All in the family: Sara Labaton talks at the Trager Family JCC about the sometimes tenuous relationship between North American Jews and Israel

By Andrew Adler
Community Editor

Scholar Sara Labaton spoke March 9, 2023 at the Trager Family JCC’s Shapira Foundation Auditorium, closing out this season’s Three Pillars Series

It wasn’t terribly long ago that most American Jews had an unshakable bond with Israel.

“This relationship was basically a given going back to the early years of the state, and certainly in the aftermath of the Six Day War,” says Sara Labaton, Director of Teaching and Learning at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

Labaton, who spoke March 9 at the Trager Family JCC, recalled how “I was just reading about somebody near me who took out a second mortgage on his house and gave the $20,000 to Israel in the middle of” the 1967 conflict.

Today, 56 years later, that commitment is something less than ironclad. Now governed by the most right-wing coalition in its history, Israel is testing norms by which Americans support the nation, and how that support continues to evolve.

“It’s becoming increasingly challenging for the Jewish people to live in two homes together,” Labaton told her audience, closing out this season’s Three Pillars Series in the Shapira Foundation Auditorium.

“If we think of the United States and the State of Israel as constituting two stable, powerful, successful homes where Jews experience a deep and profound sense of at-homeness,” Labaton said, “what we’re also seeing is that North American Jews and Israeli Jews are growing more and more distant from each other.”

All this, Labaton said, raises a fundamental question: “How do we make sense of this relationship when you have Jews in two different countries, speaking two different languages, practicing two different cultures, and even more than that, no longer agreeing on what Judaism even means for American Jews?”

There are crucial distinctions, Labaton emphasized, between relevant American and Israeli sensibilities.

“Judaism for many Israelis means something entirely different, something that’s more nationalist, something that’s more right wing, and even ultra-Orthodox.” So “it sometimes feels that we’re practicing two different sets of religions. And yes, I am concerned that that sense of collectivity has dissipated.

“Now, if you poll North American Jews, you will hear many reasons for this. You might hear, ‘the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.’ You might hear about the occupation. You might hear about the lack of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. You may hear: ‘Well, American Jews, if you’re so deeply invested in this project, come and live here. Sacrifice in the way we sacrifice – put your money where your mouth is.’ Or you may hear Israeli Jews saying, ‘American Jews – they’re assimilating – there’s no longer a future vibrant Jewish life in North America.’

“So what I want to argue is that, in order to sustain this relationship, we need to reimagine it, and we need to reconceive how we think, how we talk about, and how we practice Jewish peoplehood. Is there a model we (can) turn to for thinking about Jewish collective identity?”

Much of the evening was structured as a give-and-take between Labaton and members of her audience. It was an eclectic assembly: older and younger, American-born and Israeli-born, passionate Zionists and reticent Revisionists.

The pervading metaphor suggested a husband, wife and a couple of kids just trying to get along.

“I’m a family therapist,” one listener told her, prompting Labaton to reply, “I actually think that American and Israeli Jews could use a good dose of family therapy.”

Not a biological family, she explained, but “a mythic family or an imagined family. There are options for entering in. But there are really no options for exiting a family, with some exceptions — if there’s abuse or neglect, yes, but for the most part we are kind of stuck with our family, right? We all have to sit around the same Thanksgiving table.”

Points of view can be radically different, Labaton observed, depending on precisely where you sit. She gave the example of the 2015 agreement in which Iran would curtail its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against the country. President Trump unilaterally withdrew from that treaty in 2018.

“From the Israeli point of view, it was unfathomable that American Jews were supporting President Obama and supporting the Iran deal,” Labaton said. “Bibi (Netanyahu) argued, ‘You’re our family; you know this is not going to be great for Israel. What are you doing?’

“And what was the response of American Jews?” Labaton recalled. “I think American Jews said, ‘Look maybe we were siblings at one point, but we both grew up. Maybe we married other people. Our immediate family now is America, which means we support American interests…So we’re concerned about you; we’re committed to you. But that is not going to transcend our sense of obligation to America.”

Some give-and-take with the audience followed. David Chack, a longtime Louisville theater producer, director and writer, spoke about what he termed “a conflict of stories” told in Israel and America. What happens, he asked, when a given narrative dies?

Labaton seized the moment. “I wasn’t going to talk about this,” she said, “but my research is around sacrifice. And what I learned was, for Israeli Jews, the Binding of Isaac is their core national myth. And for liberal American Jews, it is not.

“I would argue,” she continued, “that a more central story is Abraham fighting with God (not to destroy) Sodom and Gomorrah – for the ideals of justice and righteousness. Those are more tailored to the American Jewish identity. Now the question is, where does family come in? We have these two different narratives, these two different identities. Can family still serve as some type of glue to keep us together? That’s a question we’re going to hold on to.”

More audience exchanges followed, such as: Will conversions to Judaism made by non-Orthodox rabbis in America be recognized by Israel, and, will intermarriage dilute Jewish populations until few Jews remain? Then Labaton suggested an intriguing dichotomy: Despite the resonance of traditional religious practice in Israel, “American Jews might actually choose to opt out,” deciding “that Israel is actually not a place where they can feel comfortably and robustly Jewish, because it’s not a place where liberal Judaism thrives.”

A few minutes later, an older man stood up and made one of the evening’s most telling remarks. “When a Jew misbehaves in a big way, the hair goes up on my neck,” he said. In contrast, “I expect certain kinds of behavior – not screwing over other people, especially in big ways.”

Labaton broadened his point into something quasi-universal. “When a Jew sins, it hurts everybody,” she said. “I’m half-Sephardic, so my Yiddish isn’t great. What I think the word is is ‘Shanda,’ right? It’s a Shanda” – a scandal, an act of shame.

It means, collectively, that “there’s something humiliating. It’s not you; it’s not your kids. You may not have any communal, familial, any connection to them – but it hurts. And I think that’s what’s going on here. There’s something almost bodily about our connections, and if one person hurts, we all hurt; if somebody does something wrong, we feel it as well.”

Labaton closed her hour-long talk with a story about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the second-century sage who, the Talmud relates, spent 12 years hiding in a cave with his son to elude Roman authorities, studying Torah every day and night.

Rabbi Yochai, the story goes, compared the idea of communal hurt to a man sitting on a ship next to his companions. The man takes a tool and begins to bore a hole in the vessel directly below him.

As Labaton related, “his fellow travelers said to him, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said to each of them, ‘What does it matter? I’m only boring under my own place,’” prompting the objection that “the water will come and flood the ship for us all.’

In other words, “we’re all on this ship together,” Labaton said. “And either we have to leave the ship, or we have to prevent this borer from boring a hole which will sink us.

“What I think is so powerful about this metaphor is that it creates a much more robust sense of partnership. The problem is, somebody else might say: ‘No, no you, Sara, you’re the one who’s boring the hole. You’re the problem.’

“We’re going to have to work that out,” she acknowledged. Yet though the hole in the ship threatens everyone, there is also an assertion of collectivity.

“I think what this midrash does is to encourage us to actually forge a true partnership,” Labaton told her listeners, “where we have to speak up, where we have to be social critics. We’re not meant to be outsiders looking in, philosophically and criticizing – we’re meant to be in it.

“That’s what I hope for the future of North American and Israeli Jews and with Israel,” Labaton said. “I hope we can achieve that type of partnership where, on one hand, we have some sense of familial (connection), where we also agree to be in the same ship together and call each other out. It’s hard. It’s challenging. It’s not fun. But I think that’s what the dream of Zionism and Israel is actually all about.”





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