Before the state of Israel was founded, some early Zionists argued not only for the recovery of Jewish political sovereignty, but also for the emergence of a new type of Jew. This “New Jew,” as they called it, would be free of Judaism’s bookish habits and the weight of diaspora Jewish history and be able to take the reigns of the newly independent Jewish polity.
Three-quarters of a century after Israel’s founding, what is the state of the New Jew?
Last month, the Mosaic columnist Eli Spitzer contended that Israel’s 21st-century success made it outmoded. Looking around Israel today, he sees the fascinating reemergence of older, diasporic forms of Jewish life rather than the triumph of the New Jew. On the same day that Spitzer published his short reflection, the Mosaic contributor Daniel Gordis published a newsletter in which he came to the opposite conclusion: the state of Israel, he thinks, is “not the end of the Jewish people, just the end of a certain kind of Jewish people.” To him, the New Jew is alive and well.
What could we do but convene a conversation on the matter? In this conversation, Gordis spoke with the Israeli historian Asael Abelman and Mosaic‘s editor Jonathan Silver about the the New Jew, the Old Jew, and the types of human personalities that the state of Israel tends to cultivate. This discussion took place live on Tuesday, July 12, in front of Mosaic subscribers. Now it can be watched, listened to, and read below.
My name is Jonathan Silver. I’m the editor of Mosaic. Welcome to today’s conversation with Rabbi Dr. Daniel Gordis and Dr. Asael Abelman.
Today’s event was born from the publication of a column in Mosaic and, without our knowing, a simultaneous publication from Daniel in [his newsletter] Israel from the Inside. These two brief pieces took up the same question and came to opposite conclusions about it, so what I’d like to do to begin is to set the table for our subject with these two pieces, and then I’ll invite Daniel and Asael to speak.
You see, my friends, we tend to think about modern Jewish nationalism—the movement to reclaim and reassert political sovereignty in the land of Israel—as a social and political movement, which, of course, it was. But for some key Zionist thinkers—Berdichevsky, Brenner, Tchernichovsky—it was not only about the reassertion of political and national sovereignty. Zionism held out the revolutionary promise of creating not only a Jewish commonwealth, but a new type of Jewish citizen who would be fitted to discharge the civic obligations of the new Jewish commonwealth.
These are very intricate arguments, and I am abstracting to distill to its essence the most complex of them, but the argument on one foot is that the conditions of the Diaspora had created in the Jew a submissive, pathetic, weak personality. Rabbinic legalism made them neurotic, and the need to be on good terms with Gentile authorities made the Jews pathetic, and no dignified state could have neurotic and pathetic nebbishes form the core of its citizenry. So these [Zionist] thinkers tried to dream about a New Jew, a Hebrew who would be a different cultural type.
Now, a few weeks ago, the British educator and writer Eli Spitzer published a column for us, “The End of the New Jew and the Rebirth of the Old.” He argued that Israel’s political and technological success is so overwhelming that this second Zionist ambition, to create a new type of person, has given way to the reemergence of older forms of Jewish behavior, including crucially the revitalization of Jewish religious life in Israel.
Also on June 20th of this year, Daniel Gordis published a reflection called “Ten Spies, 60 Israeli Teenagers, Istanbul, and Theodor Herzl,” in which he explains that the New Jew is not pushed aside or marginalized, but is in fact ubiquitous in modern Israel. This morning, Eli Spitzer woke up feeling unwell, and we wish him to be restored to full health and soon. He can’t join us to defend his analysis, but I’ve invited my friend and colleague, Professor Asael Abelman, to join our conversation in his place. Asael is not going to inhabit Eli Spitzer’s argument exactly, and he doesn’t speak in his name, but he’s been studying and teaching this material for many years. Asael teaches in the history department at Herzog College and is a lecturer in Jewish history at Shalem College. He’s the author of a comprehensive new history of the Jewish people Toldot Y’hudim, which was published by Dvir in Hebrew in 2019. He’s going to speak in his own name and participate in the conversation.
And of course, Daniel Gordis is the author of many essays and books. He is a founder, Koret Distinguished Fellow, and special advisor to the president at Shalem College. Incidentally one should say that this institution, Shalem College, may well have a role in shaping the future of the Jew in Israel, new or old.
In any event, I want to welcome everyone. I’m going to ask Daniel first to restate the main arguments and main contentions of his essay, then invite Asael to respond. We’ll speak for 30 or 40 minutes, and then it will be your turn to ask questions. Daniel, I hand it over to you.
Thank you very much, Jonathan. Good evening to everyone in Israel and good very early morning to people in Los Angeles and on the West coast and good day to those on the East coast. I want to thank Jonathan for having suggested, when Eli Spitzer’s column and mine came out on exactly the same day, that we have some sort of an interaction. And I shared, of course, Jonathan’s wishes for Eli that he be restored to full health very quickly. Perhaps we can have this conversation with him at some other point.
For those who did not get a chance to look at my piece, let me just say very, very quickly, it was prompted by an incident on the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This goes back about three or four weeks ago. My wife and I were on the train from Tel Aviv coming back to Jerusalem at the end of the day of babysitting for our grandson in Givat Taim, and one stop after where we got on, about 60 young sixteen- and seventeen-year-old Israeli kids got on the train, and they were doing exactly what sixteen- and seventeen-year-old kids do on trains. Nothing wrong, they were perfectly well behaved, but they were very loud. They were very boisterous. The train was very packed and I was annoyed. I was really looking forward, after a long day of babysitting this young boy, to putting in my AirPods and listening to some music or reading a book and sort of dozing off. And that was not going to happen.
As I was getting more and more annoyed, I was suddenly struck by the fact that actually I should not be annoyed, but I should actually be delighted because if 60 or 70 Israeli teenagers got on a train in Europe, they would’ve been told very explicitly you can’t do that. It will not end well if you’re on a train going from Paris to the outskirts, if you’re on a train going from London to Oxford, if you’re on a train from Berlin going somewhere else. This would not end well for 60 or 70 Israeli kids to get on a train and be that boisterous. And it struck me that this was exactly what Israel was supposed to do. Israel was supposed to, among many other things, create a place where Jews would be Jews and Jews would live without always looking over their shoulder, without always asking themselves, how am I going be perceived? What response am I going to evoke?
