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Climate Change and the Jewish Question

Despite everything they have in common, the Israeli Jewish experience differs greatly from the Diaspora Jewish experience. The two communities don’t always have the same interests or find the same issues compelling, and they disagree on quite a few matters, both those relating to values and those relating to modes of action. Understanding these tensions in depth, and trying to defuse or, at least, alleviate them, are critical challenges for those concerned about the future of the Jewish people.

Being determines consciousness

The famous Marxist axiom “being determines consciousness” may be useful in understanding the aforementioned tensions. As far as Jewish identity is concerned, the consciousness of Israeli Jews, who constitute a majority in a nation state of their own, differs qualitatively from that of Diaspora Jews, who live as a minority – generally a high-status minority – in non-Jewish countries. Although a large share of young Jews in both groups identify both with their Jewish identity and with liberal values, these values take on different meanings for each community.

Diaspora Jews usually see Jewish values as oriented toward promoting individual rights, preventing the oppression of minorities in their countries of residence, and fostering peace and global justice. From their people’s history and tradition they derive a moral duty to carry the torch of Enlightenment values. By contrast, most Israeli Jews – also by virtue of their people’s history and tradition – view Jewish values as an imperative to strengthen the State of Israel in all areas – security, the economy, and the cultural-intellectual sphere. Although most Israeli Jews do applaud such liberal values as equality and peace, the survival and flourishing of the state takes precedence for them over other values, even those they hold dear. In their view, the hope expressed in the national anthem, “to be a free people in our land,” is enshrined in Jewish sources and constitutes a major liberal-Jewish value.

The gap between the two groups in how they understand the concept of “Jewish values” manifests on the political plane. Prominent Israeli Religious Zionist rabbis justify Jewish control of Judea and Samaria in the name of Torah, even when that control entails depriving non-Jewish residents of their national rights. By contrast, the US-born Israeli rabbi Donniel Hartman, supporting an approach associated with Religious Zionism’s more liberal faction, rejects the other rabbis’ interpretation, and voices the critical stance of American liberal religious Jews for the Israeli media: “They feel that today’s Israel doesn’t respect people as people, that Israel is promoting a kind of Jewishness that doesn’t accept the Talmudic idea that the Torah was given for the sake of peace. They don’t feel that Israel is seeking peace” (“For from Zion Shall Come Forth Torah, but also from North America,” Zvika Klein, Makor Rishon, May 27, 2020). All of the world’s Jews share a single set of texts and a single value system, yet the point at which values, interpretations, and the ability to bridge contradictory values are determined would seem to be affected more by geography than by any other factor, or – in Marxian terms – by the interpreter’s place within the “class system.”

Israel – a disappointing love story

Several factors have caused Diaspora Jews to interpret Western liberal values as Jewish values. Principles such as the rule of law, separation of religion and state, and “colorblindness” toward religious and ethnic identity, have provided a robust foundation for Diaspora Jewry’s economic, intellectual, and political success. For Jews living amid non-Jewish populations, democracy is beneficial and protects against discrimination, exclusion, and oppression. It’s not surprising that, over the course of history, Jews tended to be repelled by nationalistic political parties seeking privileged status for members of the dominant ethnic or religious group. Because they view Israel’s political system as essentially different in its basic values and comportment from the liberal system with which they are familiar and which has done them well, they have trouble understanding and accepting it. They expect the Jewish state to exemplify the humanistic values that benefit them in their countries of residence, and Israel falls far short of their expectations in this regard.

The typical young Israeli Jew sees things differently. They feel that Israel, as a state that defines itself as both Jewish and democratic, strives to meet democratic standards, but distinguishes between its Jewish and its non-Jewish citizens. Two Basic Laws ensure the full personal rights of the country’s Arab citizens, but there is no similar assurance regarding their national rights, as they are a national minority in a state that sees itself as Jewish and that has a Jewish majority. Most of Israel’s Jewish citizens regard this state of affairs as necessary in maintaining and safeguarding the Jewish state’s ethnic, religious, and, indeed, its democratic character and distinctiveness. The inconsistency between Israel’s democratic side and the full spectrum of liberal values – which reject any distinction between citizens on the basis of gender, religion, or ethnicity – creates constant tension, and even leads to ideological distancing between the more liberal factions of Diaspora Jewry and Israel. This distancing dates from the early years of Israeli statehood but has intensified since the Six-Day War (1967), in which Israel gained control over Judea and Samaria (and the Gaza Strip, until 2005), deepening the tension between Diaspora and Israeli Jews.

A dialogue of the deaf – or mutual patronizing

The two groups are, by and large, either engaged in a “dialogue of the deaf,” or patronizing each other. Each side thinks it occupies the moral high ground and expects the other to shed its “false consciousness” (as the Marxists term it) and reach the democratic and Jewish higher or “true” consciousness that it itself possesses.

Without taking sides between these conflicting attitudes, there can be no doubt about the gap between them: young American Jews criticize the Jewish state for failing to uphold what they regard as “Jewish values,” and are outraged that young Israeli Jews don’t identify with this criticism. Young Israelis, for their part, perceive the American-Jewish position as a kind of naïve, abstract humanism that is impracticable in the complex Israeli environment. Even many of those Israelis who idealize the liberal value system nevertheless reject the idea of sacrificing their personal and national security for the sake of “global justice,” and certainly do not view such sacrifice as Jewishly appropriate. In their view, the most appropriate Jewish and humanitarian act is to strengthen Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state, without forgoing either element.

