Thursday, February 2, 2012

Judaism in US & Israel

The US and Israel have an almost equal number of Jewish citizens (about 7 million each), and so they are the most important for understanding contemporary Judaism. Also, the close political and military ties, with Israel receiving more financial support from the US than any other country, demonstrate how Judaism is very much linked to broader American concerns about peace in the Middle East and oil.

So, let's take a quick tour through current events involving Jews in the US and Israel to get a sense of what is happening. The biggest current religious issue is related to women and so we will hold off on that till next week, since that is when you will read about women in Judaism. But let's keep things in historical perspective as we move toward current events.

Different Jewish Views on Religion and Nationhood

Jews began re-settling in Palestine (what is now Israel) in the late 1700s and 1800s. However, it was only during British rule that Jewish immigration increased substantially. I won't go into all the details about the creation of the state of Israel, but we do need to understand the basic points of view of Jews on the issue of creating a Jewish state.

The first view is Zionism, meaning that a Jewish state is needed to protect the rights of Jewish people, and this view especially gained traction after waves of persecution against Jews in the early 20th century in places such as Russia, Poland and Germany. Many Jews fled persecution to settle in what is now Israel. However, many conservative religious Jews disagreed with the political interests of Zionism to create a Jewish state, and instead they argued that only G-d could or should do such a thing and that mere mortal humans should not toy around with G-d's plan for the 'chosen people'. Pragmatically speaking, though, many of the anti-Zionist camp ended up fleeing to Israel in the wake of persecutions, as well. There are some conservative Jews who still hold that Zionism is illegitimate and take stances that disapprove and sometimes disregard the Israeli government and police by claiming that they only recognize G-d's law and not man-made laws. But they are in the minority.

After Israel became a recognized state in the late 1940s, most of these debates subsided. Some Jewish intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt (more on her here) and Walter Benjamin argued that either a two-state solution or a shared state was necessary for Israelis and Palestinians. The reason for this was the notion that the main problem Jews faced was being stripped of citizenship by European countries, which meant that they lost any grounds for rights and privileges as a stateless people with no government to protect their rights. Even the US did not allow Jews fleeing persecution in Europe to move to the US for safety.

So, this camp of Jewish thinkers argued that the Israeli Jewish state had done the same thing to Palestinians by kicking them off of their land and not allowing them to achieve nationhood, which made Palestinians a stateless people. There are currently more Palestinians living outside of Palestine than inside, and by not having a nation they have no guarantee of human rights since they have no government to ensure them. This camp argued that when Jews sought their own nation by making another people stateless, Jews had contradicted the Biblical injunction to 'love thy neighbor as thyself'. To get a better sense of this approach to conflict resolution view check out the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun (here).

Now, another camp arose that did reinterpret the founding of Israel as a divine intervention with messianic-like implications of fulfilling Biblical prophecy for the Jewish people. This view combined religious triumphalism with nationalism, so that the founding of the nation was linked to a sense that the Jewish people would be vindicated. It is this view that dominates a lot of discussions about peace in the Middle East in the US and Israel currently. This view is strongly shared by religious conservatives in Israel and the US who support the continuing expansion of Jewish settlements by Orthodox Jewish communities into Palestinian territories as a fulfillment of G-d's promise to restore a greater portion of land to Israel that was initially a part of the kingdom of Israel long ago. Read this article to get a taste of how interpretations of Jewish scriptures get connected to current events in Israel (here) by a politically and religiously conservative Israeli media organization. This camp has received some criticism in the US after a Jewish leader in Atlanta recently called for the assassination of President Obama to secure Israeli interests (here).

Jewish Communities in US

In the US Jewish communities are in the greatest numbers in New York, New Jersey, Florida, and California. Although the vast majority of Jews tend to vote for Democrats, there are many Jews in the Republican Party, as well, and you can read about Floridian Jewish thoughts about the Florida Republican primary here. Members of Jewish communities in the US also contribute greatly to society through charity. In Los Angeles, California a fund-raising campaign recently collected $200,000 to help returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to get and education and learn how to manage their finances (here).

However, there are still plenty of anti-Semitic violent acts in the US. In January 2012 a young man firebombed two synagogues in New Jersey (here). In response, the Jewish and African-American communities (here) came together in solidarity to oppose racist acts of violence since both groups have a long history of facing this kind of hatred. But anti-Semitism isn't always so clear-cut, as in the case where a Jewish man who had a business dispute with his family carried out anti-Semitic attacks against them as intimidation in order to make them think that he was not the one behind the aggression (here). 

As I said above, we will take up issues involving women at the heart of debates about struggles over the definition of contemporary Israel and Judaism next week.