Herzl was very explicit—and we’ll come back to Herzl in a second—that Zionism was about statehood, to be sure, or some form of sovereignty, but Zionism was also about creating a place where Jews would live their lives without a fear of anti-Semitism. Zionism was about creating a place where Jews would fashion Judaism, not in order to satisfy the cultural needs of the Zeitgeist of whatever country they were in, but a Judaism that they felt was rich and meaningful and powerful and compelling and so on and so forth. I just put out this piece saying that when you go out on the train in Tel Aviv and you just want to doze off [and you can’t], every now and then you get this awakening, that is actually a reminder that Israel has really very much created this New Jew, in numerous ways which I won’t go into now.
This of course came out at the very same time that there was a manhunt in Istanbul because Israel had information saying that the Iranians were actually trying to kill Israelis. And apparently that was the case. Apparently, they were foiled. But the foreign ministry of Israel asked people desperately, please do not go to Istanbul, and if you’re in Istanbul, come home. But Israelis didn’t come home. Amazingly enough, Israelis kept flying to Istanbul while the Israeli government was telling them they are out there, they’re trying to find you, they’re trying to kidnap you or kill you. Don’t go. And Israelis went. It struck me that that’s also part of a reflection of this new confident Jew. Israelis have a sense that it’s going to be okay. We’re not the Jews of Europe where we are hiding from pogroms and constantly looking over our shoulders. It may be foolish to think it’s going to be okay, and it may have been foolish to go to Istanbul. Thank God it worked out and nobody was harmed, but it may have been a silly thing to do. But I thought that it was a reflection of a Jew of confidence, with a certain degree of resilience and so forth.
It was just a quick column. And as it turns out, as Jonathan pointed out, Eli Spitzer and I put out our columns on exactly the same day. No sooner had mine gone up, several people wrote me and said, “Did you see what just came out in Mosaic magazine?” This other person’s writing and saying the New Jew is gone. The old Jew is back. And, of course, Eli’s very, very bright and very thoughtful and very nuanced. I’ll just respond very quickly to some of the points that he made, because I imagine that some of the people who have joined us for this conversation prepared by looking at both columns and seeing what he had to say.
One of [Eli’s] points is that the New Jew was about socialism and that Israel has abandoned socialism completely. He’s right that Israel has abandoned socialism completely or almost completely. We do have national healthcare; we do not have people in Israel who are afraid to leave their jobs because they won’t have health coverage, which you have of course all over America, so there are vestiges of socialism left in Israel, but Israel is fundamentally an exploding capitalist economy. He’s right that that image of the New Jew changed. But I don’t think that the New Jew was about socialism. For some people it was. Certainly, people like Yitzḥak Tabenkin [1888–1971, one of the founders of the kibbutz movement], and people like Moshe Sneh [1909–1972, a Haganah commander and leader of the Israeli Communist party], there were those for whom the radical socialist left was really very much who they were. But for most people it was simply a tool. It was a means. It was another vision.
If you were to look at Hamilton or Jefferson and ask to what extent their visions in their purest forms are alive and well in America, you’d say that nothing purely Hamiltonian exists in America anymore and nothing purely Jeffersonian exists in America anymore, but there are profound seeds of Hamilton and Jefferson that one can see sprouting all over America. I would say the same thing is true here. There are seeds that one can see still of socialism, but I don’t think Zionism at the end of the day, for most people, was for the purpose of socialism. It was largely socialist, but that we’ve now abandoned. [Abandoning] socialism does not seem to me to be an abandonment of this quest for a New Jew.
Eli also pointed out that the military has changed a tremendous amount. He says that he found it hard to believe that Israel would do another Entebbe, that Israel has become very careful with the lives of its daughters and sons who serve in the military. It’s much less anxious to go out for these massive military operations. I thought, in response, that frankly what’s changed is not Israel and not Zionism but what changed is warfare. The nature of warfare has simply changed.
And thank God we don’t have to send lots of young people out, but Asael and I both teach at Shalem College and Asael and I can both attest that our classrooms are filled with young people who do very dangerous things on an ongoing basis while they’re in the army and for years afterwards when they go back. I think this idea that the New Jew has suddenly kind of retreated from the front lines is factually incorrect. It’s true that you can do a lot in Iran through cyberwarfare, but you can’t kill people with guns, as happens periodically in Iran, with cyberwarfare. And I ask people to think about these young Israelis who are in Tehran: how did they get there and how are they getting out? And what happens if they get caught? I mean, there is tremendous bravery happening all the time. I just don’t buy this idea that the heightened militaristic Zionist of the olden days has given way to something very different and passive. It’s just the nature of warfare has changed.
Let me just say, I think the New Jew is very much alive and well. The idea that the New Jew was going to be able to create a Judaism divorced from Jewish tradition was always a silly idea, and I don’t think most people thought about it enough, but if Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik, who unfortunately did not have children, had had children and then grandchildren, and they had been raised in the secular system of Tel Aviv, where he likely would’ve wanted them raised, they actually would not understand their grandfather’s poetry.
You can’t understand Bialik—you actually can’t even understand David Grossman for that matter, or Amos Oz—without delving deeply into the wellspring of Jewish tradition and Jewish literary culture. That’s all true, but that’s not the same thing as saying that the Diaspora or the New Jew, the secular New Jew, has given way to the old Jew. What’s emerging in Israel is something new and something different.
I think by the way, Mizraḥim deserve a tremendous amount of credit because the Mizraḥim have modeled a kind of Judaism that does not fall into neat categories. In the Ashkenazi world, it makes no sense to say I would never miss going to shul on Friday night, because you have to go to shul on Friday night, but in the morning I’m so glad to go to the beach in a car. Ashkenazim would say that makes absolutely no sense. It’s totally internally contradictory. Whereas Mizraḥim would say, “No, it does make sense because Friday night I want to go to shul and Shabbat morning I want to go to the beach.”
Certain people like Meir Buzaglo and others have pointed out that in the Ashkenazi world the critical characteristic is obedience, whereas in the Mizraḥi world the critical characteristic is reverence. I think that what we’re seeing in Israel is an increasing swath of people who are not observant. They are not strictly keeping Shabbat. They are not strictly observing kashrut, but they feel a sense of reverence that goes far beyond what their grandparents or great-grandparents felt for the Jewish tradition, because they’ve come to understand that you can’t make a case for being in Israel and going to the army and going to the reserves and living in a difficult neighborhood without some resorting to a sense of what the Jewish people is all about and why the Jewish people deserves to exist and therefore needs a state.
