Talking Past: The Non-Dialogue between the American and Israeli Jewish Communities

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“A monologue is one person talking to himself.  A dialog is  two persons talking to theirself. (sic)'”

                                                                 Shaike Ophir, “The English Teacher”[1]

Nearly seventy years after the Shoah, the encounter between Israeli and American Jews can be heartwarming but also full of friction and even alienation. For example, the “Who is a Jew?” question seems to burst out every few years, causing bitter debate and leaving fresh scar tissue.  As I write, the Women of the Wall controversy rages and divides many Israeli and American Jews. For an effective reckoning with these challenges, we must wrestle with the abysmal ignorance in Israel about the deeper levels of American culture which are not necessarily revealed in the consumer-oriented popular media that bombard Israelis on-line, in their cinemas and on their televisions. Much hinges on the ability of Israeli Jewish society to relate to the ideational foundations of the American political and social paradigm and the remarkable American Jewish response to them. The same may be said of comparable levels of American Jewish ignorance of the deeper strata of the Israeli consciousness of the mind and spirit. The failures of dialog between the two communities are responsible for much mutual ignorance. In a dialectic fashion, failure to understand each other accurately means that the increased opportunities for communication at our disposal carry the danger of increased mis-communication.

Actually, we know very little about the state and direction of American Jewish – Israeli Jewish dialog. We are aware that it is a major cultural problem for world Jewry and an important issue of continuity. Its significance goes beyond study of the Israel/Diaspora relationship because the two major communities do not need to be defined in terms of one other. Nonetheless, they need to have some means of effective cultural translation if they hope to understand each other. Analyzing the problem, one has to be careful not to fall into the error of allowing it to be framed within a preconceived ideological framework. Given the shocking speed of globalization generally, it would be quite odd if the world Jewish community did not face challenges similar in scale and scope to those that cause so much tension for so much of human society.  As we come to terms with this novel situation, we find that longstanding questions require new examination and at times necessitate the creation of new analytical frameworks to yield new insights. It is a truism that the disadvantage of globalization is that greater access to communication creates more opportunities for misunderstanding. While technological and demographic change in the Jewish world make dialog ever more important and potentially more helpful, the ease of communication magnifies dysfunctions of understanding and substantive incompatibilities between these two communities.  Facing this challenge, we must ask: How do these communities conduct the dialog between one another? What are the conceptual bases that frame this dialog? Are these concepts shared, or do they differ?

Re-examination of the nature of the dialogue should begin where the cultural differences are greatest and the most is at stake. The greatest cultural differences in the Jewish world separate its two largest Jewish communities in the sense that the Jewish concepts that shape much of Jewish life of each community are the result of the two unparalleled successful, but vastly divergent experiences of Jewish life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Before the Shoah, both countries’ Jewish communities were peripheral to the vital centers of world Jewish civilization. Before 1939, Jewish communities around the world generally saw the core of world Jewry in the sixty to seventy percent who lived in Europe, mostly clustered in the central and eastern parts of the continent.[2] Located here were the centers of learning, publishing, cultural renaissance, political activism, religious scholarship and a widely spoken Jewish language. That Central and Eastern European Jewish center generated the major ideas that drove the Jewish civilizational response to modernity for a century and a half.

The Shoah resulted not only in the obliteration of most Jews living in that center but also the destruction of the core cultural infrastructure of a world Jewish community. Although the pre-Shoah Jewish world was rent with controversy and debate, a vocabulary of values generated in the core communities and shared around the Jewish world allowed its participants to share an understanding of the substance of their disagreements. This common cultural legacy no longer exists. Thus, having developed somewhat different vocabularies of meaning, it is not clear that we agree on where we disagree. In 1945, two national communities accepted the challenge of becoming new centers, the American and the Israeli. Each accomplished the task to a remarkable degree but could not replace the old Central and Eastern European center as a source for a world Jewish vocabulary of meaning.

