Identity, Israel, Religion

Are you a young, selfish American Jew?

Rabbi Danny Gordis’ column from last week’s Jerusalem Post says that if you struggle with your relationship to the State of Israel, it’s probably because you’re individualistic and self-centered. Many of us disagreed. Shalom Rav offered a powerful response right here on Jewschool last week. Jay Michaelson and Gordis continued their exchange on the pages of The Forward. I also wrote a response that the Jerusalem Post ran this weekend.
After all the thinking and writing about JStreet, identity, politics, strategy, power, etc. I’d be curious to hear what Jewschool readers think about the following question that’s been on my mind a lot recently:
What spiritual significance does the State of Israel hold to you?

25 thoughts on “Are you a young, selfish American Jew?

  1. I tend to think that the state of Israel has little spiritual significance for me. It has significance historically, and furthermore, that it is rotting itself from the inside. eretz yisroel is a pillar of our culture and our spiritual heritage, but a state in the clutch of edom is not.

  2. What spiritual significance does the United States hold to you? Switzerland? Mexico? Ireland? Can we perhaps agree that the modern state of Israel is *not* Moses’ Israel?

  3. hmm i tend to stay out of Israel questions for the simple fact that i never feel i know enough to speak on it but you are asking about a personal experience so i guess i feel i can comment since i know me.
    Israel as the modern state holds no spiritual significance for me. When I talk about living in the land of Israel I don’t mean a specific place on earth and nowhere else. My spiritual Israel is that moment in time, that has yet to happen, where i can live in peace anywhere and be valued anywhere and everyone else is also afforded these same privileges. Spiritually, Israel is an ideal of how i want to see the world treat each other. you know, excellently.

  4. Can we perhaps agree that the modern state of Israel is *not* Moses’ Israel?
    Seriously. Actually, for what it’s worth, the US has a lot of spiritual significance for me, insofar as it’s where I was born, raised, and where most of the people I love live. And certain geographical areas in the middle east also have some significance for me. The fact that there is now a state that some people in the 1940s decided should be called Israel? No significance in the slightest. And why on earth should it?

  5. I find additional spiritual significance in the US in that I believe in the ideals the country was founded on. I get upset when the actuality of the USA doesn’t match its potential, but that doesn’t diminish my belief in things like freedom and equality and all that jazz.
    I have a similar, but perhaps more complicated, spiritual relationship to the State of Israel, which is distinct (but not entirely disentangled) from the spiritual significance of Eretz Yisrael in my life.

  6. Eli, as someone who might actually be sympathetic to your argument on a puritanical level, I can tell you that you phrased it so poorly that you will likely either not be understood, or will be misunderstood.
    Eli does, however, bring up an important point.
    What spiritual significance does the State of Israel hold to you?
    Do you mean the State of Israel, or the Land of Israel? And if you meant the State of Israel, what exactly are you referring to – the government, society, culture? These are strange objects of spiritual affection.
    Your question needs some fleshing out.

  7. What do you mean by “spiritual”?
    Israel is my homeland. It’s the locus of my history and the birth canal of my religious reality. Israel is the home of the family patriarch/matriarch, where long-lost cousins regather to meet each other and build something new.
    Israel is a government that secures my rights as a Jew to my holy sites. It’s universities where we as Jews study our own ancestors’ texts and archaeology. Israel is a collective Fuck You to a world that was content to misappropriate my religious heritage and steal my cultural treasures for two thousand years.
    Israel is a cauldron of creativity that is expressed in the language of my heritage. It’s a swiftly-changing, enfuriating bubble where my relatives re-make our heritage every day. They mangle the grammar of my sacred language, they argue and deny and become zealots and reveal new corners and new versions of Jewish civilization.
    Israel doesn’t often live up to my wishes for it, and inspires me to keep involved until maybe it will one day.
    That’s just a little piece of what Israel means to me.

  8. I’m really glad you brought this up, Ari. To me, as someone who’s never been there and has had to work hard and expose myself to many different ideas in order to form a cohesive Jewish identity in a secular area, Israel is a place of huge historical and cultural value, but not of religious. Or rather, when I go to Israel, I want to visit historically religiously important sites, because I want to experience the way people used to feel about those sites when they were current.
    But I also want to do humanitarian work. I want to work in refugee camps, talk to people of Sderot. I think as a Jew Israel is a place I have the potential to make a huge humanitarian difference in if I’m connected.

  9. This is an important discussion to have, and I think chillul Who? sums it up well. That won’t necessarily keep me from pontificating, though.
    There are many “Israels.” There’s the people of Israel, the land of Israel, the state of Israel, the literature of Israel, the art of Israel, the food of Israel, the religion of Israel… Depending on the circumstances, certain “Israels” may seem more important than others. If I were still living in Tekoa and the Palestinian state was declared on the West Bank, I would like to think that I would have the guts to stick it out with Rabbi Froman and say that the land of Israel is more important than the state of Israel, and to stay in my home as a citizen/resident of Palestine.
    I once had a pre-bentching conversation with a dear friend regarding the spiritual significance of the State of Israel and the idea of the yiddeshe medina being (or not being) reishit tzemichat geulateinu. In a vein reminiscent of what chillul Who? has said, this person bentched “and may we merit to successfully make the state of Israel reishit tzemichat geulateinu.” It’s a vessel, and it’s up to us to decide how to engage with it.

  10. It’s interesting – when many people hear “spiritual” they think “religious,” whereas when I think about Israel’s spiritual signficance, I think of it in more of an Ahad Ha’am kind of way, as the engine of Jewish cultural, social, and even more political and spiritual striving. One only has to read the arts pages of Ha’aretz to know that Israel still has a lot to offer in these areas. The very fact that we are so disappointed when it doesn’t meet our hopes for for it is because of this very “spiritual” significance – we hope it to be betteer, as we hope ourselves to be better, as we hope Judaism will be better. To me one of the very worst things about its political intransigence is that it interferes with the ability of Jews, young and old, to be able to access whatever it has to offer in these areas.

