Zilberstein: Untangling Jewish identity, Jewish nationalism

Shira Zilberstein, Guest Columnist

The decline of conventional religious observance is a well-documented trend in contemporary society. However, this trend, especially for contemporary Jews, does not diminish the salience of religious identity. I think this vacuum creates a novel opportunity for Jews to reflect on religious practices, affiliations and ideas, and through that evaluation forge a holistically meaningful relationship to Judaism — whether that means fostering cultural, social, historical, ideological or spiritual connections. Unfortunately, I fear that a lack of deep reflection on the part of many young Jews is leading to a default Jewish identity dependent on the convolution of nationalism with culture and religion.

Israel serves as one of the most divisive and hostile topics on this campus. But this article is not meant to feed into the political debate about the practices of the Israeli government or other international bodies. That debate already receives plenty of limelight and regular opinion pieces. Rather, I want students, especially Jews, on this campus to scrutinize why they participate in Israel-oriented activities. Engaging with Israel, important in its own right, does not replace or equate with forging a robust Jewish identity and community.

American Jews, regardless of their upbringing, affiliations or country of origin, have every right to feel a connection to Israel as a Jewish state. Capitalizing on pro-Israel opportunities, such as Birthright Israel, a 10-day trip to Israel for young Jewish adults, is important for building community. But students also need to scrutinize Jewish pro-Israel propaganda and explore Judaism in its totality in order to avoid basing their Jewish identities solely upon a shared word between a person and a nation. Just because a person is “Jewish” and a country is “Jewish” does not mean the two represent each other. Such convoluting not only mistakes nationalism for culture and religion, but also oversimplifies the values, practices and beliefs of both the country and the religion. “Hummus” is not Jewish simply because it is commonly consumed in Israel. Likewise, “challah” is not Israeli merely because it is a staple of Jewish tradition. Such distortions also fail to recognize non-Jewish Israeli citizens such as the Druze and the Bedouin. Personally, as both an Israeli and a Jew, I separately find virtue in each identity, because for me, Israel and Judaism, although complexly intertwined, also exist independently.   

I find events such as Northwestern’s “Israel Week” problematic as they overemphasize the centrality of nationalism in contemporary Judaism. The goal of Israel Week includes presenting a variety of diverse perspectives on Israel, Michael Simon, the executive director of NU Hillel, told The Daily last week. However, as the main Jewish organization on campus, Hillel’s hosting of a week-long celebration perpetuates the confusion not only between Judaism and Israel, but also between Zionism and anti-Semitism. Much debate on this campus occurs over the nature of Zionism and the decoupling or overlap between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. On the outside, actions such as Israel Week, despite how much the events may interrogate these links, feed blind and broad associations between Israel and Judaism, which negatively politicize a cultural and religious identity. This robs students of the opportunity to engage with Judaism independent of their opinions of Israel, as well as problematizes critically engaging with Israel without fearing the label of “anti-Semite.”

Israel represents an important issue in the contemporary world and I think it is valuable for students, both Jewish and not Jewish, to educate themselves on the topic. However, I fear that generally, and especially on this campus, Jewish students flock to Israel-oriented events and ideas as a stand-in for a multi-faceted and rich cultural and religious identity that offers much more than merely a national affiliation.

Shira Zilberstein is a Weinberg Sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.