I think the New Jew is very much alive and well. The New Jew is not Orthodox. The New Jew is not coming back to Orthodoxy. The New Jew is embracing the richness of Judaism as a great civilization. And therefore I think there are parts of what Eli said that are true. There are parts of what I said that are true. I think there’s actually much more overlap than one might suspect. But the bottom line I would say is that I would stand by my position that the New Jew in Israel is very much alive and well.
Let me just end by saying that I think this is a conversation that the Jewish world owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Mosaic magazine for. I don’t mean today’s conversation specifically, but I mean for having tried to engender over these past years a conversation about Zionism which is richer, deeper, and more thoughtful than the occupation, the Palestinians, Iran—all of which are critically important subjects—but we’re now, thankfully, beginning to have a discussion in parts of the Jewish world about the ideas of Zionism and the profundity of Zionism. The mere fact that we’re having this conversation about two different takes on whether or not the New Jew exists is exactly the kind of Zionist conversation that we should have, and I think Mosaic really has pioneered this long before. I try to do it in a very small way in Israel from the Inside. And right now we’re engaged in exactly the kind of conversation about Israel and Zionism that the Jewish world ought to be having. So for all that you and your colleagues do to make this possible, we’re collectively in your debt.
Daniel, thank you. I want to just observe—this I learned from our mutual friend and in some ways teacher, Micah Goodman, who’s also written about these subjects—and introduce a distinction before I turn it over to Asael. On the question of socialism, and the relation of socialism to this kind of Zionist ambition to create a new human type, a lot of the critiques of diasporic Judaism, of the behavior of the diasporic Jew, who had a certain submissive relationship to Gentile political authorities and whose spirit was cramped in by a certain relation to rabbinic texts and rabbinic authorities and so on, the ambition was to release that Jewish personality from the past.
But socialism was a dream about the future. These are two different modes. One could still be released or unshackled from the past and build a different sort of future. To me, the erosion of socialism as a viable future dream in Israel and the marginalization of the diasporic personality, could persist. That could still happen even as you get rid of socialism, because they’re two different modes. They’re two different temporal modes.
Right. Socialism was a characteristic of the worldview of many people who were Zionist who were trying to build a New Jew, but socialism was not fundamentally, I don’t think, the bedrock foundational idea of the New Jew. I think you’re right, that Micha Goodman has written about this very compellingly.
Asael, this subject is taken up in many chapters in your recent book. You’ve been teaching courses about this for a long time. What do you make of this argument between Eli and Daniel, and what Daniel has just said?
I’d say that the conversation between the two reflects quite clearly Jewish history, and is actually a conversation that’s more than 100 years old. Maybe I’ll start with a historical anecdote that, in some ways, echoes Daniel’s experience on the train. And let’s say something about the difference and conflict between the two great waves of Aliyah to the Land of Israel during the 1920s, 100 years ago.
The first half of the 1920s was the Third Aliyah, which is characterized by with the spirit of the ḥalutsim [pioneers], the followers of [Joseph] Trumpeldor, who gathered them in revolutionary Soviet Russia and pulled them from the Russian Civil War to Palestine, and then was killed in Tel Ḥai. They followed his footsteps. With them also came this very powerful, young youth movement called Ha-Shomer Ha-Tsa’ir [“The Young Watchman”]. Some of its members—for instance Meir Ya’ari [a major figure in the kibbutz movement and a member of the Knesset for the socialist Mapam party]—later moved to support Communism and even admired Stalin until the 1940s and 50s.
That was an extremely left-wing, deeply ideological Zionism, and was completely motivated by this idea of creating a New Jew from the perspective of the left, maybe even the radical left. The truth was that, by 1925, they were completely bankrupt. They were very poor, they hardly had any clothing, they were barefoot, and they were in a very bad situation. In 1924, there was a great unexpected turn in the history of Zionism. The American Congress passed a law saying that East European immigrants can’t come, almost at all, to the United States; not only Jews, but Jews were badly affected by this. [At the same time], Poland was reestablished after it disappeared in the 18th century, and with that came a great wave of anti-Semitism. This was practically the first time in Jewish history, since the days of the Second Temple at least, that the only place Jews could go to in great numbers was Palestine.
This is what we call the Fourth Aliyah: 75,000 to maybe 80,000 Jews, who came from the great cities of Poland to Eretz Yisrael—from Warsaw and Łódź, and my family from Bialystok, etc. Now, when these people arrived they knew nothing about the New Jew. They knew about socialism, but they weren’t going to cooperate at all. They wanted to live in Tel Aviv. They made Tel Aviv a great city. They went to Haifa and to other cities too, and they opened shops and restaurants, etc. Now, for the people of the Third Aliyah, this was devastating. They said, “Who are these people? Our vision, this utopian vision of creating a huge kibbutz in Eretz Yisrael—from the north to the south, it has to be a kibbutz—what use do we have with all these people?”
Now, you have very specific characters in the Zionist movement. First of all, Vladimir Jabotinsky, [the leader of the non-socialist, Revisionist movement], but not only him. For instance, the legendary mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff. They told these ḥalutsim “Gentlemen, you were the avant garde, you are who are walking in front of am Yisrael [the nation of Israel]. But what can you do? This is Am Yisrael—they just came.”
Without taking away from the achievements and the sacrifice of the ḥalutsim of the Third Aliyah, it’s quite obvious that Zionism could not succeed without these Polish Jews who went to live in Tel Aviv. In that sense, Tel Aviv is definitely a Zionist creation and a creation of the New Jew, but one that’s not submissive to any kind of utopian ideology of what the New Jew has to look like.
I think that what Daniel saw on the train, looking at the people, is a kind of reflection of that conflict. Daniel, I think you are on the right side of things with your intuition to look at them with this optimistic and really beautiful eye, what we’d call in Hebrew sangoria.
To see it in the best possible light.
Right. When I teach, I encourage the students to look also at the olim of the Fourth Aliyah from Poland in this way.
I want to make one more point that I think makes this whole concept of the New Jew even more complicated. Because I think the historical truth that still lives with us today is that there was never one kind of New Jew type. I’ll mention a few types that people came up with.
First of all, you already discussed this vision of a socialist Zionism. Moshe Hess, Ber Borochov, Nachman Syrkin, A.D. Gordon, and the left-wing youth movement all had this idea of a New Jew that had to live under the red color of Communism or socialism.
