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For “New Jews” at Home in the World, the Israel-Diaspora Dichotomy Has Come to an End

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring 2007

by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer,  
New York University Press,  
214 Pages,  
In the book New Jews, authors Caryn Aviv and David Shneer argue that the Israel-Diaspora dichotomy no longer exists and that for many contemporary Jews, Israel no longer serves as the Promised Land, the center of the Jewish universe and the place of final destination. Instead, they believe, a new generation of Jews who don’t consider themselves to be eternally wandering, forever outsiders within their communities and seeking to one day find their homeland, are at home, whether it be in Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Moscow or Berlin.  
David Shneer is Director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Associate Professor of History at the University of Denver. Caryn Aviv is a Marsico Lecturer and an affiliated faculty member with the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver. In this wide-ranging book, the authors take us around the world, to Moscow, Jerusalem, New York and Los Angeles, among other places, and find vibrant, dynamic Jewish communities where Jewish identity is increasingly flexible and inclusive.  
New Jewish Map  
In the authors’ view, “We see a new Jewish map and an end of the Jewish Diaspora. We see the emergence of what we have dubbed a new type of Jew — the New Jews ... this book suggests the end of diaspora, because the majority of Jews in the United States, Russia, Germany, and elsewhere no longer see themselves ‘in diaspora’ but instead see themselves at home, not pining for a Promised Land ... The emphasis on ‘diaspora’ and ‘Israel’ has prevented Jews from exploring the diversity of Jewish experience and the way that Jews craft their identities at home in the places they live ... Most American Jews, even the most self-professed Zionists, did not think of Israel/Palestine as the yearned-for homeland. Most American Zionists before World War II supported the establishment of Zion as a refuge for persecuted, downtrodden Jews, but not for themselves.”  
Many Jews, both secular and religious, the authors write, “have gone so far as to question the certainty of the Zionist idea. Is there a place for a Jewish state in a multicultural, transnational world? Is it ethical to have two tiers of Israeli citizenship based on one’s ethnic background, a system in which Jews were given more status than Arabs? By the 1990s, Jewish voices of criticism, especially within Israel but also around the world, became louder. And thus was born the idea of post-Zionism — an ideology formulated by Israelis who questioned the foundational myths and ideologies of Israel. A whole generation of scholars and intellectuals ... challenged passionately held beliefs about Israel’s founding and about Israel’s role in the Jewish world. Did Israel need to be a ‘Jewish state,’ or should it become a secular democracy? Did Israel need to deny the messier and unsavory parts of its past in order to make people proud of it as a country? Did Israel still need to demand an in-gathering of all global Jews, or could it develop a healthy partnership with global Jews? For some, post-Zionism led to the question of whether a secular Jewish national state was even necessary for Jews to find pride in Jewish culture.”  
Mythic and Messianic Place  
The authors cite scholars Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin who argue that the two-thousand-year relationship Jews had with Zion as a mythic and messianic place sublimated the potential for political violence that such nationalistic yearnings for land could have had. “The solution of Zionism — that is, Jewish state hegemony, except insofar as it represented an emergency and temporary rescue operation — seems to us the subversion of Jewish culture and not its culmination ... Capturing Judaism in a state transforms entirely the meaning of its social practices.” As a mythic notion, they point out, Zion helped to maintain cultural continuity, community, and collective identity, without fostering a Jewish nationalism expressed in a desire for political power.  
The authors, who are positive and optimistic about the Jewish future, lament the pessimism that often characterizes the outlook of established Jewish organizations and spokesmen. They see too many “fears” such as “Fears that Jewish life is dying around the world. Fears that Israel will be driven into the sea if Jews don’t push back in defense. Fears that if American Jews don’t stop marrying non-Jews, there won’t be any Jews left in fifty years. Fears that if American Jewish leaders do not send Jewish teenagers to Israel and do not build another Holocaust museum, the next generation will not identify as Jews and the memory of the Jewish past will be lost.”  
They note that, “In our many years working in Jewish education and in Jewish communities, across the U.S., in Russia, in Israel, we rarely hear people exclaim, ‘Wow! Jews in America are doing a wonderful job of building Jewish culture, educating people, and fostering dynamic visions of a Jewish future.’ We rarely hear positive comments about the changing relationships to Judaism or the new Jewish ways of raising children being developed by interfaith families across the country. Although many lament the ‘lack of Jewishness’ among recent Russian Jewish immigrants to both the U.S. and Israel, we seldom hear or read about the new forms of Jewishness these immigrants bring with them. Too few Jews celebrate the renaissance in American Jewish immigrant literature, the like of which has not been seen since the first half of the twentieth century. We rarely hear anyone describe Moscow as a vibrant center of contemporary Jewish life, literature and culture. And hardly ever do we hear people say, ‘Maybe we’re putting too much emphasis on Israel and not enough on our own Jewish communities.’”  
