I was on a short and fascinating tour of Jewish communities in the United States. When I landed in Ben Gurion Airport I declared that I returned with a bag full of experiences and insights. I was told they I do not have to pay any duty for that.
My main insight is as follows: Had I been a secular Jew, I would go to the synagogue near my home and thank God for making me a secular Jew in Israel.
Israeli seculars enjoy a Jewish existence that is more intense than that enjoyed by any non-Orthodox American Jew. In America, if you do not observe the mitzvahs and are not connected to your community, your religion has not expression in your daily life. If someone would remind you, there is a chance that you would mark Passover or Hanukah (it takes place around Christmas time.)
If you are a non-religious Jew in America, the probability that your children will marry gentiles is huge, and the likelihood that this won’t bother you too much is also quite high. Based on various estimates, the Jewish people lose about 50,000 Jews annually in the US alone. Even within Reform communities the struggle is no longer against intermarriage, but rather, focuses on guaranteeing minimal Jewish education for the children even if their parents intermarried.
In Israel, on the other hand, it is easy to spot the scope of secular Zionism’s achievement. The Zionism that established the Jewish State managed to create a reasonable Jewish environment for seculars. Israelis enjoy a Jewish atmosphere thanks to Hebrew and political mechanisms: The Hebrew language and culture, Shabbats and holidays, life in the land of the Bible, the Jewish environment and the army.
Only in Israel do seculars have the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat and the holidays a little bit, to eat kosher a little, to wed, and divorce, be born and die as Jews, and all that without observing the mitzvahs. Only in Israel nobody will tell you: What, you’re Jewish? I would have never thought that (unless you are a construction worker.)
Zionism’s great achievement is therefore the guarantee of a Jewish existence for secular Jews.
Judaism taken for granted in IsraelHowever, the essence of this great achievement also includes the seed of failure. The national-political framework and substance have been revealed to be fluffy and inadequate. Many seculars believe that it’s enough for them to be living in the Jewish State, and they count on Hebrew and their religious neighbors to provide them forever with all their religious and Jewish identity needs, in addition to Jewish atmosphere and character services.
An average secular Israeli trusts the State’s power to absorb and integrate within it masses of non-Jews from the former Soviet Union, and it believes that the Jewish State would not be hurt by lively commercial activity on Shabbat. Many Israelis make do with the basic Judaism package provided by the State.
In America, non-Orthodox Jews feel that they cannot do much to resolve the problem, and that the danger of assimilation is immediate and daily. Here in Israel, Israelis treat Judaism as something that is taken for granted. Yet there are certainly concerns that in less than a generation, and upon the immigration of more non-Jews, the growing separation of religion and state, and the Jewish-cultural weakening of the State, we will face a crisis reminiscent of the one faced by American Jews.
We already see the idea of a “state of all its citizens” trickling down, and we also see the growing values of a consumer society and the freedom to buy, while military reserve service and Zionism are not what they used to be.
The Zionist internalization and education mechanisms have weakened, and the basic Jewish package provided by the State to its citizens is increasingly diminishing without them taking notice. When we wake up, lacking identity and solidarity, we will discover that we are not located between Canada and Mexico, but rather, among Syria and Egypt, Hizbullah and the Islamic Brotherhood.
For the time being, we shall thank the State of Israel for the Judaism is provides to the secular public. Yet I’m not sure that’s enough.