But for instance, Max Nordau’s idea of a New Jew had nothing to do with socialism or Communism. It had to do a lot with sport and muscles and weapons. But every Israeli knows that there’s a huge conflict between the two great sport teams in soccer or basketball. You have Hapoel, [literally, “the Worker”]: their color is red and they represent the vision of the socialist New Jew; but you have on the other side of the road, in almost every big city in Israel, Maccabi. Their color is yellow and they follow in Nordau’s vision and have nothing to do with socialism. In fact, they are in conflict.
But beyond that, there’s also an East European New Jew, and this ideal goes in three different directions. Most of the names have already been mentioned in this conversation. Ahad Ha’am and Bialik had some kind of idea of a cultural New Jew. Brenner and Berdichevsky took it to a different way, and they were actually in a conflict with Ahad Ha’am. They had imagined this rebellious New Jew who had nothing to do with the Jewish culture and the great books and the Talmud and the rabbis, but just lived under the sun like a strong warrior from the days of the Bible.
Strangely enough, a third current of a New Jew that came out of the vision of East European Jewry was developed by David Ben-Gurion, who thought about, again, this connection between Zionism and the history of the Tanakh, the days of the Bible, with almost nothing relevant in between. His great rival, Vladimir Jabotinsky, wrote an extremely important novel, Samson, about Samson, also describing a very specific New Jew who actually looks like some part of Roman or ancient Greek history, or maybe part of the British empire. So all these visions of a New Jew can also be taken in completely different directions, and are in conflict with one another even before you move from ideology to reality.
I’ll make one last point, John. I think the most important Hebrew novel that one can read about this subject is Only Yesterday by Shmuel Yosef Agnon; in Hebrew, Etmol Shilshom.
He opens with the extremely powerful declaration about the ḥalutsim, the pioneers of the Second Aliyah, in the decade before the First World War. But then when you read a few hundred pages, you see that Agnon himself is extremely skeptical about whether these are the only Zionists that are possible. He starts to explain that, first of all, Zionism was also built by Jews who came from the Orthodox world, from what we call the Old Yishuv. They also built neighborhoods outside the walls of Jerusalem, in Hebron [for example]. You also have something that’s discussed more and more in Israel today, and Danny mentioned it; this whole idea of Sephardi Zionism: people who came already in the 19th century from Algeria, Greece, Italy. They were the first founders of Tel Aviv. They created factories and banks before the East European New Jews came.
Agnon also explains over there that [when making] this leap from exile to Zionism, trying to cut yourself away from all the things you described in your opening statement—the books, the rabbis—is just not possible. Only Yesterday is a very complicated book, but Agnon at least shows us different ways to look at what’s going on. I think most of what is happening in that book reflects the conversation or the debate between these two approaches.
I want to just build on something, Asael, that Daniel has already described and mentioned, but to ask for your point of view about it also. What do you think in light of the dreams about ushering in a new Hebrew personality, what do you think explains the reemergence of serious forms of Jewish religious life in modern Israel?
Are you asking why is it still extremely alive and powerful?
Well, if you were to look at the future from the perspective of these writers and these founders, you would see a largely secular future, and that hasn’t happened.
I think if we look at these things historically, I’d say that Zionism created maybe four great revolutions in Jewish history. First of all, the Jewish state itself; second of all, what we call in Hebrew, kibbutz galuyot, the ingathering of the exiles; the third revolution is the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language; and the fourth revolution is what Ruth Wisse calls “Jews and Power”—attacking Iran, having a nuclear weapon, or just walking around with a gun or a pistol. What Jews couldn’t do before. Those are revolutions that created something new in Jewish history.
But I think there are two revolutions that Zionism, or at least ideological Zionism from different angles, tried to create that didn’t happen. First of all, Jews never became an agricultural society. They remained bourgeois. Most of the Jews in Israel—their hands are soft, they’re from the middle class, and they feel fine with that.
I think the second ambition, and with this I’ll try to answer your question, was this attempt to disconnect Jews from tradition, from religion. Now, obviously this happened, and it’s still happening. And in some stages, this was mainstream, and maybe in some parts of Israel it still is. As Danny said, it’s very difficult for young Israeli students to read Bialik, not to say try to study a page of Gemara, of Talmud. But I think from many other different angles—some of them were neglected or pushed aside by the mainstream—you have a large amount of Jewish, of Israeli or Zionist literature that doesn’t follow this notion.
First of all, the most important Hebrew writer in the 20th century, Agnon, was completely disconnected from this idea of the New Jew and secular culture. A writer from our generation who passed away a few years ago, Aharon Appelfeld, for instance, a brilliant Hebrew, Israeli, and Jewish writer, I’d say all his books are actually trying to push back on this idea. At the very least, this is a conflict between ideas and not just the mainstream saying that Zionism is a secular movement moving forward all together.
I’d even say that, in many ways, Jabotinsky himself, and maybe even Ben-Gurion, and a character like Berl Katznelson [1887–1944, the great theoretician of the Labor party], all had relationships to Jewish history, Jewish books, the rabbis, etc., was much more complicated than one would think on a very artificial or superficial perspective.
Daniel, you described your reaction to Eli’s contention that changes in the conduct of warfare have had an effect on the way that we think about the New Jew. Eli’s argument is that the quantum leap in military technology has had the effect of making it less necessary for Israeli soldiers to have the martial virtues that Nordau might have thought that they needed. I want to think about that same kind of dynamic in a different arena that Eli talks about, which is the economy. The starting point, the point of departure for contemporary conversations about Israel, is the explosion in Israeli technology, Israeli markets. It’s a much, much wealthier country than it has been in the past.
As I reflect on the American conversation about America, there is a white-hot debate among American conservatives about the role of the market economy and whether it should be constrained by political considerations and by moral considerations. A lot of the debate on the Republican side of the aisle, among American conservatives with each other, has to do with whether or not the market should govern the way we think about the political economy and politics and public policy and so on, or whether we should assert moral boundaries to the economy, [by] for example, limiting pornography or constraining free trade to re-shore industry and have an industrial policy. Stuff like that. This is really, I would say, at the core of this kind of conversation. But now when I think about Israel, it seems to me that you and Eli are touching on something similar. The New Jew was also a vision about a certain type of moral personality, and I wonder whether there’s a sensitivity about the explosion of Israel’s economic success and if it relates to that conversation?