Shneer and Aviv then “flipped the question on its head” and asked, “What if we wrote a book, not about fear and crisis, decay and demise, but about the dynamic ways Jews actually live and thrive in many other places around the world? What if we wrote a book that suggested that there might be alternative Jewish universes in which Israel was not the center?”  
Multiple Homelands  
To envision a new map for the Jewish world, one that has multiple homelands, that does not break the Jewish world into a dichotomous relationship between “diaspora” and “Israel,” and that suggests a positive vision of the Jewish future, the authors relied upon facts such as these:  
• Since the 19th century, the U.S. has been the preeminent place in the world to foster significant new forms of Jewish communal relations, such as the Reconstructionist and the Renewal movements.  
• In 2003, the year of the most recent migration statistics, more Jews moved to Moscow from Israel than vice versa.  
• There are many Israelis who do not consider themselves Jews, and many Israelis who do not live in Israel.  
• New York, not Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, is the home of the international Jewish institutional world and the center of Jewish philanthropy.  
• Yiddish is still a spoken language, and the number of people studying Yiddish is growing.  
Feeling of Rootedness  
The way Jews live their lives, and their feeling of rootedness in the places they call home have, the authors declare, altered the very concept of “diaspora.” They write: “Jews are dismantling the very idea of diaspora ... The word ‘diaspora’ means dispersion. It originated in the Septuagint, one of the original Greek translations of the Bible; Deuteronomy 28:25: ‘thou shalt be a diaspora in all kingdoms of the earth.’ The very word summons up images of Jewish seeds scattered about the earth ... galut is an inherently negative term, suggesting spiritual diminishment and exile, rather than just dispersion from a homeland. ... Many Jews who actually lived in the land we now know as Israel during the two-thousand year ‘exile’ still conceived of Zion as a mythic place from which they were exiled. Even after the establishment of the state, within and outside Israel, after Jews ‘forced the hand of history’ by doing that which the Messiah had not yet done, there have been religious Jews ... that live in Israel but do not recognize Jewish political sovereignty over the land. In the 1970s, the leader of Lubavitch Hasidism, M.M. Schneerson, declared that Jews who lived in the Holy Land were just as much in exile as those who lived in diaspora.”  
Over the course of history, Jews have developed many survival strategies. The authors point to the prophet Jeremiah who told Jews to root themselves in their new communities: “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit ... Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you” (Jeremiah 29: 5-7). Although Jews were yearning for their lost homeland when they said the words “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem” (Psalms 137:5), Jeremiah called on Jews to maintain a dynamic tension between movement and rootedness, between being at home and recalling a mythic homeland.  
Many Hellenistic Jews in the Second Temple period (513 B.C.E.-70 C.E.), for example, chose to live outside the borders of the Holy Land. While living throughout the Hellenistic empire, they sent money to Jerusalem and conceived of Jerusalem as the patris, the homeland, but did not long to return there. “Rabbinic Jews crafted a diaspora that allowed them to be at home where they were,” the authors note, “while maintaining cultural differences from the other people with whom they lived. ... In addition to remembering the mythic Exile from the Holy Land, Jews also had strategies for rooting themselves in places. For example, Jewish communities established cemeteries — a very concrete act of claiming both place and space for themselves that meant acquiring land and investing it with cultural and metaphysical power ... These three spaces — cemeteries, bathhouses, and schools — were cornerstones of how Jews practiced home in multiple ways for several centuries, across geographies and cultures.”  
America as Homeland  
In America, new Eastern European Jewish immigrants felt, the authors note, “that America was their true Jewish homeland. The immigrant writer Mary Antin suggested as much when she said, “Not ‘may we be next year in Jerusalem,’ but ‘next year in America!” Jewish studies scholar Deborah Dash Moore writes that, “The destruction of European Jewry shattered the familiar contours of the Jewish world and transformed American Jews into the largest, wealthiest, most stable and secure Jewish community in the diaspora.”  
