News  Unpacking the Jewish cultural identity crisis

Some young diaspora Jews have strong cultural and spiritual ties to Israel, making carte blanche criticism challenging

In light of the recent escalation of violence in Gaza, many members of the Jewish community feel torn between their political views and their cultural identity.

Rabbi Leibish Hundert of the Ghetto Shul explained that certain young diaspora Jews feel disconnected from Israel because of the current political and military situation in the Middle East.

“There is a moral and ethical dilemma that is facing Israel. This has caused some alienation and some mixed feelings,” Hundert said, adding that few demonstrators at pro-Israel rallies are 100 per cent supportive of Israel’s actions.

“There would be a small percentage of people at a pro-Israel rally who would say they are happy with every single thing. People feel a deep unsettledness about the millions of Palestinians who are living a very difficult life.”

Dr. Eric Caplan, Chair of the Jewish Studies Department at McGill, explained that Israel is significant to Judaism for many reasons, one being a cultural connection.

“Jewish civilization formed in Israel…. It goes back…to the time of Abraham in 14th or 15th century B.C.E,” said Caplan. “In the two millennia where Jews were in exile, the security of the Jews was often called into question. Jewish life has often been precarious, predating the Holocaust.”

Caplan added that in the 60 years since its formation, Israel has accepted a large Jewish population fleeing from persecution.

Yael Smiley, Israel Affairs Chair for Hillel McGill, also explained the importance of the country.

“It is the one state that will always grant asylum to any Jew at any time,” said Smiley.

The spiritual connection to Israel that many Jews feel is very important, said Hundert.

“[Israel is] the manifestation of the collective soul of the Jewish people,” he said. “It is a tribal connection [sharing] the same symbols, families, [and] experiences.”

Caplan echoed the importance of Israel to Jews.

“A personal connection to Israel is very enriching for Jewish identity,” said Caplan, “and those who do not have it are missing an opportunity.”

Smiley pointed out that Israel’s controversial military actions can complicate diaspora connections to the country.

“I don’t think there is an inherent connection between a cultural bond and support of the military,” said Smiley. “There is room for criticism, but more important than criticism is education.”

With the recent mass of hate crimes against Jews around the world, it can be challenging for Jewish people to criticize a country that means so much to their identity.

“The thing is that the language of the opposition is so often so total, so completely rejecting, that it creates a survival instinct in people,” Hundert continued.

Caplan drew a distinction between criticizing Israel and attending a pro-Palestine rally, where some participants may question Israel’s right to exist.

“I do not think that [pro-Palestine rallies are] a great venue for someone who believes there should be a state but is merely unhappy with some of its actions.”

Caplan also said that non-Jewish critiques of Israel are not necessarily anti-Semitic.

“It is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel’s military action as long as the criticism that you give is one that you would apply equally toward all conflicts,” said Caplan.

“People are angry at the U.S. for the Iraq war; people are angry at the Sudanese government for the genocide in Darfur, but no one questions the right for these countries to exist. Israel is unique in having its existence questioned when some people have trouble with what it does.”

Independent Jewish Voices, Young Jews for Social Justice, and Chabad McGill were unavailable for comment.