The challenge: turning gaps into opportunities

In theory, where there is a shared ideal of justice and rule of law, and where there is a willingness to engage in dialogue, the odds of bridging cultural gaps should be high. In practice, however, the Israel-Diaspora dialogue has been unsuccessful. Why? One possible explanation is the Marxian idea that consciousness and experience proceed from being: the goodwill of the two sides is not enough to achieve the desired bridging of gaps. The liberal Jews of the Diaspora feel that Israel could do much more for its Arab citizens and for the Palestinians. By contrast, Israeli Jews are worried about existential challenges and are unwilling to do what, in their view, could potentially endanger them, their families, or their national sovereignty, on behalf of abstract values of global justice. For them, Western liberal values are theoretical, impracticable in a Middle East where one’s enemies do not share those values.

But the gap can be transformed from a threat into an opportunity for mutual enrichment. If an absolute majority of Israeli Jews want Israel to be both a Jewish and a democratic state, and if they realize that this contributes to Israel’s national resilience, then there is room for true dialogue between the two opposing perspectives described above. It is important that Diaspora Jewry make its demand for democratic values known to Israeli Jewry, and it is important that Israeli Jews convey to the new generation of Diaspora Jews, who feel themselves to be part of a global generation, their concerns about preserving the particularist Jewish identity. The two approaches are complementary, and crucial for enhancing the Jewish people’s global resilience.

All of the parties involved are making meaningful efforts to reduce the current conceptual and practical distancing. For example, young Diaspora Jews are being encouraged to visit Israel, so as to promote unmediated encounter between young people from both groups. These efforts have proven effective in furthering mutual understanding and bringing the two sides closer. But over the years the distancing, the eroding sense of identification, the indifference and the weakening ties have become a troubling reality.

For those who greatly value the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israeli Jewry, and for those who attach importance to reconciling the two conflicting Jewish worldviews, the way to connect the two groups, or to narrow the gap between them, may not be through discussion – ideological confrontation or dialogue – but rather through joint activity in a sphere that is noncontroversial and important to both sides. We present below one example of a joint enterprise with the potential to serve as a creative means of improving the fraught relations between Diaspora and Israeli Jews.

Climate change as an opportunity for collaboration between Israeli and Diaspora Jews

Climate change is a burning issue for young people across the Western world. The challenge does not differentiate between Israeli citizens and citizens of other places; all available creative forces must be mobilized if we are to avert large-scale global disaster. The Jewish people has proven its resourcefulness and ability to address formidable challenges. The challenge of climate change may constitute a unique opportunity for joint action that would not only benefit the entire world, but also help create a renewed sense of mission for the Jewish people. Jews from across the globe could be mobilized for a task that transcends narrow Jewish interests: that of building an ecologically and socially responsible world or, in traditional Jewish terms: tikkun olam.

Unlike the issue of human rights that galvanized young people a generation ago, the climate crisis sparks no inherent tension between Diaspora and Israeli Jews. It is a global phenomenon, everyone is “in the same boat,” facing the dangers of a warming atmosphere, rising sea levels, and other fateful consequences that are already beginning to make themselves felt.

The climate crisis has captured the attention of young people in the Western world. Even now, a quarter of young Americans are cutting down on their meat consumption, and the same is true of Israelis (especially in Tel Aviv, considered the “vegan capital of the world”). As the impact of climate change worsens, these kinds of trends will likely intensify over the coming years. One may assume that young Jews across the globe want to be actively involved in promoting a more responsible world.

Israel has a major competitive advantage in conceiving, designing, and advancing eco-friendly technologies, as well as unique technological capabilities for mitigating the drastic effects of climate change on the third world. For example, Israel is a world leader in the use of cutting-edge methods to fight desertification – one of the greatest threats facing mankind. Growing worldwide mobilization to address the climate crisis and promote sustainability constitutes a golden opportunity for Israel to improve its diplomatic and economic status.

If we can draw upon the resources of Diaspora Jewry, both financial and human (e.g., recruiting volunteers for humanitarian projects, and professionals for tech and logistical initiatives), the climate crisis may, through joint effort on behalf of humanity, become an opportunity for the Jewish people to heal its internal rifts.

Repairing and improving the complicated relationship between Israel and the Diaspora requires a new approach, one that bypasses the sociological and structural barriers noted above. Collaboration to achieve unifying goals, such as addressing climate change, makes good sense. Other avenues of intervention may be considered as well, for simultaneous or separate implementation with different target populations. These new directions should, however, meet two criteria that are not tactical/utilitarian but rather ideological and spiritual in nature: the new mission proposed for the Jewish people will have to be consistent with moral messages embedded in Jewish tradition, and it will have to be accorded existential urgency as the order of the day for a large share of young people in the West. After all, the need for responsibility toward the environment is not foreign to Judaism. The issue is firmly anchored in its core tenets (e.g., protection of trees, criticism of consumer culture, limits on exploitation, sabbatical year, Jubilee).

If there is a consciousness gap between the two groups, the solution is unlikely to lie in dialogue or argument, but rather in joint activity capable of forging a new shared existence.