As the Zionist movement developed, its advocates, write Shneer and Aviv, believed that the emerging Jewish state would be “the future homeland of all Jews, an idea summed up in the phrase that describes Israel’s primary function — a place for ‘the ingathering of the exiles.’ Even the name of the new state, Israel (the historic word connoting the Jewish people — am yisrael), suggests a group of people well beyond the country’s borders. But the use of the word ‘right’ in the original law also shows that the Israeli government could not insist on this ingathering. It needed to persuade Jews around the world that they should move to Israel voluntarily and take themselves out of their dispersion. Some did. For most Jews who chose not to physically relocate in Israel, the very least they could do was to recognize and celebrate Israel as the center of Jewish culture and as an emerging and viable source of Jewish identity. And, most important, they could support it financially.”  
From the beginning, the authors report, “The idea that American Jews would participate from a distance, financially and politically, was enshrined in the well-known conversation that took place in 1950 between the first president of Israel, David Ben Gurion, and the then-president the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein.”  
One Political Attachment  
At that time, Ben Gurion stated unequivocally that, “The Jews of the United States ... have only one political attachment and that is to the United States of America. We should like to see American Jews come and take part in our effort ... But the decision as to whether they wish to come ... rests with the free discretion of each American Jew himself.” Blaustein responded: “We must sound a note of caution to Israel and its leaders ... the matter of good-will between its citizens and those of other countries is a two-way street; that Israel also has a responsibility in this situation — a responsibility in terms of not affecting adversely the sensibilities of Jews who are citizens of other states by what it says or does. In this connection, you are realists and want facts, and I would be less than frank if I did not point out to you that American Jews vigorously repudiate any suggestion or implication that they are in exile ... To American Jews, America is home.” In this connection, the authors declare, “Israel would be a Jewish home, not the Jewish home.“  
In the years since Israel’s creation, Aviv and Shneer show that, “Jewish communal organizations worldwide have gradually made support for Israel a civic religion around which to build a modern secular Jewish identity. Mainstream Jewish organizations have used and expanded historical, religious and cultural tropes in Judaism to cultivate among Jews a sense of connection and belonging to Israel and, through Israel, to one another. These organizations have encouraged ‘diaspora Jews’ to connect to Israel through philanthropy, education, tourism, lobbying, and business ventures. We call these networks of power, finance and culture that have used Israel to foster diasporic Jewish identities ‘the diaspora business.’”  
The more the popular slogan “We are one” is used, state Jewish Studies scholars Deborah Dash Moore and S. Ilan Troen, what is indicated is “a growing need to counter a contrary reality.” They suggest that the Jewish world is moving toward a reality of greater diversity, toward a multiplicity of identities — “we are many.” They are not alone. In the new book Cultures of the Jews, David Biale and the many participating authors show that the dynamic tension between unity and diversity has always defined Jews and their cultures from the days of the Bible.  
Questioning the Centrality of Israel  
Authors Shneer and Aviv want to confront the reality of contemporary Jewish life which is not consistent with such old ideas of “diaspora” and “homeland.” They write: “We want to question the centrality of Israel in Jewish geography, culture and memory. And intellectually, we want to move beyond the term ‘diaspora’ as a mode of explaining postmodern collective identity, since such a conceptualization reinforces notions of centers and peripheries and emphasizes motion-and-rootlessness, often at the expense of home and rootedness ... We wonder why people still break down Jewish identity and Jewish geography into two categories — Israel and everyone else commonly referred to as ‘the diaspora.’ Such labeling has the homogenizing effect of suggesting that everyone not in Israel has something in common and that all those in Israel share a common experience. ... We question the very notion of a unified Jewish people who live within these two categories of Israel and diaspora. We argue that a collective unified whole, ‘the Jewish people,’ does not describe how Jewish identities and communities operate and instead use the idea of Jewish peoples. The idea of unity is often mobilized to create a semblance of collective solidarity in response to historical persecution or in order to make Jews feel responsible for people with whom they may have very little in common ... By deemphasizing ‘diaspora,’ which connotes powerlessness, and ‘homeland,’ which connotes power, we suggest that power within the Jewish world — cultural, political, economic — flows in many directions and to and from diverse places.”  
Younger Jews understand this. Kol Dor (Voice of a Generation), an international network of twenty- and thirty-something Jewish leaders from twelve countries, including Israel, met for its first conference in May 2004. One of the group’s first resolutions stated that participants refuse to use any kind of “Israel-Diaspora” discourse and instead would speak in terms of a “global Jewish discourse.” Young American Jews are also questioning the links between Israeli Jews and those in other parts of the world. In the recent National Jewish Population Survey, only 20 percent of Jewish college students felt “very emotionally attached to Israel.”  
