Judaism Unbound Episode 123: The Religion of Israel

Looking back at the first part of our series on American Jews and Israel, Dan and Lex discuss various topics, including the past, present, and potential meanings of Zionism and the "red lines" that some Jewish institutions have established, which put certain ideas (such as advocacy for boycotts of Israel) and people outside of their "big tents." Dan and Lex explore whether many American Jews relate to Israel in a fashion that is very analogous to "religious." [1]


(0:01 - 16:53): To begin the episode, Dan and Lex argue that the relationship that many Jews have with Israel may best be characterized as "religious" and not merely "political." [2] They compare conversations across difference, in Jewish communal spaces, to "interfaith" dialogue. In other words, despite the fact that all participants in many Israel discussions are Jewish, their emotional connections to Israel resemble deeply held religious sentiments. Continuing, the two co-hosts explore the concept of Jewish communal "red lines" as they relate to Zionism. Brought up by many guests in previous weeks, Dan and Lex share their critiques of policies that restrict certain political viewpoints from being expressed in many Jewish institutions.

(16:54 - 34:12): Dan and Lex reflect on an ongoing theme of their recent episodes: the wide-ranging connotations and rapidly-changing definitions of the word "Zionism" over the course of the 20th century. Lex also looks back on Yehuda Kurtzer's "B'nei B'rak Test," [3] which challenges Jews to consider whether they genuinely feel like they are part of a shared project with whose ideologies diametrically oppose theirs in most measurable ways. He then applies it to questions of Zionism and Anti-Zionism. The two co-hosts also question the "all-or-nothing" framing of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, counter-intuitively embraced by many of its staunchest supporters and its loudest opponents. They call for a deeper exploration of the various "Bs, Ds, and Ss," which often differ substantially from one another in form and function, instead of approaching them all as if they are a unified "package deal." [4]

(34:13 - 49:43): Michael Steinhardt, a prominent philanthropist and co-founder of Birthright Israel, makes his way into the conversation. In particular, Dan cites the headlines Steinhardt made recently when publicly giving pro-Palestine activists the middle-finger and asks what the gesture illustrates about the divides in American-Jewish life on this issue. [5] To close the episode, Dan and Lex ask whether the relationship between Israeli and American Judaisms, in 2018, is most comparable to a relationship between two siblings or, alternatively, if it most closely resembles the kind of distant relationship that characterizes 3rd or 4th cousins. [6]

[1] This episode is the 7th in an ongoing series on the relationship between American Judaism and Israel. For earlier episodes, click the following links: Episode 117: Israel and American Jews Today - Peter BeinartEpisode 118: Trouble in the Tribe - Dov WaxmanEpisode 119: The Histories of Zionisms - Noam PiankoEpisode 120: A Less Toxic Conversation - Melissa WeintraubEpisode 121: Homecoming and Arrival - Yehuda KurtzerEpisode 122: Let's Talk About Israel - Sharon Kleinbaum

[2] Dan contrasts the lack of controversy around circumcision to the heated debates that accompany the issue of Israel. In doing so, he cites a film which proved contentious -- but for reasons that surprised him. For more information on the film he cites (directed by Eli Ungar-Sargon and entitled Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision), click here.

[3] Explore Kurtzer's idea of the B'nei B'rak Test in greater detail by listening to his first appearance on Judaism Unbound, entitled Episode 41: History and Memory - Yehuda Kurtzer.

[4] Learn more about the BDS movement through this article from MyJewishLearning.com, which describes BDS from the perspective of both its advocates and its opponents. 

[5] For an article on Michael Steinhardt's gesture, click here.

[6] Familiarize yourself with polling around the distancing of Israeli and American Jews (and analysis of those numbers) through this article, entitled "Israelis Balk at Input from U.S. Jews: Survey."