It’s a fascinating question. To be sure, the economic issue is a radical transformation in Israel. Ben-Gurion could not in his wildest imaginations have imagined what Tel Aviv would look like just from the airplane as you’re beginning to land at Ben-Gurion [airport]—all the towers, the vast city that never seems to end. We need to remember that in 1909, it was sand. There were a bunch of people who went from Jaffa and walked north and literally drew lines in the sand. They actually drew lines in the sand and started to dig what would eventually become Rothschild Boulevard and so forth. Now if you look at the city, it’s just an unbelievable thing.
When you land in Israel or take off from Israel, just look out the window and look at Tel Aviv and remember that 110 years ago, there was just nothing there. That’s a synecdoche for the accomplishments of Israel. Everything else is details.
So, yes, Israel is an exploding economy that Ben-Gurion could not have imagined. With that exploding economy comes many moral issues, which all developed nations face. We are a much wealthier country, but we have an enormous gap between rich and poor. According to some statistics, we have the widest gap between rich and poor of any OECD country. That’s not only a social challenge; it’s a huge moral challenge. The [Israeli] Declaration of Independence says that we’re going to conduct our society according to the vision of the prophets. That’s not the vision of the prophets. A country in which an overwhelming percent, an overwhelming portion of Holocaust survivors live below the poverty line, is not a vision of the prophets. At the same time in Ramat Aviv, people are driving home in their Porsches from their large metal and glass towers in downtown Tel Aviv. We have enormous issues to face. Every modern country faces them. I don’t want to let us off the hook. I think that we have an obligation to take them seriously as Jewish issues, and I think in a large way, we are. How does that manifest itself?
Israel has more nonprofits per capita than any other country on the face of the planet. Israel has more people volunteering hours per year per citizen than any other country on the face of the planet. That’s not accidental. There is something still about the pulse of Jewish morality—I wouldn’t quite call it necessarily egalitarianism, but a sense of justice that I think still pulses. Here again, one needs to understand, I would suggest, that there is a kind of a seesaw between the economic issues on the one hand and the cultural issues on the other hand. In certain ways, part of the way Israelis have preserved the Jewishness of their lives in the face of an economy that is just totally secular and totally exploding, and people getting rich and people, unfortunately, getting poor and so on and so forth, here, is Israel culture. You really can’t understand Israel unless you understand Israeli culture.
In other words, you cannot understand Israel by looking at economic numbers and looking at Iran and looking at the Palestinian issue and thinking, “Okay, I’ve pretty much got what this country’s about.” I went for a run this morning and on my Air Pods I was listening to Rami Kleinstein, who’s a modern Israeli songwriter. He’s got this song called “Matanot K’tanot” [“Small Gifts”] where he talks about images of Shabbat and images of prayer. He’s a totally secular guy.
There’s a song that just came out not all that long ago by Shlomo Artzi and Ishay Ribo, which is called “v’ha-Emet,” “And the Truth.”
That song begins, v’ha-emet, sh’ein emet aḥat, “the truth is that there is no one truth,” which sounds like a totally anti-religious claim. Then a stanza or two later, you have ein ke-loheinu ein ka-doneinu ein k’malkeinu, [“there is none like our God; there is none like our Lord; there is none like our King”], taken directly from the liturgy. It’s that play, I think, which is a kind of antithesis to the economy. I really think they’re part of the same story. The economy is Germany. The economy is France. The economy is Silicon Valley and the United States. We’re going to have some protections, but the economy is not going to guarantee the Jewishness of the state.
The economy is going to guarantee, by the way, the security of the state. Let’s not delude ourselves. The UAE and Bahrain did not sign the Abraham Accords because they became Zionists. They signed the Abraham Accords because they wanted our technology. They have the money. We have the technology. The great irony of Israeli technology is that Israeli technology was forged as a means of conducting warfare. We had to have a qualitative edge, and that led to the explosion of tech in Israel. That very same tech that was developed for the sake of having a qualitative edge in the conduct of warfare is now the tech that is actually bringing peace between Israel and Bahrain, Israel, and the UAE, eventually Sudan and Morocco, probably Saudi Arabia. We’ll see where that goes.
I am not one of those people who despairs of Israel’s Jewishness because of the explosion of the economy. The economy is critical to our security, which is a very Jewish value. Staying alive is a Jewish value. Not being poor, by the way, is a Jewish value. There’s nothing noble about poverty in Jewish texts. There’s something noble about taking care of the poor, but there’s nothing really noble about being poor. So I don’t think most Israelis feel terribly guilty about the increased wealth in Israel, and I don’t think it symbolizes or signifies a move away from Jewish content. It’s just coming out in literature and in music and so on and so forth.
One of the things that I think ails the international conversation about Israel among Jews everywhere is that outside of Israel, the vast majority of Jews have no access to that part of Israeli culture. Who is Ishay Ribo and what are his songs? Who is Rami Kleinstein and what is he writing about? What are the various plays on liturgy and so forth that we’re seeing all over? That’s also a New Jew. Rami Kleinstein is a New Jew. It is. I see Asael smiling, but Rami Kleinstein is a New Jew. Rami Kleinstein is a “secular Jew,” but [his work] is about Shabbat and it’s about the smells of Shabbat and it’s about matanot k’tanot [the small gifts] of the tradition. Ishay Ribo is traditional, but Shlomo Artzi is certainly not. Here are these guys doing or duet, ein ke-loheinu, ein ka-doneinu, ein k’malkeinu. If you would said to somebody 30 years ago that Shlomo Artzi is going to be singing that, they would’ve said you’re out of your mind. This goes back to your question to Asael: why are people doing this? Because at the end of the day, you cannot sustain meaningful Israeli life without Jewish content.
I would say, by the way, that in America there’s a parallel conversation happening. If you look at the Pew [Research Council’s surveys], people will say they’re Jews of no religion. They’re just cultural Jews. Okay, but what’s the substance of that culture? Tikkun olam is very nice, make the world a better place, but a lot of Christians do that, a lot of Muslims do that, a lot of atheists do that. What’s Jewish about your life in this culture? It can’t be latkes and it can’t be hamentashen on Purim. What’s substantive? What’s meaningful? What’s profound enough that your children should devote their lives to being part of this people?