Why, Shneer and Aviv ask, do Jews in America feel that they need to send their children to Israel in order to make them feel Jewish while they imagine Eastern Europe, where more than 1.5 million Jews still live, to be a graveyard. Beyond this, they note, “... is the very idea that Israel is the Jewish homeland and, therefore, that all Jews are tied to this political entity, that has also blurred the boundaries between criticism of Israeli politics and criticism of Jews writ large. If Jews have trouble drawing a line between global Jewry and the State of Israel, it is no wonder that others do, too.”  
Legitimacy of Jewish Life  
The authors lament the tendency of some Israeli leaders to write off the legitimacy of Jewish life in other countries. Ariel Sharon, for example, called on “French Jewry to abandon the land of Jewish emancipation and the French Revolution, a land he referred to as the home of the ‘wildest anti-Semitism,’ for safer ground in the Holy Land. Not surprisingly, some French Jewish organizations took offense at the notion that they were somehow not at home in France.”  
More disturbingly, in their view, the former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, declared that Jews should all leave Europe: “I’m telling you there is no future for European Jewry.” Instead, the authors write, “... perhaps it is precisely in times of turmoil, when home feels unsafe, when others are clamoring for power, that Jews should not see power as a zero-sum game but should recognize their privileged position in the world as a people with internal diversities and multiple homes and should engage the world not out of fear but out of the power of rootedness.”  
The rebirth of Jewish life in post-Communist Russia is described in some detail, based on the authors’ time in Moscow. Rabbi Berel Lazar, one of two chief rabbis, and a close associate of Vladimir Putin, states that, “Jews feel much freer in Russia, and can now decide for themselves whether or not to stay or leave.”  
While many U.S. and Israeli Jewish organizations continue to urge the emigration of Russian Jews, what is often ignored is the growing vitality of Jewish life in Moscow and other Russian cities. Mikhail Gluz, the president of Chabad’s Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJCR), has stressed that “changes in recent years have created unique conditions for the development of Jewish culture which is now supported by the state.” In November, 2001, at the annual Congress of the FJCR, the Russian Minister of Culture, Mikhail Shvydkoi, delivered a welcoming address emphasizing that the Ministry of Culture is prepared to back the FJCR’s initiatives to revive Jewish culture.  
Competing Groups in Russia  
There are a number of competing Jewish organizations active in Russia. The Russian Jewish Congress, funded by several wealthy Russian Jews, and the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia (CJROCR) are among them. There is also the start of Reform Judaism. In September 1999, Interfax, the Russian news wire service, sent a brief report that a new synagogue had opened in Moscow where “men and women could sit together.” The item referred to the official opening of Moscow’s first Reform synagogue, Congregation Hineini.  
David Shneer reports about a religious service he attended at Congregation Hineini; “Since Reform Judaism believes that religion should be accessible to the congregants in their native language, most of the service was in Russian. This suggested that Reform Judaism is perhaps the most ‘rooted’ form of Judaism on Moscow’s Jewish landscape. Although Reform Judaism is global, Reform Jews themselves adapt their worship and identities to the local cultures that they call home. ... Nelly Shulman, the first female rabbi of Russia and a product of the Machon program, is a perfect example of how Russian Reform Judaism is enmeshed in diasporic relations with other Jewish centers and is also developing its own forms of Jewish rootedness in Russia. Born in 1972, Shulman trained to be a rabbi at Leo Baeck College in London. In 1998, she moved to Minsk, Belarus, and has served as the chief Reform rabbi of this capital city ... Shulman thinks that being a woman benefits her in her attempt to get young Belorussian Jews excited about Judaism. ‘In other countries you would go to a psychologist for advice, but people don’t do that here. A lot of women in provincial places talk to me about issues like abortion, sexual harassment in the workplace, their families.’ Shulman shows that as Russia develops its own rabbis, it will also develop its own definition of the rabbinate, in her case two parts therapist, one part legal adviser, one part Jewish leader.”  
Through both local and global initiatives, Moscow is now home to two Jewish Community Centers, a Holocaust museum, two Jewish publishing houses, several kosher restaurants, many Jewish schools and several synagogues. The authors declare that, “It is simply not possible to argue that Jewish life in Moscow is dying. All signs show that Jewish life in the city is growing. Moscow Jews are settled. Jews are so settled in Moscow, and in all of Russia, that, for the first time in history, more Russian Jews now migrate to Russia from Israel than the other way around. According to a report released by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, about 50,000 Jewish former emigrants to Israel have returned to Russia since 2001. Over the same period, only about 30,000 Russian Jews have left for Israel. With state anti-Semitism officially ended and an economic climate more promising than Israel’s, Moscow is becoming a place where Jews want to live.”  