  11. Not only does the state not have spiritual significance, it makes it harder to connect to the messianic ideals that Zion represents. It took a lot of work to figure out how to pray classical t’filah without a Zionist lens.

  12. Israel is to spiritual significance as masturbation is to making love.
    Israel is a haunted graveyard full of drunken, cheerful louts. They are grilling meat on a mangal and littering. It’s Canada Park, and why is there a row of of carved stones in the middle of the forest?
    Israel is one of my two countries, and I want to do what I can to make it better.

  13. The state has no spiritual significance, but I found the land and history to be rich with meaning and inspiration. Apart from my religious appreciation to the Biblical sites, it’s a beautiful place.
    What’s interesting to me is that the occupation has overwhelmingly powerful spiritual importance to me — the most powerful and the central experience for me, actually. It not only calls out to me to be fixed, but the people who spend time there (living, or working to make life better under it) are inspirational. The most imperative tennants of Judaism are perpetually being broken and lived out. In ways that normal life in the US or daily life in Israel is rather ordinary, life in the territories (or the slums of south Tel Aviv, for that matter) are booming kettle drums of calls to action. Being pulled from my daily revelrie to consider bigger questions is the most rewarding spirituality to me.

  14. For me the question is what will change about my ability to connect with god if the state of Israel does not exist. Frankly I think that god is probably pretty disgusted with the modern nation state, Israel the US, UK, it doesn’t really matter they are all based on a foundation of capitalism and a military industrial mindset which directly opposes the truth which I find in my religious tradition.
    It took me a long time to understand what it is that is different about Israel, what that feeling is when you walk into the old city. I knew there was something opperating but I could never put my finger on it. It has become clear to my however that what that is is blood. That feeling in the air is thousands of years of blood shed in the name of a creator who has commanded us not to take life. As a result I know understand that Israel is at least as much a hinderence to my spirituality as it is a support.

  15. I don’t know about spiritual significance, but I do sometimes wonder about the idolatry of Israel. Personally, I struggle to find any spiritual significance in a concept like the modern political state.

  16. Exactly, zealous nationalism is a form of idolatry. Granted people engage in it towards the various nations all over the globe, but it is particularly disheartening to see it so prevalent in the Holy Land.

  17. As others have said, to me Israel is primarily a place, no more holy than any other part of the world. Its significance is as a theoretical safe haven for world Jewry, but given the challenges of being recognized as a “real” Jew, and the secondary status of “mixed” families and their children…it seems it may now be less a refuge than it was in my childhood. Having said that, I have never traveled there, but those who go tell me there is nothing to compare with the experience of being in a Jewish place, surrounded by other Jews. I imagine it would be a powerful experience to go where Jewish culture is dominant.

  18. but those who go tell me there is nothing to compare with the experience of being in a Jewish place, surrounded by other Jews. I imagine it would be a powerful experience to go where Jewish culture is dominant.
    Indeed. Try New Square, Monsey, Boro Park, and Yeshivat Hadar.

  19. Exactly, zealous nationalism is a form of idolatry. Granted people engage in it towards the various nations all over the globe, but it is particularly disheartening to see it so prevalent in the Holy Land.
    I agree with you completely, Kyleb. As soon as the Arabs cease their zealous nationalism, there will be peace.

  20. As soon as the Arabs cease their zealous nationalism, there will be peace.
    Let’s imagine that they do. Do you think Israel will be willing to give up on all the water and land it’s taking from the Palestinians? And what about our defense industry? You really think it will take a back seat to “peace”?

  21. Yes, it’s all the evil military industrial complex and their war profits. This is a sophomoric argument. The Israeli economy is $200Billion large. The defense sector is what, 5% of that? 10%? 15% max? I think Israelis will innovate in defense if they have to, or in medicine and technology if they are free to. <a href=”″More venture capital is flowing into Israel than to Germany and France COMBINED. If that’s all that’s holding back peace in the region… come on, Amit.
    As for water and land, is that really the issue? Israel has held to its bargain to supply the Jordanians with water, even during a drought. These issues were part of negotiations in 2000 and 2007; they are not insurmountable. As for land, that was decided practically in 1993. Did the Palestinians really impose eight years of bloody war for a meter here and a meter there, just to arrive at the same place we started, and if so, who will challenge the moral failure of their violent nationalist movement?
    Of course, this is a silly argument to begin with. We know the Arabs would never surrender their nationalisms, a concept their cities and tribes and ummah did not even understand one hundred years ago, imprinted on them by occupying European imperialists. Only the Jews, who have been a nation longer than any other, are asked to do such things. Go to an Arab blog and suggest to them that they let go of their nationalism. Just try it, Amit. I’ll even suggest a blog –, educated, marxist Arabs from all over the middle east. Enjoy.
    I’ve just finished reading this piece on the role of honor-shame in Middle Eastern (and perhaps beyond) societies. Those who have read Orientalism by Said might appreciate it. The basic premise is, we are desperate to frame Arab societal and political decision making in the context of Western political and socio-cultural development, because we tend to view our rational constructs – the product of Western development – as naturally superior to those of others. Looking at alternate, indigenous prioritization and motivation offers new insights. This should really be taken up by someone well versed in game theory, as the Arab perspective this article hints at flips the traditional cost-benefit, win-win analysis on its head. It’s not as simple as, they only understand force… and it’s not as simple as, if only we made their lives better…. Well worth a read.

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