I think that’s a question that American Jews are struggling with, and that’s a whole other conversation. Israeli Jews are struggling with it, too. They’re letting the economy do the economic thing, and they’re making up for it. With that regard, I’ll just point out one historical piece. By the way, I think that Asael’s single-volume history, The Jewish People, is really one of the finest books I’ve read about anything in a very long time, and I’m delighted to hear that it’s going to come out in English. It’s a critically important book with a deeply profound Zionist ethos running through and really just super, super important. So he’s going back to history. I’ll go back to history a little bit also. The point to look at is the shift between ’67 and ’73, [i.e., between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War], because in ’67, [Israel was] invulnerable, impregnable. Sometime between ’67 and ’73, Anwar Sadat apparently makes some sort of overture to Golda Meir and wanted Nahum Goldmann to go meet with Anwar Sadat, and Golda says, “How would we possibly talk to Anwar Sadat? What’s he going to do to us? We don’t need him.”
Of course, in ’73, she found out that he can do a lot to us. Israelis discovered very quickly that those six years of impregnability vanished very quickly. It’s the trauma of post-1973 that leads Israelis to understand this is never going to be over. We are always going to have to battle to stay alive. We do, by the way. I don’t accept Eli’s premise that Nordau’s self-defending Jew has disappeared. Thank God we’re not losing sons and daughters in the same numbers on the battlefield. I don’t want to go to any more funerals. If we can do it by drones, I’d rather do it by drones than with my students and Asael’s students, who are the same students. I don’t see it. The fact that we’re not losing the same number of people is not an indication that we’re not able to fulfill the Nordau dream. We’re just doing it, as I said before, differently.
But I think that what happens in ’73 is a recognition that this is never going away. We are always going to have to defend our right to be here. I think that’s still true. If that’s the case, how do I make a claim about why this country matters? Well, it matters because it’s the future of the Jewish people. Okay. Why does the future of the Jewish people matter? Then you force yourself into the engagement, as I said before, with substance and you see [performances of the Yom Kippur liturgy from the once militantly secular] Kibbutz Beit HaShita a few years later and so forth—which Matti Friedman has written about very, very beautifully.
There’s an explosion of Jewish interest in Israel, and there’s an explosion of engagement with Jewish tradition, but it is not the embrace of the Diaspora Jew of the 17th, 18th, or 19th century. Here’s where I think Eli sees the world through very diasporic lenses. This is not a criticism: he lives in the Diaspora and he sees the world through the lenses of an exoneration of traditional Judaism because that’s the world in which he lives and teaches and conducts his work so very admirably. But I don’t think that young Israelis engaging in an embrace of text is an abandonment of that New Jew, and I think that that the embrace of those texts is part of the seesaw with the economy. The economy is our security; the economy is our safety; the economy is our comfort. Nothing wrong about comfort. Music and text and history and so forth are going to be the anchors to the Jewish world at the very same time.
There are many questions I want to get before we conclude our time together, but let me just say a word first. I’m trying to inhabit Eli’s essay for a moment and I’m trying to hear the notes that Eli is trying to draw out of his observations of contemporary Israel, and simply to say that the discussion that we’ve been having about the reemergence of forms of traditional Jewish life—by the way, some of it is recognizably traditional, and some of it is not recognizably traditional—nevertheless, one sees syncretic, interesting combinations of different strands of religious life in a figure like Ishay Ribo. One also sees the explosion of recognizably traditional yeshiva learning in Israel. Eli is onto something in that observation. What he’s onto is that the intemperate revolutionary dreams of those secular founders of that form of Zionism dreams were themselves probably intemperate and could not track with reality. Because man is a worshiping animal and because the Jew, if he’s going to be vital, will never be completely disassociated from Jewish tradition, it would be natural to expect those things to reemerge.
[Eli] wants to label that as the reemergence of traditional or old Judaism. You come back, Daniel, and respond that there are elements of that, but precisely because they’re combined with the influx of the Mizraḥim; with new technological, new military, new cultural and political conditions. It’s not simply the reemergence of the old, but is in fact an ingredient in what’s new. I think that we’ll have to leave that part of the debate for another time, but I don’t want us to leave this conversation without hearing that Eli is onto something in that recognition.
I know we want to leave the debate here, but he’s onto a lot. He’s onto some very, very important insights. My own criterion would be the difference between the old Jew and some version of the New Jew is that the old European Diaspora Jew, is the notion of obligation or the authority of the tradition over me in a way that’s not negotiable. That is the core of it.
I think for young Israelis who are delving into all of these texts, that’s not part of it at all. There is an allure, there is a thirst, there is a need to worship, but it has nothing to do with the authority of the tradition to tell me what to eat, what to wear, when to pray, how to worship, and so on and so forth. I think that’s one possible conversation, but you’re quite right, that’s a separate conversation to have. But I think the re-engagement with tradition is a revision of the New Jew, not a return to the old Jew.
Here’s one question. This is for either of you, for both of you. Isn’t the importance of the New Jew beyond mere vigor, physical strength and safety, but rather a moral agency to solve problems as part of a polity that respectfully treats those who disagree, what Thomas Jefferson would’ve called the virtue of self-government? Isn’t there that other moral and political dimension to the New Jew that one should be attentive to?
Look, we’re having this conversation in a very painful week when there were incidents at the Kotel [Western Wall] very recently. I’m getting tons of email about, “How come you haven’t written about this,” and so forth. Just horrifying, what happened at the Kotel not long ago, with the ripping up of prayer books. Interrupting a bar mitzvah ceremony of a family that’s come to Israel to celebrate is horrible enough, but then spitting at people and ripping our prayer books in the name of some sort of sanctified whatever, it’s horrifying. Then other people of course will argue about the moral impulse when it comes to the Palestinians. That’s obviously a hugely important moral issue.
Yes, the New Jew is in large measure about this, it has a moral pulse at the core of it. The difference between, I think, Zionism and Jewish history before it is that Zionists sought to reinsert themselves into history. History is a mess. History is a bloody mess, literally bloody and figuratively bloody. For example, American Jews have fought in all of America’s important wars, obviously, but no American Jew has ever gone to war because he was a Jew. No American Jew has ever gone to battle because he needed to defend the Jews. The Second World War was certainly not about defending the Jews when it came to the American military.