“Diaspora Business”  
In a chapter entitled “Encounters With Ghosts,” the authors explore youth tourism to Eastern Europe and Israel, intended to strengthen Jewish identity and commitment, what they refer to as “the Diaspora Business.”  
Many young American Jews have been on organized tours to Eastern Europe or Israel. “These pilgrimages,” the authors state, “are designed to encourage a strong sense of Jewish identity for the rest of one‘s lifetime. There are now hundreds of programs that send Jews of all ages to Israel to dig for archeological treasures, pray in synagogues, fire guns, excavate bones, learn a little Hebrew, pick olives and oranges, and scuba dive among other pastimes. Most trips to Eastern Europe, like March of the Living, use the Holocaust as their source of identity tourism ... These tours and trips often attempt to reinforce traditional notions of diaspora and homeland by situating America as an exilic place of weakening Jewish identity, positing Israel as the center of Jewish life and Eastern Europe as the center of Jewish death. In this sense, Israel and Eastern Europe are used as a theatrical backdrop on which to construct and strengthen Jewish identities for Jews in America and around the world. This kind of tourism and identity travel is part of what we call the diaspora business.”  
March of the Living (MOTL) was established in 1988 by the Israeli Ministry of Education to use the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel as the two axes around which to mark Jewish time — the Holocaust as the Jewish past and Israel as the Jewish future. The anthropologist Jack Kugelmass suggests that “the death camps in Poland act as condensation symbols for the entire Jewish past, while Israel, the end point of the journey, is schematized as the Jewish future.” Dafa Michaelson, a MOTL participant and former director of MOTL for the New York region, argues that MOTL reaffirms communal solidarity through memory, sadness, and fear.  
Seeing Poland as Dead  
Shneer and Aviv note that, “Organizers prepare students to see Poland as dead, frozen, and fearful, despite the nation’s booming economy, its 2004 entry into the European Union, and its increasingly vibrant Jewish and philo-Semitic cultural scene. If Poland and Eastern Europe are seen as dead, they cannot function as real places from which Jews are in diaspora. They cannot serve as a ‘home’ with the possibility of return for the Jewish youth who participate in MOTL, most of whom are of Ashkenazic or Eastern European descent. In a global world ‘home’ comes to be the places where these students live and the Jews’ ‘eternal home, Israel,’ even if most of the participants trace their roots to Russia and Eastern Europe.”  
The authors do not believe that such trips can continue in the future, for they defy the reality of Jewish life on today’s world: “The desires of MOTL to show students a fearful Europe and a safe Israel now conflict with the reality of a wealthy, relatively peaceful Europe and an embattled Israel, and this led to declining participation. Students and parents now often choose to do more identity work ‘at home.’ ... We imagine that ten years from now, diaspora business organizations will spend as much money sending young Jews to Vilnius to study Yiddish or to Prague to study Jewish art and architecture as they do sending young Jews to Israel. While many will still choose to climb Masada at dawn or volunteer for six weeks in the Israeli army, we imagine new Jewish youth traveling to New York to study in yeshivas, visit Jewish museums, conduct family history research at Jewish archives, learn Russian in Jewish immigrant neighborhoods, and eat their way through Jewish New York as culinary targets.”  
How American Jews see themselves and define their identity, the authors believe, can be seen, in the museums they have built, what they refer to as “Temples of American Identity.” Of particular interest, in their view, is the Skirball Cultural Center-Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.  
American Jewish Experience  
Uri Herscher, founder and CEO of the Skirball Center, says that, “The most understated story in Jewish history is the American-Jewish experience. It may indeed be the most glorious of stories, but it is untold. Perhaps we are not ‘good news’ people.”  
The emphasis on pluralism at the Skirball is also a reflection of its sponsoring institution, the Hebrew Union College, American Reform Judaism’s rabbinic seminary. Director Uri Herscher sets forth the Center’s purpose this way: “The Skirball Cultural Center is dedicated to exploring the connection between the age-old Jewish heritage and American democracy. We offer hospitality to every ethnic and cultural identity in American life. Guided by our respective memories, we seek together to continue building a society in which all of us can feel at home. The Skirball takes particular pride in its educational and cultural programs for thousands of schoolchildren and their teachers — people of every background, who are finding common ground in our pluralistic America.”  
