A New Paradigm

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 23 – “The Israeli Diaspora – a Peoplehood Perspective” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Nachman Shai

We must not allow the anti-Semitic murder in Pittsburgh to cast a dark shadow over the relations between Israel and the Jewish community in the United States, including the hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in America. Jews in the U.S. do not face life-threatening danger. The calls in Israel following this act of terror – for U.S. Jewry to find a safe haven in Israel – were unwarranted and reflect a basic misunderstanding of the situation. Jews living in the U.S. are not planning to emigrate. And if they do, the motivation is certainly not a fear for their lives and the lives of their families.

This is only an example of the fundamental misconception prevalent in Israel vis-a-vis U.S. Jewry, including its Israeli component.

The Israeli community in the U.S. has a special status. It is situated between the large community of American Jews whose families came to the U.S. generations ago, and the relatively young State of Israel. The Israeli community in the U.S. includes mostly young immigrants whose ties to the State of Israel are significantly different from those of Jews who were born in America. For the Israeli-American, Israel is first of all a place of birth and, of course, a place of family ties and deep emotional connections. This adds another dimension to the already complicated relationship between the Jewish communities in the U.S. and Israel.

This reality is dynamic, changing constantly. The historical, one-dimensional attitude toward Israelis who chose to leave the country and settle in America has become complex and varied. The former attitude, which we all remember well, is no longer relevant. The world has changed, primarily due to the impact of technology, and the circumstances have changed, engendering a change in attitudes too.

I see the Israeli community in the U.S. as an integral part of the Jewish world and expect to develop a reciprocal relationship with it, just like any other Jewish community in the Diaspora. Any other policy – of turning a blind eye or holding a grudge – is inappropriate and will lead us nowhere. Of course, I would be happy to see many Israel émigrés returning and resettling in Israel. However, in our open and mobile world, this expectation is not realistic.

So, how do we maintain our relationship with this large group? (I don’t know its exact number, but cautiously say it is growing.) The key, of course, is to recognize the presence of Israelis in America and to respect their decision to live there for however long they choose. This is already happening.

The next question is how to avoid losing them as Israelis and as Jews. The third question is how to forge relations of mutual assistance with them. Today, the greatest danger facing the Jewish people is not anti-Semitism or despicable murderers like Robert Bowers. The real danger is the loss of substantial parts of the Jewish people due to the ongoing erosion of Jewish identity and assimilation into the general society. The U.S., like other liberal democracies, offers Jews (including Israelis living in America) a life of equality and security. This means that the Jewish community is no longer self-enclosed and limited; it enjoys the unrestricted freedom that democratic life offers. The dilemma is how to enjoy the countless possibilities in such societies while remaining Jewish and maintaining a connection to the State of Israel.

There is no greater challenge to the Jewish people in our generation. A great change is occurring in the relations between the Jewish Diaspora and Israel. The fact is that the largest Jewish community in the world resides in Israel. It is a Jewish state, the state of the Jewish people and home to about 6.5 million Jews. Throughout the world, including the U.S., the Jewish people is shrinking. Intermarriage is gradually reducing the number of Jews. This can already be seen today and will certainly have an impact on the next generation. Therefore, the responsibility for the future of the Jewish people falls upon the State of Israel.

Most Israelis, including my colleagues in the political arena, do not sense or understand this. We are now addressing a different problem – of how Israel has failed to instill a sense of connection with the Diaspora in the young generation. We’ve been so concerned about nurturing the Diaspora’s connection toward us that we’ve forgotten the reciprocal part of the relationship – that is, we’ve failed to nurture our connection toward them.

The time has come for a new paradigm of relations in which Israel takes the leading role. Yes, Israelis will continue to fundraise and solicit political support in America and in other parts of the world, and to disseminate Israeli culture. That’s fine, but it’s not enough. I also envision a formal and informal array of efforts in the State of Israel dedicated to fostering Israel’s responsibility toward its “brothers and sisters” overseas. This should include programs of study in the schools, and organizations that focus on the connections between Israel and Jewish communities in the Diaspora. What seemed superfluous in the past has become a core issue of supreme importance, in my view.

Israel is burdened with many problems – or “challenges” in American parlance. You know them well. I would like to add the Israeli community in the U.S. to this long list and assign high priority to it. This challenge lies before us, and we must pick up the gauntlet.

Dr. Nachman Shai is a Knesset member of the Zionist Union and chairs the Lobby for strengthening the Jewish World