There’s a new conversation happening on the cutting edges of the Jewish community. Should we stop talking about “being Jewish,” and instead focus on “doing Jewish?”
A generation ago, Jewish identity aka “being Jewish” was the core focus. It was a feeling, a sense of self, a group identification that, it was assumed, would inevitably lead to joining a Jewish community, supporting the Jewish state of Israel, remembering the Holocaust and raising Jewish children. Assimilation and intermarriage were the greatest dangers because they would undermine “being Jewish” now and in the future, and thus they were resisted with great effort and expense. And we heard endless discussions of “who is a Jew,” “are you a Jewish American or an American Jew,” and other varieties of identity policing.
These conversations have become tired and irrelevant for many reasons. When over half of marriages involving Jews are to people of other religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and an increasing population of children of intermarriage who may choose to be “both” rather than “either/or,” a Jewish community primarily focused on “being Jewish” can be alienating. Identity labels themselves have become less attractive, be they political parties, religious denominations, or other tribalist markers. Anyone can DO yoga whether or not they believe or identify with the traditional theology behind it.
So what is meant by “doing Jewish”? It could be reading Jewish literature, from Torah to today, for insight and discussion. It could be preparing Jewish food for a holiday or special occasion. Singing Jewish music, studying Jewish history, traveling to Jewish sites – all the activities that Humanistic Judaism has emphasized count in addition to more conventional examples like attending Jewish services and studying Jewish texts. Anyone, no matter their personal heritage or self-identification, can “do Jewish” in these ways; what’s changed is extending that openness to Jewish services and celebrations, and also how we do them.
I still see a place for “being Jewish” as having a positive place in Jewish community life. For some, identifying with their people and heritage is meaningful. For those who have become Jewish, the “being Jewish” is clearly important to them. Yet I also see the shift from “being” to “doing” as very consistent with our Humanistic approach to life in general – what you think and feel are important, but what you DO is just as important to express your values and reinforce your beliefs.
Pedigree is less important than performance, and hope without action does little. It’s why we sing, “Na’ase shalom – let us make peace.”
As the 19 th century Humanist Robert Ingersoll put it, “Labor is the only prayer that nature answers; it is the only prayer that deserves an answer – good, honest, noble work.”
So let’s get doing!
Jerusalem on My Mind
With Israel’s 70th anniversary this month, my thoughts turn to its capital, Jerusalem,having visited multiple times and with dear friends and colleagues living there today. The functional capital of Israel is in Jerusalem. Its legislature, its Supreme Court, its national cemetery are all there. However, that functional capital is in West Jerusalem, and an explicit declaration to move the U.S. Embassy to WEST Jerusalem might well have been a positive step, or at least less negatively received, since it would have implicitly accepted two Jerusalems.
My concern about plans to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is how the move will be received. In announcing the move, President Trump did say, “We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders.” So, in theory, a future agreement could allow a Palestinian presence in some part of today’s Jerusalem. But how likely is that to happen? And, more important, is that how the conflicted parties are going to hear this move?
In my experience, East Jerusalem (the Arab Palestinian neighborhoods on the east side of the Old City) is very different from West Jerusalem. It’s clear the moment you exit the Lions’ Gate — in the architecture, the population, the feel of the street, the language on signs on shops and restaurants. I believe that any two-state solution acceptable to Palestinians would need to include some urban area they can call Jerusalem/Al Quds as their capital.
That does NOT mean a return to the 1967 borders in Jerusalem. Israel will NEVER give up the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, or the historic Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, or some of the Jewish neighborhoods developed over the Green Line (many of them are not even new anymore). I was struck, however, that many Israeli maps aimed at Western tourists do not even list street names in Arab East Jerusalem, as if there is nothing there to see!
Perhaps the Old City could be like the international terminal at an airport: passport control to go in, and passport control to go out. Whoever winds up with legal or practical authority over different parts of the Old City, there would be Israeli customs officers on their side, and Palestinian customs control on theirs — status quo at the religious sites, and details to be worked out regarding taxes, utilities, and everything else. But it feels like the time for clever solutions is quickly passing.
After Trump’s speech, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “President Trump has delivered a message to the Palestinian people: the two -state solution is over. Now is the time to transform the struggle for one-state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.” In other words, he claims the consequence of one united Jerusalem could well be one political entity in both Israel proper and the West Bank (and probably Gaza) — two ethnic nations, one political state.
Is a one-state solution possible? It can be challenging even without a violent history, as French-Canadians in Québec or the Walloons and Flemish in Belgium could explain. Would Israel give Palestinians in one state full citizenship, the vote, rights to their language and culture under Israeli political authority? If not, then Israel’s status as “democracy” would become very problematic.
It does not matter how right you are on facts or on ultimate conclusions if what you do creates the problems you are trying to avoid. The art of being diplomatic, on the world stage or between individuals, is knowing when to say what. Would the U.S. eventually have its embassy in Jerusalem post-agreement? Absolutely. Does the U.S. need an embassy in Jerusalem now? I doubt it. Will moving it now make peace that much harder to achieve? Unfortunately, that I do believe.