I think Israelis understand that there’s going to be complexity here. I’m horrified by what happened at the Kotel and I’m embarrassed by what happened at the Kotel, and I don’t really have a good solution to it. Obviously, increased police presence is critical and there are things that can be done, but how to change the worldview of that part of Israel, I don’t know. But just as Thomas Jefferson talked about the challenge of the self-governed, if he were to look at America today, he would say that self-government is not nearly as simple as he might have imagined. He was no fool. He understood that it’d be complicated. And so there’s always a distinction between these visions and these ideals and the reality on the ground. Zion has embraced that complexity.
I think we have an obligation to say, when we fail, that we’ve completely failed. The Kotel is a complete failure. It’s a failure of Orthodoxy, by the way. It’s a failure of the government. It’s a failure of the police. It’s a failure of everyone. One can have a conversation about what should or should not have been happening at the Kotel on the part of liberal Jews and all of that. But whatever you want to say about it, what happened there is an abomination, and it’s an affront to God’s name, and it’s an affront to sanctity, I believe.
I think that the Palestinian issue is also obviously a critically important thing. I don’t think it’s a great thing for Israel to control the lives of millions of people. Where I get nervous, though, is, okay, since you can’t control the Kotel and you have these horrendously offensive instances of Jewishness in Israel, and since you haven’t figured out a way of accommodating the moral needs of the Palestinian people, therefore your country’s a moral failure. That’s where this argument always goes. Invariably, it goes there. I know you don’t mean it in that way, in any way whatsoever. And I have no idea who our questioner is, and they may well not mean it that way either. But that’s where it invariably goes.
Nobody takes that argument similarly regarding America. Nobody says America has never solved its race question, so therefore, maybe America wasn’t a very good idea, or America has never built a single nation that is both red and blue. Maybe America’s just a bad experiment—nobody says that. People roll up their sleeves and lace up their boots and say, I’m going to try to make America better. And when we have conversations about Israel, very often, we say, “Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all.” And I don’t understand why that’s the default option when one gets to complexity in Israel. And I find it tragic that Jews would go there. I find it, frankly, offensive.
So yes, these moral questions are critically important, and Israel was meant to be a different kind of model. I was personally embarrassed by Ayelet Shaked’s response to the Ukrainian issue. I thought that our verbiage should have been very different. Our verbiage should have been about, “You were a stranger in the land of Egypt. You know what it is to be a stranger.” I think we missed a huge educational opportunity there.
There are lots of things we can do better. There are things that we must do better. As long as acknowledging our failures does not then open the door to the conversation about, well, maybe the country wasn’t a good idea in the first place, because that’s a conversation that people have about no other country in the world.
In fact, I have to dissent respectfully here only to say that there’s quite a robust conversation in the American context now about how the sin of slavery was in fact the animating purpose of the country, and that it is fundamentally morally stained and cannot be redeemed in any way. That is a school of historiography that has gripped some parts of our public discourse right now.
That’s true, but I don’t hear those people going to the next step and saying, therefore, the United States ought to be dismantled.
Well, some are pretty close, it seems to me, at some point. But that’s only to say that some of the perversities that are leveled against Israel are now finding other targets too. That’s not to celebrate, that’s to lament.
Here’s a question that I really like. Daniel, you spoke about the impregnable aspect that Israelis thought their country had attained after 1967. One question someone asks is whether there has been an evolution outside of Israel, and a vision of the New Jew in the Diaspora, maybe even because of some of Israel’s successes?
Meaning has the sense of the New Jew and the Diaspora changed also because of Israel’s successes?
I don’t know if this is what’s in the questioner’s mind, but I’ll tell you that I think 1967 is something that helps explain the growth of Modern Orthodoxy in North America, and the whole sensibility that it brought about was enabled by a strong Israel that looked like it was going to be a big success instead of something so tenuous.
I completely agree. And look, 1967 changes a great deal. The year 1967 is when Soviet Jews largely begin to rattle the cage and say, “We want out.” They weren’t allowed out before, but all of a sudden there was this vision of what the Jew could be, and they said that’s something we want to be a part of. And so ’67 unleashes that. The Six-Day War also unleashes a tremendous American pride, not only Orthodoxy, but kids in America becoming much prouder, with bigger synagogues in the suburbs being constructed. Jews come out from the woodwork and begin to feel very comfortable in America because the image of the little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto with his hands in the air has been wiped out, and it’s been replaced by the three paratroopers at the foot of the Kotel. It’s a complete change in the existential condition of the Jew. That’s the part of the story that I think everybody understands. And there’s no question about that.
By the way, Jonathan Sarna, who is an extraordinary scholar and by far, I think, the world’s leading authority on American Judaism, has written very compellingly about how in the early stages of Zionism, as young American Jews were moving into the suburbs—their parents or grandparents had been in the Lower East Side, and then maybe their parents moved to the Bronx, and then they moved to Westchester, or whatever the case may be—they did so with a certain sense of misgiving about their own newfound security and their newfound wealth and their own dismantling of community by virtue of moving further and further away. Sarna makes the claim, in a paper, not in a book—I forget where the paper appeared, it’s a fabulous piece of work—that they’re embracing the kibbutz that we spoke about earlier, that Asael spoke about. People embraced the kibbutz because they were really kind of socialist and egalitarian, and they were communities. So I’m going to have my station wagon and I’m going to move from the Bronx to Westchester, but I’m going to assuage those complex feelings by embracing [Israel].
There’s a way in which Israel and the sense of self and the Diaspora have always been intertwined. But ’67 is complicated in a way that we often don’t think about. This is also the year of the Vietnam War. And in the Vietnam War, young Americans and young American Jews among them are very distressed about a war that, from their perspective, the United States started. The United States was occupying some other people and was trying to impose its will, et cetera. And it was using overwhelming force. Those were all the things that Vietnam was about that people were opposed to. And all of the sudden, in 1967, some Jews say, “Look at that. We’ve changed the existential condition of the Jew. We’re no longer nearly as vulnerable as we used to be. Thank God.”
But there is this little glimmer. Okay, the Israelis started the war. I mean, that’s technically true and contextually ridiculous, but technically, yes, the Israelis started the war. The Israelis now have incredible fire power. The Israelis now occupy another people. There were subtle little conversations, even unspoken, about what people were feeling about Vietnam and what they started eventually to feel about Israeli occupation, as the term is commonly used. And so ’67 is a double-edged sword. It does a tremendous number of good things, but because of its association with Vietnam it leads us to some of the complexities that we face now that I don’t think we think about often enough.
