Many American Jews like to think of Israelis as their brothers and sisters. In reality, Israelis are more like distant foreign cousins, quite distinct not only in language but more importantly in culture and values. “Israel is not the state of all its citizens,” declared Benjamin Netanyahu before the recent elections. “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, and it alone.” The notion that a country can exclude a quarter of its citizens from its own definition is eccentric by any measurement, but most certainly is diametrically opposed to those truths that most Americans hold to be self-evident.
The key problem, only obliquely addressed in this book by Atalia Omer, professor of religion, conflict and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, is that Israel is a democracy and, with an election turnout of nearly 69 per cent, Netanyahu’s Likud won more Knesset seats than any other party in the recent April election. Despite the fact that the Israeli attorney general has recommended that Netanyahu be indicted in three separate corruption cases on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, many voters went to the polls and endorsed not only their serving prime minister but his entire worldview based on promoting fear and supporting occupation and even annexation of the conquered territory they call Judea and Samaria.
Omer is one of very many American Jews who have felt their love fade away to outright opposition as they confront the stark reality of contemporary Israel. For her, this situation is even more complex, since she grew up in Jerusalem but has lived in the US for the past two decades. Although she is disgusted by the never-ending occupation of the West Bank and the turn to the right in Israeli politics, being Jewish is central to her life. She thus counts herself fortunate to have found a progressive, non-Zionist prayer group, and indeed too much of the book reads like an infomercial for her band of like-minded seekers of Jewish spirituality. Omer, and others like her, may find solace in a DIY spiritual Judaism that accentuates the positive. Other American Jews who are not so inclined may find that, without religious observance or Zionism, there is not much left to pass on to their children.
Omer goes into great detail about various American Jewish left-wing groups, their activities and their marginalisation by larger, more mainstream Jewish organisations that regard any criticism of Israel as a fundamental moral outrage bordering on antisemitism. While remaining a profoundly personal document, the book is also an academic sociology text, and is repetitious, baggy, littered with jargon, infelicitous writing, endless “unpackings” and “interrogations”, and nods to all the usual suspects – Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Emmanuel Levinas, Edward Said, Judith Butler – as well as endorsements of favourite people in her personal circle. Ultimately, it is a very sad book, because no matter how moving one finds that Yom Kippur sermon at the non-Zionist shul, no matter how inspired one feels about the kids who disrupt the narrative promoted on Birthright tours for American Jewish teenagers, you can’t change Israel from a perch in South Bend, Indiana.
David S. Katz holds the Abraham Horodisch chair for the history of books at Tel Aviv University in Israel. He is writing a book on William James as historian of religion.
Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians
By Atalia Omer
University of Chicago Press, 368pp, £82.54 and £27.00
ISBN 9780226615912 and 6070
Published 21 May 2019
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