The permanent exhibit celebrates the idea that Jews have always had, and continue to have, multiple homes throughout the world. This, the authors point out, “runs counter to other museums that document Jewish history, especially the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, which frame Jewish history in a Zionist narrative. Given the Skirball’s explicit goal of rooting Jews in the American landscape, it is no wonder that the idea of a diaspora, of not being at home, is not a compelling narrative, nor is Israel a central theme in the museum’s iconography or textual display aside from the archaeological resources from Israel in the Discovery Center. The section on Jews living around the world, which most museums would label ‘diasporas’ or ‘exile,’ words that most Jews themselves use, is called ‘Journeys,’ imbuing Jews’ settlement worldwide with a sense of movement and adventure without the value-laden judgment that the word ‘diaspora’ implies. ‘Journeys’ allows Jews to be home wherever they are in ways that ‘diaspora’ and ‘exile’ do not.”  
Museum of Tolerance  
The Skirball Center is contrasted by the authors with the Museum of Tolerance, sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles: “In the Skirball, Jews’ sameness as Americans is emphasized as a strength and measure of ethnic success. In the Museum of Tolerance, Jews’ difference from everyone else is emphasized, as is the historical legacy of vulnerability, suffering and loss. The Skirball is the American Dream and immigrant story; the Museum of Tolerance is ethnic conflict. In the words of one critic: ‘In the twentieth century, Jewish culture has become one of the most vivid ingredients in the national melting pot and one of the most deeply integrated.’ The Skirball works within the tension of assimilation and separateness, sameness and difference. If it is a celebration of the melting pot or cultural quilt, it is also an assertion that Jews can maintain and have maintained a distinct Jewish identity in America even while being an integral group in American culture. It is the mythic narrative of acculturation without assimilation, something, the museum thinks, American Jews should be proud of. This is also one of the things that makes this museum a reflection of American Reform Jews, who strive toward modernity and integration, as opposed to the Museum of Tolerance, which has the imprint of American Orthodoxy, with its emphasis on separateness and difference.”  
At the Skirball, there is a stress on the similarity between the values of Judaism and that of the larger American society. With regard to the story of Hanukkah and the Maccabees, the Skirball declares: “The spirit of the Maccabees lives on in the State of Virginia’s declaration of 1785: ‘Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.’ Religious liberty is affirmed in America’s Bill of Rights and in the Supreme Court’s endorsement of separation of church and state.” In the case of the liberation story of Passover, the Skirball states: “Passover, recalling ancient Israel’s exodus from slavery, celebrates the dignity of freedom. Throughout American history, from the struggle for independence to the struggle for civil rights, those seeking to escape oppression have looked to the example of the biblical Israelites. New versions of the Haggadah (Passover narrative) exploring a range of modern understandings, have flourished in the United States. American Jews continue to embrace Passover’s message of freedom by taking active roles in civic life and supporting the global struggle for human rights.”  
Symbiosis of Values  
The narrative created by the Skirball curators, the authors write, “is one of symbiosis between American and Jewish values. There is little emphasis on keeping kosher, gender separation in Judaism, or other aspects that mark Jews as different from others. Even the Holocaust, the twentieth century event that marked and separated Jews, is marginal to the museum’s primary narrative. The museum also clearly expresses its Reform Jewish values by showing that these ‘permanent’ markers of Judaism are in fact determined by time and place. So, for example, in the displays and photographs of synagogues, the curators have included replicas of the great classical Reform synagogue of Berlin (the iconic image of Reform Judaism’s presence on a given landscape) and a contemporary synagogue in Mississippi that looks like a cross between a Pentecostal revival hall and a Las Vegas show place.”  
Ironically, the authors point out, Los Angeles is now exporting its museum culture back to Israel with the groundbreaking Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, funded primarily by Jewish Angelenos. The authors ask: “Where is the center of the Jewish world if Jewish museums are being exported from America to Israel? Michael Berenbaum, the former U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum director, calls this the ‘nativization of the Holocaust,’arguing that American Jews today are ‘proud and self-affirming.’ He believes that the interest in American Jewish museums will ‘slowly bring an end to the Israeli-centered period for American Jews.’ ... If the Skirball is an example, he is absolutely right. The Skirball Museum turns the Israel-centered narrative on its head by placing America at the center and by presenting the past two thousand years of Jewish history not as a series of anti-Semitic events resulting from ‘exile’ but as a series of celebratory journeys through time and place.”  
