version of Judaism – enjoyed the de facto status of a state religion and a principal source of national culture. In the context of the American democracy, the life of Judaism as a minority organized voluntarily in the private sphere has tended to ethnicize and ethicalize rather than to politicize religious attachments and religious rhetoric. Recent trends in America indicate moves toward even more privatized and personalized forms of religious consciousness and practice. In Israel, by contrast, Judaism and its various religious and cultural articulations have been serving as a major source of legitimization for state power.

The profound differences between Israeli and American Jewish clusters of religion and politics are paralleled by equally important differences in the clusters of secular identities, society and politics. While in America secular private identities have tended to place Jews outside the minority spaces of Jewish religious and ethnic experience, the Israeli public sphere is sufficiently permeated by at least thin forms of Jewish culture (language, calendar, symbolism, etc.) to “trap” secular Jews within a Jewish frame. Hence, secular culture is not just a way to exit or escape Jewish forms of life, as is often the case of the Diaspora. In Israel, secular Jews constitute an internal challenge as well as an internal complement to both individual and collective religious identities. In other words, Israel evolves and shapes particularistic, secular Jewish identities along with traditional ones. As such, Israel constitutes a unique context for an internal Jewish dialogue between religion and secularism. Because the ethos and the legal and institutional spaces of Israel as a “Jewish state” are rooted in both the Western nationalist and democratic traditions, the state becomes a battleground for the struggle between alternative Jewish-individual and group identities. The attempts made in Israel to evolve distinct, nonreligious Jewish identities have, to be sure, only been partly successful so far. One must adopt a historical perspective on such complex processes. In the longer run, this process, the evolution of Israeli secular Jewish identities, is likely to influence the shaping of Jewish peoplehood and civilization in ways very different from that of American Jewish secularism. While in America the issue of Jewish continuity has focused mainly on the problem of assimilation and intermarriage as threats to the preservation of Jewish religious and ethnic identities, in Israel issues of Jewish continuity have focused more on territorial boundaries, legislation and judicial decisions concerning religion, personal status and rights.