We are all global Jews now

By David Shneer, August 15, 2008
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There is no such thing as a ‘diaspora Jew' or ‘Israeli Jew' any more


As a professor of Jewish Studies, I keep up on global Jewish affairs. Lately, I have been struck by the number of stories about Jewish life thriving in places that might seem surprising: a new Jewish radio station and cultural centre in Madrid, Indian Jews leaving Israel to go back to India, hip underground Jewish clubs in Moscow.

At the same time, study after study comes out documenting how American Jews in particular, and global Jewry in general, are becoming less connected to Israel and see antisemitism as a less central aspect of their Jewish identity. What is going on?

For 60 years, diaspora and Israeli Jews have organised themselves around the notion that the state of Israel - as opposed to the metaphoric Zion about which Jews have been yearning for return for thousands of years - is the centre of the Jewish people. Everything and everyone else is something we have called "the diaspora," an idea suggesting displacement, dispersion, and the inability to lead a full Jewish life.

In the past 10 years, as my colleague Caryn Aviv and I write about in our book New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora, we have entered a new post-assimilationist, post-Soviet, post-Zionist world in which individual Jewish identity has come to rival collective Jewish peoplehood, and a map of many Jewish homes is replacing the Israel-diaspora model.

As sociologists Ari Kelman and Steven Cohen's recent studies of American Jewry have shown, younger American Jews are deeply interested in Jewish culture and in cultural forms of Jewish expression, are less religious but possibly more spiritual than their parents, and are less and less interested in Israel and the Holocaust as constitutors of their Jewish identities.

Israel is also on the decline as a major constitutor of identity in Europe. There was a clash four years ago over Ariel Sharon's call to French Jewry to abandon ship, which most French Jews heartily rejected. Most significantly, the migration of Soviet and post-Soviet Jews in the 1970s-1990s has reshaped the European Jewish map.

In June 2007, the European Jewish Congress elected a new president, Moshe Kantor, who is also the president of the Moscow-based Russian Jewish Congress. Kantor has called for a change in course in the mission of the EJC: "It is the job of Israeli ambassadors to speak on behalf of Israel to the European Union. We need to support Israel, but we speak on behalf of European Jewry."

He has called for a significant shift in funding from political action to culture and education, reflecting the concerns of most Russian and secular Jews.

And as Europe becomes a vibrant social and economic home for global Jewry, some Israelis are even reclaiming old European identities and moving to places such as Berlin and London. Israeli Jews themselves have become among the most mobile, global, and transnational people on the face of the earth as they trek to places such as India, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, and study and settle in the United States and Europe. As Israelis leave the homeland, Jews everywhere are forced to ask, "Where is home for the Jewish people?"

The beginning of the 21st century shows that Jews are a privileged global community. Global Jews have socio-economic privilege. They are wealthy enough to shuttle Jews, money, and ideas around the world to build global Jewish communities. Jews have cultural privilege. They have among the highest levels of education and culture in the world, and are among the most linguistically and culturally diverse groups of people in the world. Perhaps most importantly, global Jews have political privilege in that they have a state to boast about, wrestle with, migrate to, or leave from.

Rather than bemoaning cultural demise, the secularisation of Jews, assimilation, rising multi-faith relationships, and the inadequate interest in things Jewish among Russian immigrants, 20- and 30-something Jews, and others, I focused on innovations, revivals and renewals happening around the world. What I found was a new Jewish map and an end of the Jewish diaspora. I found this not because all Jews have suddenly moved to Israel or because Jewish life is dead around the world, as others who lament the "end of diaspora" propose.

On the contrary, most Jews in the US, Russia, Germany and elsewhere no longer see themselves "in diaspora". Nor do all Israelis see Israel as the centre of things Jewish. This new map emerges from the end of the idea of diaspora and the rise of an interconnected, interdependent group of global Jews.
The emphasis on "diaspora" and "Israel" has prevented Jews from exploring the diversity of Jewish experience and the ways that Jews craft their identities at home in the places they live.

Seeing global Jewry through the lens of difference has become all the more pressing with the 1990s' mass migration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel, Germany, Australia, and the United States, and with the sexual revolution that has been taking place in Jewish communities since second-wave feminism, each of which has revolutionised what it means to be a global Jew.

Russian-speaking Jews, who are quickly transforming what it means to be an American, Israeli, or German Jew (just as they did a century ago), speak different languages from those in their new home countries, maintain different senses of Jewish identity, and often separate communal institutions.
Because of the Internet, which allows instant global communication, and air travel, which allows people to easily move back and forth, unlike the last wave of Eastern European migration, Russian is quickly becoming a language of Jewish culture.

This is something too often ignored in the Jewish world, which prefers to see Eastern Europe and Russia as graveyards haunted by ghosts that must be abandoned and Russian immigrants as Jewishly impoverished and in need of Jewish uplift.