My friends, our time is coming to a close. So I have one more question to ask each of you. But first let me just say that there are a number of questions about Asael’s book and when it’s going to come out in English. Let me just say, to begin with, that starting in the fall Mosaic is going to be publishing [part of the book] serially, chapter by chapter. That’s another reason for you to subscribe, if you’re not already a subscriber. But we are doing that to try to demonstrate to American publishers that there’s an audience for this book, as I know there is a giant audience for this book. You’ll be able to read parts of it in Mosaic, and then eventually, I’m sure it will be published. But this is something that we’re tremendously excited about. Asael, congratulations, again.
Let me ask the final question. We’ve been having a conversation that is trying to operate on two planes at the same time. We’re talking about contemporary Israel, we’re talking about the Ḥaredim and the military and the economy and the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And we’re also trying to inhabit a literary and historical context that precedes all of that. In what ways can we incentivize contemporary Israelis and contemporary American Jews to engage that context and learn more about the history that Asael records in his book and that Daniel has written about many times in his books. Who are the most important thinkers that we should be reading, and recommending to others
Asael, you started to tell us about Etmol Shlishom, Only Yesterday. Who are some of the other important thinkers we should be trying to learn from as we try to think more carefully about the types of personality that Israel needs to cultivate and, in fact, is cultivating?
Of course, that question has many answers. I would dare to say that an extremely important historian is actually Bibi Netanyahu’s father, Benzion Netanyahu. He dealt mainly with Jews in Spain, but his Zionist writings are extremely important. And just to put it in a nutshell, Netanyahu is in favor of Herzl in his debate with Ahad Ha’am and sees Jabotinsky as a follower of Herzl. In what sense? In a sense that they understood Zionism mainly as a political tool to save the Jews from destruction, and they knew that anything that has to do with what we call am s’gulah, a cherished people, and the noble destiny of the Jews, that’s something that can’t be designed from top to bottom. You just keep the Jews alive, and you’ll be sure that they’ll be fighting and debating what they have to be until the end of days because that’s what they know best. But first of all, make sure they’re alive, and that’s noble enough.
And from that point of view, Ahad Ha’am said extremely important things, and definitely had a point in many of his ideas, but this whole understanding of Zionism only as an enterprise of an elite and something that has to do with the word utopia, that is something that Herzl doesn’t understand at all and doesn’t accept. And I think, in many ways, we’re still in that conflict.
Again, there isn’t a real bottom line. Are elites important? Of course they are. But what’s the right relationship between an educated elite and what we call in Hebrew amkha, the people. I’m sure that’s also a good American question. But I think that his ideas and the way he understands Zionism is an important key.
Daniel, how do we incentivize Jewish literacy in this way?
Culture in Israel has played a role even in the political world that it plays in very few other countries. I mean, in the early days, and even to a certain extent today, but certainly earlier decades, people would get up in the plenum of the Knesset and quote various novelists. They would quote people as part of this ongoing discussion.
I think that one of the things that’s very unfortunate, as I said before, is that people who really deeply care about Israel and people who really want to embrace Israel and understand it, because of an obvious linguistic barrier, really are privy to very little. I mean, going to Haaretz.com, going to timesofisrael.com, which I think is a phenomenal, phenomenal publication, to Jpost.com—these are all very, very fine places. But now look and see how much there is there about contemporary Israeli poetry, literature, et cetera, et cetera: very, very little.
One of the things that we know about American Jewish life is—and this is going to sound hyperbolic, but it’s actually completely true—there is not a single project that people might want to do that there’s not enough money for. There is enough American Jewish money to do anything American Jews want to do, period. Anything. And unfortunately, one of the things that those of us who dabble in the literary world, and I’m hearing this from literary agents all over now, is that there’s no market for Israeli books among American publishers. Asael’s will be, of course, a great exception. But it’s hard for Israeli writers to get published now. The days of Amos Oz and David Grossman being grabbed up [are gone]—Israel’s become a pariah. Israel’s not as interesting. And those major New York publications and presses are not that interested in Israel.
That shouldn’t make a difference because there’s enough American Jewish money that everybody should be able to read all of Assaf Inbari’s books. I thank God that Micah Goodman’s stuff is mostly translated into English. Assaf Inbari also happens to teach at Shalem College, and I do think there are a few important people in the world aside from Asael Abelman and Assaf Inbari who teach. Some people don’t teach at Shalem College, and that’s their loss and ours as well. But if you read ha-Baytah by Assaf Inbari, which has not yet come out in English, you will understand the history of the early part of the state. It’s a story about kibbutz, but it’s a story of Israel. If we could get ha-Baytah out in English, it would be a window into Israel in an entirely different way.
Say I tell you I’m going to go to France for a year, and I’m going to understand the nuances of French culture, even though I don’t speak French. People will understand that that’s just ludicrous. Say I’m going to go to Germany spend the year in Germany, and I’ll read whatever’s translated into English but I don’t know German—I’m not going to come back with a real sense of who the German people are and what they’re wrestling with and so forth. I think we have set up an impossible situation where we ask American Jews to show tremendous loyalty to a country that they don’t live in, which is totally their right, but we haven’t given them the tools to appreciate the grandeur of what’s unfolding in that country.
We’re not going to change overnight the lack of access to Hebrew. That’s a huge project, but what we can do overnight is publish 200 critically important books from Israel that would otherwise not make it into English, and just make them available. They don’t even have to be hard copies. They could all be digital books.
I think the incentive is thirst. You said earlier, Jonathan, that human beings are a worshiping species. And that’s true. We have an innate need for food and for drink and for oxygen. We have a need, I think, for friendship and for love. And we have an innate need for connection with something beyond us. We have innate needs and thirsts and hungers. I think Jews, many of them at least, have an innate thirst and hunger to understand what is unquestionably the most important development in the history of the Jewish people in 2000 years. More important than the Holocaust. More important than the destruction of the Second Temple. I know I’m being a little bit provocative, but I actually mean that. It’s just the most important thing. It’s the rebirth of the Jewish people.
Let’s make people understand. Let’s give them the opportunity to understand the extraordinary grandeur of what’s unfolding there by making available to them a large part of the Israeli conversation, of which a tiny, tiny sliver is available in English. Let’s change that. So I think that you can bring that horse to water and you can make the horse very thirsty, and let’s just make sure that the water’s there.