August 20, 2019

Israel fest or Jewish fest?

One of the more vexing issues in the Jewish world today is the uncomfortable relationship between Israel and Judaism. It’s fair to ask: Is the notion of Israeliness becoming so strong that it is overshadowing the notion of Jewishness? And what can we do to better harmonize these two pillars of Jewish identity?

These questions were on my mind last Sunday when I went to the annual Israel festival in Woodley Park. I was fully expecting to inhale—along with the 100-degree heat—some Israeliness. And there was plenty of it, from the impressive Israel consulate booth to the falafel and shwarma stands to the live shows and Israeli music playing everywhere. It seemed like every second booth or T-shirt featured an Israeli flag, and as you walked through “streets” named Dizengoff or King David, you were likely to be accosted by Israeli girls handing out leaflets announcing new ventures, like a Web site called HebrewNews.

But before I got to this thick, juicy serving of Israel, I got interrupted by a few Jews—and their religion.

It happened while I was making the long trek from the parking lot to the festival entrance, a walk that connected me painfully to the 40-year wandering of my ancestors in the Sinai Desert. I was eager to reach the Holy Land, but I got ambushed by these friendly Jews who were selling me their version of Judaism. I find it hard to resist anything Jewish, so I patiently took their leaflets.

One of them read: “Jewish Joke of the Day No. 36.” It had cute cartoons and a friendly, handwritten script. These friendly people with their funny leaflets were trying to soften me up and draw me into the religion.

The problem was that it wasn’t my religion. These folks were missionaries for Jesus.

And boy, were they shrewd. They used a joke that exploited Jewish stereotypes to set up the contention that Judaism burdens us with things like materialism, while their “heavenly father” can miraculously cure us from these burdens, since he understands “not just our physical needs, but more importantly, our spiritual needs.”

Why do I bring this up? Because this unsavory moment with missionaries lit up my Jewishness. As I wandered through the Israel Festival, surrounded by Israeliness, I became attentive to this very Jewishness. By challenging my Jewish faith in a place where I came to celebrate Israel, the missionaries forced me to reflect on the interplay between the two.

Most of us assume that Israel and Judaism go hand in hand. How could you have one without the other? Israel is—or ought to be—the ultimate embodiment of everything Jewish. Like historian Michael Oren wrote in last week’s issue of The Journal, “the assertion that one could be an Israeli Jew and yet deny one’s Jewishness was utterly unintelligible to my American Jewish mind.”

Yet today, as Oren explains, “reconciling Israel’s twin identities as a secular and a Jewish state” is a defining challenge for the future of Zionism.

At the Israel festival, this dual identity was there in living color. You saw Israeliness everywhere, with Jewishness sprinkled in. There were Israelis celebrating Israel, and Jewish activists promoting Judaism. A lot of falafel with a little tefillin.

In a sense, the festival was like a real-world re-enactment of this great emerging debate. How should Jewishness and Israeliness feed off each other? Who should get the starring role? Should Judaism be part of an Israel festival, or Israel be part of a Jewish festival?

In short, which one should come first?

Several years ago, when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister, I was invited to spend Shabbat with him and a group of dignitaries in Manhattan. In his speech in synagogue on Shabbat morning, he encapsulated this complicated debate in one pithy phrase: “I’m Jewish first and Israeli second.”

The phrase got picked up around the Jewish world and had quite an impact. But is it as simple as that? When Judaism itself means so many things to so many people, it’s clear that this is not a debate that will come down to just a clever slogan.

It’s a debate the Jewish world needs to have. And while we engage in this debate, here’s a thought for next year’s festival.

The thought came to me on Sunday as I was leaving the festival and came across the large booth of The Jewish Federation. This is the organization whose mission is to represent Jewish life and the local Jewish community. I don’t know if I was hallucinating from the heat, but right about then, I had this vision of The Jewish Federation organizing a communitywide effort next year, and calling it “The Jewish Festival.”

That’s right, the Jewish Festival.

The festival would embrace all the colors of Jewish life in Los Angeles, even the spiritual colors. There would be booths for all denominations, from the left to the right, with groups representing the old and new generations. All Jewish causes would be welcome, including, of course, the big one of Israel. Ultimately, this little “Jewish Village” would celebrate what is perhaps the most diverse and fascinating Jewish community on the planet—ours.

The Federation last held one five years ago, but would it be willing to do something so Jewish again? Who knows.

What I do know is that at such a Jewish-based festival, those friendly folks with the funny leaflets would have a much harder time seducing Jews away from their Judaism.

And that would be good for the Jews—and for Israel.

What’s your take on this debate? If you had to have one festival, which would it be: The Israel festival with Jewish stuff in it, or the Jewish festival with Israel stuff in it?

Tell me what you think—and I’ll reprint some of your answers in a future column. And be nice.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at