Contemporary Israel represents the realization of the idea of creating a state for the Jews. Growing from about a half million Jews in 1945 to a Jewish center of some six million at the present time, Israel absorbed and integrated the majority of refugees from the Shoah and those who fled the ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Muslim world. The corresponding development of political institutions, deploying and wrestling with the dilemmas of the effective use of sovereign state power and building a national culture combining Jewish foundations with room for non-Jews, generated a Jewish society substantially different from any Diaspora culture.

During the Twenty-First Century, American-Jewish culture and religion result from a complicated and unprecedented process of Americanization, both socially and in the realm of ideas. This development extended beyond the adaptation to a new national culture, a common enough phenomenon in Jewish history. American Judaism is a result of an ideological re-orientation that builds community according to unique paradigms about the place of religion and the status of the individual, the result of the singular historical experience of American society, probably the most individualistic country in the world.

The search for a way to comprehend and appreciate these differences leads us to the influential work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.[3] Taylor, a highly regarded Canadian philosopher, has been publishing important contributions since the nineteen sixties. His decades of productivity defy brief summary. For our purposes, we should focus on the part of his work where he examines the components of modern identity that shape and are shaped by the individual’s understanding of the moral universe that he or she inhabits. Thus, one may speak of “the social nature of self-hood.” It is the response of the individual to that moral universe that is in large measure what comes to mind when we think of our identity, our “self.”

Taylor shows us that the shaping of identity has much to do with feelings and the evaluation of the import of ideas as these are articulated but also shaped by language. His special contribution lies in the way he illuminates the power of words to frame concepts that in turn form the basis for individual self-understanding and through the need for dialogic clarification, a basis for group understandings of collective identity. He teaches us the profound importance of the vocabulary with which we shape the ideas that shape our discourse. According to Taylor, the term “import vocabulary” describes the words we use to convey meaning, which includes emotional response and ideas. Taylor makes the point that “the emotional lives of human beings from different cultures, who have been brought up with very different import vocabularies, differ very greatly. And even within one culture, people with different vocabularies have different experiences.[4]”  This observation is critical to recognizing the current flawed state of American Jewish and Israeli Jewish dialog.  In shaping the understanding of “self” and by implication of “us” he ascribes an important role to others. His framework makes moral assessment a core of human identity and something for which humans should take responsibility. Since our understanding of what is moral derives largely through language, we learn what is good through a dialogic relationship with our neighbors, and the groups to which we belong. Different evaluations of the import of terms can lead to pronounced differences in the shaping of individual and group experiences and consequently of identities. Accordingly, there is an urgent need to build a world Jewish dialog of values if we seek to maintain and build a world Jewish people.

Accordingly, Taylor’s teachings may be applied to the world Jewish dialog of the twenty-first century.  As mentioned above, the key tension lies between the American-Jewish and Israeli-Jewish cultures. The discussion between the two communities derives much of its incoherence from the deep ideational assumptions made by members of both cultures about the nature of the others’ beliefs.  In practical terms we could say that the more we discuss our import vocabularies from an awareness of our differences, and the more we share them, the greater the chance of bringing them into coherence with each other. Then they will serve to elucidate the concepts working in both communities in ways the “other “can understand, and to which it can respond dialectically shaping a future of shared import vocabulary.

Illustrations of different foundational concepts in America and Israel abound:

  • America Jews tend to determine “legitimate Judaism” in ways different from Israelis. America is the only country on Earth whose cultural foundations were highly influenced by dissenting Protestants, and individualism comes as naturally to Americans as the air they breathe. Legitimacy flows largely from an internal process for Americans (and American Jews), and for Israeli Jews, largely through more collective mechanisms based on the “chain of transmission”.
  •  Israelis understand “Jewish power” differently from American Jews. The moral dilemmas of exercising sovereign state power open a discussion very different from the American deployment of power as a minority in a society whose culture essentially seeks to construct political power from the grass roots upward rather than from the center outward;
  •  “Secular Jewish culture” is a term of vast importance in understanding Israeli Jewish culture, but significantly less so in America. Of greatest interest is the way a deep commitment to the Jewish past present and future characterize so many Israelis who do not believe in God.  For over a century Israeli secular culture has passed the test of multi-generational transmission. At the same time, American Jewish atheists face a historically unprecedented question. They do not ask “Why be Jewish?” in the old-world sense of why carry a burden when faith is lost? They ask rather: “Why be only Jewish?” when so many non-believing options are open to them in America’s religiously disestablished and openly accepting society.
  •  “Loss” and “sacrifice” as components of Jewish identity are understood and handled vastly differently in the two societies. Any Israeli who has experienced America’s Memorial Day weekend (beginning of summer, Indianapolis 500, sales, picnics) cannot help but be puzzled given the emotionally powerful, identity- forming commemoration activities in Israel on its Day of Memorial for the Casualties of Israel’s Wars.

To be sure, we do see positive developments in the dialogue between American and Israeli Jews over the years. Chief among these: There are few traces of the zero-sum game about centrality[5] that for so long characterized the discourse between the American and Israeli Jewish communities and rendered dialog problematic. Disappearance of the centrality meme is cause for hope. The two centers of Jewish population in the twenty- first century have become increasingly balanced in their powers and abilities. Their contributions to the creativity of the Jewish people and to the conduct of its affairs increasingly match each other in scale, scope and depth. The number of Jews in Israel and in the United States probably stands somewhere around six million in each country; their combined populations account for roughly eighty percent of the Jewish people in the world. In line with the world trend, the world Jewish community is globalizing. Whatever isolationist delusions may have been bandied about in both Jewish societies, the cultural, religious, political, military and demographic realities today dictate mutual interdependence.[6]

If the passing of the unlamented centrality debate teaches us that change is possible, Taylor provides intellectual tools that can build the desperately needed more effective dialog between American and Israeli Jewry. This will have to include a dialog examining our different import vocabularies. Taylor’s theory offers a process that may lead to a merging of our all too incoherent separate import vocabularies into a coherent shared one. Here lies the foundation for construction (or re-construction) of the transnational Jewish dialog. The alternative, based on false assumptions about the continued viability of the shared world Jewish import vocabulary of the pre-Shoah Jewish world, will be dominated by two mutually unintelligible Jewish cultural monologues, one centered in America, the other in Israel.

Ultimately, successful American Jewish – Israeli Jewish dialog is a survival issue. If the two core Jewish communities, together comprising about eighty percent of world Jewry, continue along the centrifugal arc on which they currently travel, the Jewish People will fail to bring the bear the full resources at their disposal when they must stand up to the challenges of this frightening century. It is long past time that we stopped talking past each other. We can change if we examine the values inherent in our respective import vocabularies and use a resulting shared language of values to build our common map of our moral universe so we can navigate it together.

Dr. Ed Rettig served for many years in the rabbinate and in Jewish communal positions in America and Israel. His research focuses on American Jewish – Israeli Jewish dialog and its discontents. This piece was written for SPME.



[2] See American Jewish Year Book, 41 (1939-1940), 588 for an estimate of the world’s Jewish population that is arguably low by about 10-15% but appears to get the proportions about right.

[3] Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1992).

[4] Charles Taylor, “Agency and the Self,” in Human Agency and Language, Philosophical Papers,    Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 71.

[5] For an example of the kind of world Jewish discourse in which discussions of who is central and who is peripheral played a major role, see: Moshe Davis ed., World Jewry and the State of Israel (Arno Press, New York, 1977).

[6] An interesting attempt to re-frame that relationship conceptually may be found in an article by Jonathan Boyd, “Israel can no longer be in the center”. Boyd suggests that Israel “won” the argument but in a globalized world Jewish community it no longer matters,,7340,L-3120533,00.html

Talking Past: The Non-Dialogue between the American and Israeli Jewish Communities

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