Visiting America- New York– for a Passover trip, I am reminded of the sheer abundance, the overwhelming profusion of goods and services and lush forests, buildings and bars, people of every color, options of entertainment and amusement and food… in the city it’s even more so, if you have the money you can order literally ANYthing to your apartment at any time of day or night…
Given that so much of human struggles for the last several thousand years have dealt with simply having enough, materially, I don’t want to be too quick to dismiss this land of plenty as empty materialism. There IS something special about the American Dream, in spite of such excess, obesity, and greed as we see today. America and Israel are the only two nation-states on earth specifically founded on an ideal rather than mere accidents of history, ethnicity, or empire. Individual pursuits in almost any field are encouraged, if you have initiative and stubbornness there are genuine opportunities, there is money, even a black man can become president…
The devil’s side of the bargain is a certain disconnect, an alienation from specific identity, from place, from heritage, to join in the game that’s being enacted. As there are so little real consequences to financial irresponsibility– one can declare bankruptcy, start over, even many times– then there really is no reason not to pursue one’s dreams, to feel ‘freedom’ is something tangible, a sense of limitless possibility is still something that shines to the world. And the super rich can lose far more money than us little people and get bailed out by the government, thus reminding all of us that these green pieces of paper are really just part of the game, none of it is real, don’t you want to play?
Yet individual fulfillment is really the ceiling, because the values of the collective culture don’t have space, don’t even have language, for other kinds of purpose. I saw this among native Americans, this disinterest in the game… and then I drank the Zionist kool-aid and moved to Israel. Now I’m an outsider, seeing the American dream with the eyes of someone who has a way OUT.
And more clearly than ever before, I see the danger for Jews to be in America. I don’t think one can be both. Not on the level of loyalty: American Jews certainly have demonstrated that they can place America’s interests over those of Israel’s when they conflict (see Kissinger, Ross, etc.) and even American Israel advocacy organizations are conscious of the need to find common causes and arguments that Israeli and American interests coincide. Not on the level of anti-semitism: America may be the most open and welcome Jewish diaspora home ever, even including the original Babylon. But for a Jew to be alive to being a Jew, then he is merely an individual if he lives in America– sure, with all those possibilities of personal growth and fulfillment, but cut off from the true drama of Jews in the world today, which no matter how you cut it, is manifest and expressed in the holy land.
It’s a trite truism that one’s consciousness changes when one becomes or builds a family– not just in it for yourself anymore, the values change, the responsibilities change. Even or especially with dysfunctional families. Well it’s not so different with tangibly and physically joining the project of the Jewish people attempting to live in the Land of Israel. This is not about justifying the flawed secular modern Israeli nationalism; increasingly Jewish identity in the holy land is a hybrid of ancient and modern ideologies, of religious and tribal and ethnic resonances, which cannot be reduced to any one of those. Many Israelis, and Jews who live in Israel, wouldn’t even know how to start describing the sources or reasons for their sense of purpose in living there. It’s not necessarily coming from a rational or logical place.
Yet right from that alleged irrationality comes the only truly rational, sustainable basis for long-term human life anywhere on earth. Modernity, secularity, is inescapably cosmopolitan and rootless; only by believing one’s great-grandchildren will inhabit and inherit the same land, can one take the kind of responsibility for the earth that is needed. Consumerism will cannibalize all our land, all our resources, unless a corresponding counterweight is found in the committment of a tribe to a homeland. Jews, as the paradigmatic exiled people, as the tribe whose stories of enslavement and dispersion and persecution have been writ large for the world to see, can show the way for all the world’s alienated people to become re-grounded, in their own identities and heritages, and even to rebuild such basic human birthright where all history has been lost.