The Israelization of Judaism: An Interview with Yossi Shain

By | Dec 09, 2019
Israel, Jewish World, Latest

Yossi Shain is a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University and a professor of comparative government and diaspora politics at Georgetown University. His most recent book, The Israeli Century and the Israelization of Judaism, is currently a bestseller in Israel and will come out in English in 2020. Moment senior editor Laurence Wolff interviewed Shain in Tel Aviv.

What prompted you to write The Israeli Century and the Israelization of Judaism? 

I saw a phenomenon that is evolving, which is the centrality of the State of Israel in Jewish life. Perhaps only during the time of King Herod has there been a period like today, where a sovereign state dominates Jewish life, with the majority of people residing in that state. 

How is Israel’s role on the international stage different from the past? 

There are now many examples of Israel’s outsized role, for good or for bad, not only in the Jewish world but also internationally. Israel will soon have nine million citizens and is the fastest-growing population in the Western world. Israel’s high-tech accomplishments have greatly increased its political, economic, and social/cultural impact. Its strong position also is a counterpoint to the weakness of much of the diaspora in preserving Jewish communities and in shaping a vision for the future. Especially outside North America, the State of Israel seeks to take on a close to exclusive role as a spokesperson for the entire Jewish people. 

How has Israel’s relationship with the diaspora changed over the past decades? 

In the diaspora, the 1967 war was a watershed moment. It created an avalanche of Jewish identity. Jews, who had been flirting with assimilation, suddenly discovered they were Jewish. At the same time, in the U.S., the idea of one’s own identity became increasingly important. Israel’s strength embellished American Jewish identity, and also the desire to get engaged in Israel. 

Now as Israel is becoming increasingly right-wing and chauvinistic, many Americans ask, “Can I live without the other part of the tribe if this part is moving away from me? Should I disassociate from Israel?” At the same time, it is not clear what Judaism for liberal or progressive Jews in North America will look like, especially considering large scale intermarriage. Can Diaspora Judaism be maintained solely through ideology and universalistic beliefs rather than religious practice and observance? I am not sure that Tikkun Olam, a core component of U.S. Judaism, is enough to ensure the continuation of liberal American Judaism. 

How does this play out among American Jewry? 

In many ways. American Jewish literature increasingly focuses on the Israel/Diaspora relationship. Contemporary American Jewish authors no longer write like Philip Roth or Saul Bellow, for whom the Jewish experience in both America and Europe was central. Leading American Jewish writers today, including Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, Joshua Cohen and Nicole Krauss, deal instead with Israel, Israeli life and American-Israeli relationships. American Jewish life is often portrayed as inadequate and even devoid of focus and meaning compared to life in Israel. 

Since the 1970s, all Reform and Conservative rabbinical students must spend a year in Israel as part of their training. Many Diaspora rabbis attend institutions such as the Hartman Institute or the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem to study liturgy and Jewish ethics. The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox regularly travel back and forth from Israel to the diaspora. Some Jewish leaders are saying that North American Jews should form a fifth “tribe,” in addition to Israel’s Haredi, Arab, religious Zionist, and secular “tribes.”

What about outside America?

While the Jewish diaspora in America is still very successful, it’s especially clear that everything in the diaspora outside of the States is closely tied to Israel. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs was trained in England. But now the 100 rabbis in England are all trained in Jerusalem. In France and Argentina, the rabbis come from or are trained in Israel. 

What happens to this Israelization of Judaism if Judaism in Israel becomes Haredi and/or national religious?

The jury is still out. In my opinion, it’s impossible that Israel will become a theocratic state. Israel is prosperous because of being the “startup”not the “Halachic” nation. In 30 years, Israel will have a population of 15 million. Even if the Haredim are 20 percent of that, 10 million Jews will be secular. I do not expect them to leave. And there is the Israelization of the Harediwhere they are speaking Hebrew rather than Yiddish, entering the labor market and studying secular subjects. Additionally, while it’s true religious Zionists are growing in power, they are becoming more secular in their orientation at the same time. They are replacing religion with tradition and nationalism. Look at Ayelet Shaked, the Minister of Justice, who is secular. Perhaps Israel is becoming a nationalist rather than a religious state. Plus, until recently Israelis were not attracted to liberal Judaism in synagogues and saw religion as the purview of the ultra-Orthodox and the Orthodox. But now I attend more and more weddings held on Friday evening without Orthodox rabbis with someone else, a woman or a man, leading the ceremony. 

What about Israelis in America? 

When I travel now to Palo Alto and elsewhere, I see Israelis worried about their children. Will they keep their Israeliness? Some in the older generation faded into America. But now the high-tech people are much more transnational and go back and forth easily. 

What should Americans do in the face of a changing Israel?

It is the strength and character of the State of Israel that will determine, more than any other factor, the boundaries of Jewish identity, religion and culture. I say to Americans, “Fight for what you believe is right.” Don’t just kvetch about how Israel is becoming right-wing. Don’t just say, “I will detach.” In the long run that will lead to further decline of U.S. Judaism. 

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