Crisis of contemporary Judaism

Image: Roman Odintsov


The current crisis of Zionism may be spilling over into a crisis of contemporary Judaism

Is Zionism worth more than Judaism?

The Abrahamic religions today cover 4 billion people, among the 8 billion inhabitants of the planet; and comprise 20 million Jews, 2 billion Christians and 2 billion Muslims. Among the 20 million Jews, approximately seven million live in the United States, seven million in Israel and six million in other countries, mainly in Europe. And the Jews still differ by origin (Ashkenazim/Eastern European Germans, who represent 80% of the total, Sephardim/ spanish and mizrahim/eastern), religious current (orthodox, conservative, reformist, secular), political background, etc.

Between 1881 (beginning of pogroms in the Tsarist Empire) and 1914 (beginning of World War I), two million Jews from Eastern Europe immigrated to the United States. The vast majority of these immigrants identified with the socialist ideals that shook the Russian Empire. Jews were internationalists and antimilitarists; Zionism was then very unexpressive. Yiddish literature illustrates the markedly humanist and popular bias of these Jews. In A feast for the poor, Mordechaj Spektor narrated a strike of beggars who demanded a ruble a person to deign to attend the wedding of the youngest daughter of a rich man, in order to enable him to perform the meritorious act of offering a feast for the poor.

Modern Political Zionism and efforts to create a Jewish state in Palestinian territory gained prominence after the Holocaust of World War II, as an alternative to the settlement of surviving Jews, harassed from their homelands. For member countries of the United Nations it was more convenient to create a Jewish state in Palestine than to allow the surviving Jews to emigrate. The United States Congress only passed legislation allowing the immigration of Jewish survivors on May 27, 1948, two weeks after the creation of the state of Israel, which was supposed to absorb most of the refugees.

American Jews are traditionally democratic and stand for social justice. Recent surveys carried out in the United States reveal that Jewish and non-Jewish Americans are increasingly tending to characterize Israel as a racist state and to position themselves in favor of the Palestinian cause. Criticism of Israeli policy is particularly vocal among the young population, even among evangelicals, who are more aligned with the state of Israel than American Jews themselves.

However, many of the progressive Jewish institutions, although critical of the advance of the right in Israel, still do not openly position themselves against the xenophobic values ​​of the state of Israel and restrict themselves to writing timid letters that are based on theoretical statements that mask the violence undertaken against the Palestinians, in a manifestation of cognitive dissonance. A Conference of Presidents – COP, which brings together fifty major Jewish organizations in the United States, in the face of recent steps in the reform of the judiciary in Israel, limited itself to asking for “consensus” from the Israelis. But, apparently, the current crisis of zionism may be spilling over into a crisis of contemporary Judaism.

Openly anti-Zionist Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Voice for Peace – JVP and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network – IJAN are, of course, not part of the COP, which has refused to host even the peace organization J Street, even though it declares itself pro-Israel. . In early August 2023, the traditional Circle of Workers broke with the COP for reasons of principle, for disagreeing with its silencing in the face of the deterioration of democracy and social justice in the United States and Israel; and his definition of anti-Semitism, which includes “the attack on the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”. Workers' Circle, founded in the United States 123 years ago, promotes Jewish culture and the Yiddish language of Jews Ashkenazim for a just, better and more beautiful world for all humanity. For a good Zionist, the mere mention of the word Palestinian is already an anti-Semitic manifestation; and anti-Zionist Jews and Gentiles are considered anti-Semitic. For Zionist Jews, a non-Zionist Jew is worse than a Muslim Palestinian, because he is a traitor, while the Palestinian is advocating for his own cause.

Yiddish has always been a stateless language and its only weapon has always been the pen. Among the Jews, it is not the king who wears the crown, it is the book, the Torah, the Bible. In the formation of the state of Israel, in striving to overcome the passivity with which the Jews faced the pogroms and the Holocaust, the Israelis decided to bury the Yiddish culture and language. Hebrew, the sacred language, was declared the official language of Israel; Arabic was declared a recognized language; and the Yiddish was harassed. For Jews who do not support the policy of the State of Israel in relation to the Muslim Palestinian population, the appreciation of Yiddish, the millennial mother tongue of Eastern European Jews, has contributed to reiterate their identity as Jews. And, along with the language, the vast and rich literature, music and the entire humanist and pacifist culture developed by the Jewish people in the diaspora, a culture that the state of Israel was unable to destroy.

Today we are witnessing a movement towards the revaluation of Yiddish, which can be seen in the programming of institutions such as the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research, founded in Vilnius in 1925 and transferred to New York in 1940; O Yiddish Book Center, founded in 1980 in Massachusetts; and numerous theater performances and music festivals klezmer in several countries around the world. In addition, Yiddish courses are proliferating and academic interest in Yiddish language and literature is growing at several universities.

*Samuel Kilsztajn Samuel Kilsztajn is a full professor at PUC-SP. Author, among other books, of Shulem, Returnees and Yiddish (

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