In the U.S., even museums commemorating the Holocaust approach the subject differently from those in Israel. Michael Berenbaum, the former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, suggests that the use of the Holocaust in the U.S. is different from that in Israel or other places in the world: “If Israelis turn to the Holocaust as proof that the whole world is against them, American Jews reinforce their commitment to pluralism by recalling the atrocities that sprang from intolerance.” Aviv and Shneer believe that, “This model of tolerance as the framing concept for Holocaust museums in America demonstrates just how fully rooted American Jews are in the cultural landscape.”  
New York as the New Zion  
Another chapter is entitled “New York Is a Center of The Jewish Universe.” The authors write; “New York is the new Zion of the Jewish world, with its complexity, density, and sheer cacophony of Jewish voices, institutions and cultures. New York is so gigantic and multifaceted, the site of so many different communities, agendas and visions, that any analysis of how and why New York has become a center of Jewish life and culture inevitably poses only more questions. ... It is ground zero of the diaspora business, of global Jewish tourism, philanthropy, research institutes and non-profit organizations. It is where Jewish identity and memory are manufactured, performed, reinvented, contested, and then circulated throughout the world. It is the prototypical home for today’s new Jews, a place in which they first plant roots, even if they eventually leave for other locales.”  
Exploring the Center for Jewish History, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan, the authors find that they use many of same themes of pluralism, tolerance, multiculturalism and universality found in Los Angeles’ Skirball exhibits, but with a particular New York twist. They focus on the use of these Jewish institutions because they project a peculiarly American vision of Jewish life and show how these institutions set up New York as a crossroads of Jewish life — past, present, and future.  
“New York is Jewish,” write the authors, “not just because it has the largest urban Jewish population in the world, not just because it is the financial and cultural hub of the Jewish world, not just because nearly every rabbi trained in the world will spend some time there, not just because it is the place to which so many global Jews trace their histories and through which they envision their future. For Jews, since the turn of the 20th century, New York has been overpopulated with people, ghosts, ambitions and dreams.”  
Larger Context of Jewish History  
New York‘s “Holocaust Museum,” the Museum of Jewish Heritage, is, the authors note, not really a Holocaust museum at all but places the Holocaust in the larger context of modern Jewish history: “The Museum of Jewish history is one of the few museums to present modern Jewish history as a history of diversity and the story of the Holocaust as a piece of what happened to modern Jews. Unlike the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opens its permanent exhibition with a picture of dead Jews at Ohrdruf, the Museum of Jewish History opens with a multimedia film and photo-and-voice exhibition arguing that to understand Jews one has to understand that there is no such thing as ‘a Jew.’ The three dimensional film extravaganza talks about the many places Jews live, the many languages Jews speak, and the many ways Jews have moved around and settled in the modern world. In general, the permanent exhibition favors diversity over unity, talks about life more than death, an ironic statement in a Holocaust museum ...”  
As testament to its New York-centric vision of Jewish life, the central 2005 temporary exhibition at the Museum was titled “New York: City of Refuge.” The exhibit documented the stories of Jewish immigrants to New York from the end of World War II to the present. Unlike the Ellis Island story that so many American Jews presume to be the master narrative of American Jewish history, this exhibition showed that in the modern age JFK International Airport is the portal to America for modern immigrants, who have come from war-ravaged Europe, post-Communist Russia, Iraq, Iran, Ethiopia, Cuba and Israel.  
“Most museums,” write the authors, “narrate modern Jewish history as a story of the darkness of 20th century Europe leading to the light of modern Israel. Both in its permanent exhibition and in this temporary one, the Museum of Jewish Heritage suggests that history starts after the Holocaust, and in this story, Jews leave an embattled Israel for the vibrancy and economic vitality of New York, even if they are no longer guided by the beaming light of the Statue‘s torch or walking the gauntlet of Ellis Island, both of which are visible from the temporary exhibition space. ... The original bronze gates of an old synagogue at JFK Airport greet the museum visitor at the entrance of the modern Jewish migration story. Its location in New York gives the museum the confidence to show that, although the Holocaust scarred modern Jewish history, it did not mean the end of Jewish diversity ... The lesson of the Holocaust is not that Jews now need guns to find safety in the modern world and that Jews must remain vigilant in the fight against anti-Semitism ... It is that Jews continue to live in many places, speak many languages, and find homes around the world, despite the scar of the Holocaust. And where do most Jews feel most at home? In this museum’s worldview, Herzl and Ben Gurion got it wrong. New York is the city of Jewish refuge.”  