Looking at the map differently, one would find excellent new Russian-language Jewish literature coming out of Berlin, Tel Aviv, Moscow, and New York; German, Hebrew, and English-language Russian immigrant literature; Jewish Studies programs springing up throughout the former Soviet Union, Israeli music in underground clubs in Moscow, and rabbinic training programs in Russia preparing the next generation of Jewish religious leadership. The diaspora-Israel framework doesn't make sense when culture flows like this.

Can peoplehood still be central if Jews don't have a centre, if we shift our emphasis from unity to diversity? I believe the answer is yes, and here I differ from my more radical colleagues, who are proclaiming the end of Jewish peoplehood. At the 2007 United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Nashville, Tennessee, Aaron Bisman, founder of New York-based JDub Records, said: "The age of peoplehood is over. If peoplehood means that we feel a connection to all Jews, we are all stuck, because young people feel responsibility to all people, and some might feel that the idea of peoplehood might be racist... Pushing peoplehood is the wrong value, because it is not going to draw us in."

I agree with Bisman that the decline in interest in Israel has much to do with a move toward universal values, especially among American Jews. But his approach fails to explain why groups of diverse Jews create new kinds of networks and relationships to connect with one another. It is hard to say peoplehood is over when American gay and lesbian Jews are drawn to support their Israeli, Argentinian, and German counterparts, when Russian-speaking Jews see themselves operating in their own global network, whose primary point of interaction is the website livejournal. It doesn't explain why new forms of religious communities such as minyanim, chavurot, or Jewish renewal communities are springing up throughout the world outside the traditional synagogue network.

But we must hear Bisman, because he reflects a particularly American sensibility that points to the decline in the notion of peoplehood as it is currently understood. The president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Rabbi Irwin Kula, recently echoed Bisman at a Young Jewish Leadership conference. He said the post-war generation successfully achieved its main goals of the 20th century - security, wealth, power, and control over one's destiny.

For the first time, most of the world's Jews do not have to worry about day-to-day antisemitism or poverty. This means, according to Kula, that the era of worrying about "the Jewish people" is over. In its place, he says it is time to stop thinking so much about peoplehood and time to start thinking about, in his words, "the purpose of the people".

Twenty-first century Jewish peoplehood is about centres, not a centre; it is about individual Jews and not "the Jews". It is about Judaism capturing hearts and minds in a spiritual marketplace, not about Judaism as a filial obligation.

This notion of peoplehood starts from a global, not diasporic vision that sees Israel, as the above examples show, as part of a creative dynamic diverse Jewish map. Shifting the lens to "centres" does not spell the end of klal yisrael, nor does it diminish the importance of Israel as a key Jewish centre. It just allows us to see how Jews and Jewish life flourish in all sorts of places without creating a hierarchy of value based on where people call home.

The global community has two ways of responding to the global facts on the ground. One can continue operating in a 60-year old model of Israel-diaspora relations that decries the trends in statistics, the declining interest in Israel, rising rates of secular identities, increasing intermarriage rates, the declining focus on antisemitism among younger Jews, and the decline in synagogue attendance.

In response, global Jewish communities could make their annual Israel celebrations even bigger, put out new publications about global antisemitism, create more expensive birthright-style tours of Israel for younger Jews, keep pushing Russian-speakers to become "real" Jews, and reprimand the young for marrying out of the tribe. This is a conservative approach, which attempts to preserve global Jewish life as it has been.

Or the global Jewish community could adopt a more responsive, creative, and entrepreneurial
vision of peoplehood and community that looks at the same statistics and comes to the opposite conclusion - that Jewish life is thriving.

It looks at how those in intermarried relationships raise their children Jewishly if they feel supported by their communities. It looks at Russian-speaking Jews not as problems, but as people possessing different modes of creative Jewish expression. It looks at lesbians and gays as opportunities to empower a previously disenfranchised group of Jews, not as people who need to be tolerated. It looks at Jewish culture in places such as Buenos Aires, Berlin and Moscow as opportunities for future investment and growth, not as aberrations in places dead to Jewish life simply in need of social services.

It looks at the secularisation of Jewish life globally as an opportunity to foster new kinds of Jewish institutions, such as secular Jewish day schools, alternative Jewish identity travel, studies programmes at universities, and cultural institutions.

It looks at Israel as a pulsing, diverse, multi-ethnic society that can learn as much from other parts of global Jewry as the rest of the world learns from Israel. It means real Israel education, extended study, knowledge of languages, an engagement with the messiness of politics, and a willingness to wrestle.

And it also looks at Jewish criticism of Israeli policies as a form of engagement with notions of peoplehood and birthright, rather than as national treachery as Alvin Rosenfeld suggested in his article for the American Jewish Committee.

By abandoning the confines of nationalism for a more nuanced, flexible understanding of Jewish identity that embraces difference and differences as core virtues, and puts each individual Jew, rather than "the Jews" at the centre of our vision, Israeli, Russian, American, and other Jews can embrace our privilege to become better global citizens and better global Jews.

David Shneer is associate professor of history and director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, and author of New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora

    Last updated: 2:53pm, August 19 2008

    COMMENTS

    Polina

    Thu, 12/04/2008 - 12:31

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    Good stuff, thanks