I was reading The Forward today and I stumbled upon this, a comic created by Eli Valley. It’s about a sociologist who is asked by a customer to investigate why a Jewish girl, Melissa, has lost her Jewish identity. He goes out to investigate and discovers that like Melissa, Jews across the New York have lost their identities. Why? Melissa has lost hers because Arabs are evicted from their Jerusalem homes because of property laws, one of her friends because Israel arrested women for wearing prayer shawls, and another friend because he learned that half of Israeli teens opposed equal rights for Arab citizens: they have been turned away from Judaism because they disagree with events in Israel.
The detective concludes that if Jewish identity is to be restored, Israel must be “removed from the equation.” However, the woman who had asked him to do the inquiries tries to pay him off to conclude that “ties to Israel must be strengthened to save Jewish identity.” He turns her down, declaring that he is “a sociologist for hire,” implying that he is above accepting the bribe.
Even though I think that it kind of presents only one side of Israeli politics, I find the comic very interesting. Although I personally do not support every single decision that Israel makes, I still find that much of my Jewish identity is tied to Israel and to the fact that Israel is a homeland for all Jews. Even when I disagree with decisions in Israel, I feel that criticizing and engaging in discussions about Israel only serves to strengthen my ties to Israel.
However, I also agree with some of what the “sociologist” said—I think that if the Jewish community in America is serious about trying to engage more Jews and strengthen Jewish identity, American Jews need to be engaged on issues outside of Israel. A 2006 survey by the American Jewish Committee found that 79 percent of Orthodox adult Jews under the age of forty feel “very close to Israel,” while only 16 percent of non-Orthodox Jews under the age of forty felt that way. There is clearly a divide between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox, showing that secular Jews seem to need more to tie them to Judaism than Israel.
So what happens to Judaism now? In school, I have actually had many discussions about this in a class I take about Jews in the news—how possible is it to be a Jew without a connection to Israel? While I personally do not plan to live that way, it seems that many Jews in America do, and consequently is a reality that needs to be dealt with. I believe that Jews should be able to be Jewish without needing to be tied to Israel; Israel does need the support of the international Jewish community and cannot be abandoned, but a connection to Judaism should not only be based on a connection to Israel. While learning about Israel is one important way to establish a Jewish identity, why can’t there be other ways? What ever happened to cultural Judaism based on Jewish literature, plays, and heritage? What happened to having a unique Jewish culture?
The Holocaust happened, and the creation of Israel happened, and the culture that once was has somewhat died. But perhaps it is time for a new Jewish culture, formed by the modern Jewish thinkers and scholars that exist across the globe. Instead of saying that “ties to Israel must be strengthened to save Jewish identity,” maybe what will save Jewish identity is a reshaping of Jewish identity: a Jewish identity based around involvement in aspects of modern life—something like Jewish feminism, for example. American Jewry should not give up on trying to educate American Jews about Israel and connect them to it, but American Jewry should also not forget that Judaism can be about more than just Israel. Restoring Jewish identity may very well rest on the creation of a new type of Jewish identity that will fit with the growing secular Jewish community in America that is in need of something new to push them towards Judaism.
Correction: this is slightly embarrassing, but in the end of the comic the sociologist actually does take the money. Hence the name, “sociologist for hire.” This does not really affect the rest of the post, but I wanted to clear this up.