Israel’s Lack of Tolerance  
Even though there are many Hasidic Jews in Israel, the authors point out, Chabad’s global home is in New York. They quote Noah Efron, who has shown in his recent book, Real Jews, that what makes Israel “such a strife-ridden place for religious and non-religious Jews alike is precisely the lack of an ideology of tolerance and a separation of synagogue and state. Precisely because there is no freedom of, or freedom from, religion, Israeli politics puts pressure on the insularity of Hasidic Jews. ... Ironically, institutions for radically Americanized Jews and those for deeply separatist Jews both call America home, and both see New York as their Zion, the place where both can craft the kind of lives they choose. And, even more ironic, many secular Israelis, tired of the political conflict with the Palestinians and the religious conflicts with ultra-Orthodox Jews, are migrating to the new Zion of New York as a more tolerant, pluralistic, alternative to the original ‘Promised Land.’”  
It is high time, the authors believe, that Jews change their collective identity and self-perception and recognize that “the Jewish world is more complex than the simple diaspora-Israel dichotomy suggests ... There are many Jewish homes, and Jews would be better off recognizing their ethnic, linguistic, political and sexual diversities and embracing them rather than ignoring or suppressing those differences.“  
The Jewish map would change, they argue, if American Jewish organizations did what some Israeli homosexual groups are doing by bringing Israeli high school students to the U.S. to learn about Jewish religious and cultural pluralism — rather than sending “American Jews to develop a sense of Jewish nationalism.” They point to such programs as Building Bridges for Peace and Seeds of Peace which do just that by bringing Palestinian and Israeli young people to the U.S. each summer to learn about diversity and tolerance.  
A Different Jewish Map  
They write that, “The Jewish map might look different if we recognized that Russian Jews everywhere have different conceptions of Jewishness and if we trained people in Russian language skills to be Jewish leaders worldwide. Imagine if Hebrew Union College started a program for Russian-speaking Jewish leaders to train to become rabbis in New York or Moscow. The map would look different if Jewish Studies programs in the U.S. sent as many students to study abroad in London, New York, Moscow, Buenos Aires or Prague as they do in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheva. It would look different if, when Jewish organizations did send Jewish youth to Israel, they did not simply use Israel as a historic backdrop on which to become ‘better American Jews’ but actually discovered the living, breathing, amazingly diverse and complicated society that Israel is. This might mean spending less time at places like Yad va-Shem and the Western Wall and encouraging our students to study Arabic and Russian as well as Hebrew so that they could better communicate with all Israelis.”  
Rather than bemoan the demise of a “unified” Jewish people, Shneer and Aviv think that, “It is the very slipperiness of Jewish identity that provides so much fertile potential for creativity, innovation, and adaptation in all the places Jews call home. By abandoning the confines of nationalistic and diasporic constraints for a more nuanced, flexible understanding of Jewish identity that embraces difference and differences as core virtues, we as Jews can become better global citizens.”  
The “new Jews” described in this book are, recent studies show, the overwhelming majority of American Jews, particularly those in younger age groups, representing the future.  
Younger Jews Reject Parochialism  
In a recently published study, Steven M. Cohen, Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, shows that among American Jews “a sense of commitment to a particular people — the Jewish people — is in decline.” To take as an illustration, those aged 35 to 44 are less likely than their elders, 55-64, to strongly agree that “Jews in the United States and Jews around the world share a common destiny” (35% vs. 44%). They are also less likely to strongly agree that “when people are in distress, American Jews have a greater responsibility to rescue Jews than non-Jews” (25% vs. 32%); and they are less likely to strongly agree that “I have a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world” (25% vs. 32%). Professor Cohen declares that, “The slide in feelings of belonging to the Jewish people stretches over a 50-year age span. In like fashion, the Jews of 2000/01 registered less attachment to Israel than those in 1990 ...”  
David Shneer and Caryn Aviv have broken important new ground with their book, which should become a staple in Jewish Studies courses at universities and should be widely read by all those who are concerned about the future of American Jewish life. They have shaken the assumptions of many in the Jewish establishment about the question of where “home” really is, and they understand very well the fact that for American Jews, in particular, the symbiosis between Judaism and American values is deep and virtually universal. Their conviction that the Israel-Diaspora dichotomy no longer exists, if it ever did, may become the conventional wisdom of the emerging generation of Jews, both in the United States and in other growing centers of Jewish life.

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.