Confronting the Identity Challenge

The October meetings of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel opened this morning in Jerusalem, the first with Natan Sharansky serving as chair of the Executive. Here are his thoughts.

by Natan Sharansky

natan-sharanskySeveral years ago, when I served as minister of industry and trade, I often led delegations of businesspeople on trips abroad, seeking out opportunities for economic partnerships around the globe. We would typically land in a foreign country – say, Brazil – spend a day or two in business and political meetings, and then, afterward, I would make it a point to spend a final afternoon visiting the local Jewish communities. I would visit with schoolchildren and parents, or see the synagogues, or would meet the leaders of local Jewish life. I relished the opportunity to get a real feel for the texture of Jewish life in that locale.

The businessmen were usually more than delighted to accompany me wherever I went – from meetings with important trade ministers, all the way down to visiting even the most obscure factory or trade union. But I was struck that when it came to my visits to the Jewish communities, very few would exhibit a real interest to come with me. Most would use the extra day to do their shopping, sightseeing and restaurant hopping. I was puzzled by this.

These Israelis were people who proudly identified themselves as Jews. Why was it that they were so disinterested in Jewish life elsewhere in the world?

Eventually, I asked some of them about this. What became clear is that they, like many other Israelis, tended to view Diaspora Jewish life as something to be glimpsed at in the rear-view mirror. It was a vestige of an antiquated past – a past in which Jews were humiliated and oppressed, and a past that, through modern Israel, we Jews were finally beginning to outgrow. They didn’t need to bother visiting Jewish schools where kids struggled with Hebrew, for that was yesterday’s world.

The old Portuguese synagogue is quaint, but essentially uninteresting. Why do I need to spend my time visiting these living museums? The soccer games in the sands of Copa Cabana are so much more interesting.

The condescending attitude of my Israeli friends toward the Diaspora has been mirrored, I think, in a way the Diaspora itself has historically related to Israel. Jews from the Western Diaspora were used to seeing themselves as the strong ones, aiding Israel in its desperate hour of need. Whether it was emergency appeals of the UJA to help settle destitute immigrants from Arab lands, or even something as simple as buying Israel Bonds for your cousin’s bar mitzva, Diaspora Jews tended to see themselves as the big brother of Israeli Jewry, someone upon whom Israel could depend on when the chips were down.

In a strange sort of way, Israeli Jewry and Diaspora Jewry had each viewed the other as if it were an unfortunate younger brother in danger of sinking into oblivion at any moment. And, truth to be told, neither attitude was entirely wrong – and each served its purpose.

On the one hand, the lion-like spirit of David Ben-Gurion, his unwavering conviction that the new Israel would be strong, self-sufficient, and could leave behind the wretched past of exile – that had its place. This vision gave the halutzim strength, and provided them with the fortitude to surmount almost impossible challenges. Similarly, the Diaspora’s romantic notion that they were saving Israel from imminent threat, helped rally millions of Jews to Israel’s side in times when Israel’s future really was quite precarious. Each of these attitudes was rooted in reality, and served an important purpose.

Nevertheless, this paradigm – the “unfortunate younger brother” image that each community harbored toward the other – has run its course and has become outdated. Israel has become a hi-tech powerhouse, and can more or less take care of itself. By the same token, the Diaspora has proven that it will be around for quite a while yet; rumors of its death are much exaggerated. As such, each community must recognize that its paradigm, the pair of glasses through which it has traditionally peered out toward the other, is due for an updated prescription.

In seeking to adjust our vision going forward, we need to ask: If building the state and facilitating the aliya of more than 3 million of our brethren from countries of oppression were challenges that defined the last 60 years, what are the challenges that will define the next 60? And as we move toward that next 60, can the Diaspora and Israel forge a new relationship – a relationship based on something more enduring than mutual charity or patronizing beneficence toward the other? And finally: On what basis can Israel and the Diaspora develop a shared way of looking at the future, rather than clinging to the bifurcated vision that has defined their respective pasts?

Let’s begin by tackling the first of these questions: What are the emerging threats, opportunities and needs that will occupy our attention and resources for decades to come? The most obvious answer is the existential menace to Israel coming from Arab terror and from Iran. But while that’s true, I firmly believe there is another existential threat, too, and it comes not from the outside, but from the inside. In a word, the overriding challenge of the future will be posed by one innocent sounding phrase: identity. The great threat that faces us is mass assimilation, by default, into a homogenized, global culture.

In a world in which clerks in New Delhi answer the phone for Alamo Car Rental in San Francisco, in which national borders seem to evaporate in a blur of McDonalds and Twitter messages – in that world, Israel will be under greater and greater pressure to justify its existence as a Jewish state, and the Jewish people will be under greater pressure to maintain itself as a distinct entity. In such an environment, our future will rise or fall based on our ability to communicate to ourselves, to our children and to the world why the Jewish people must continue to exist as a unit unto itself. If we fail to meet this challenge, we will silently disintegrate from the inside, as surely as if we had been attacked from the outside.

How do we confront the identity challenge? I am convinced that one way to do this is to leave behind the old paradigm – the sense that we are isolated communities – and begin to encounter, in each other, our larger nationhood.

Somehow, for the last 60 years, it seems that the most obvious of truths managed to escape the consciousness of both Israeli and Diaspora Jewry: We need each other. We need each other materially, but even more than that, we need each other to understand who we really are, as a people. The reason to bother looking across the ocean was not just so that you could help the other community survive, or be grateful that you were not going to disappear like them. It was so that you could engage the other, for real – and in so doing, practice what it means to be part of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people, writ large.

Indeed, growing numbers of Diaspora Jews, thousands and thousands of them, are starting to understand: To experience Israel is to encounter Jewish nationhood in a riveting, visceral, tangible way. Birthright, Masa and other Israel experience trips make powerful impressions on students – and there’s a reason for that. It’s because a trip to Israel is more than a visit to a foreign country; it is a visit home. From hearing spoken Hebrew on the streets, to seeing images of apples and honey in print advertising around Rosh Hashana, the hallmarks of Jewishness pervade everyday life in Israel, even everyday secular life.

For a student used to experiencing his or her Jewishness primarily through a “prison-like,” multi-year stay in afternoon Hebrew school, this is an encounter with one’s peoplehood that is at once different, refreshing and real.

Israelis, too, are starting to understand the converse: That Jewish life does not begin and end in Israel, that encounters with Diaspora Jewish life, too, can be good for the Israeli soul. I recently met a prominent Israeli businesswoman who in the past had no interest in the life of Diaspora Jewry but today is a leader of the Jewish Agency’s partnership programs. She reported to me that her encounter with a Diaspora community had reinvigorated her. It turns out she wasn’t just talking about economics. She had discovered a vibrant face of Jewishness that was different than the stereotypes with which she grew up with at home, and she found it enlightening – as well as spiritually refreshing.

The bottom line is this: Diaspora Jewry offers Israeli Jewry something of value. When Israelis meet Jews in the Diaspora who have grown up in a gentile society and have chosen, proactively, to remain Jewish anyway, that’s inspiring. Moreover, we Jews have a rich past. To have a real sense of Jewish identity, Israelis need to understand the importance of the last 2,000 years of Diaspora Jewish life, learn about it – and incorporate the best of what it has to offer in their own lives.

In the post-identity world, Diaspora and Israeli Jewry need one another. Neither of us alone is Klal Yisrael; we, together, are Klal Yisrael. When we engage the other, we encounter something majestic, wondrous and larger than life. We encounter our own peoplehood.

For the last 80 years, the Jewish Agency has been a bridge between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry. Working together we have done historic things. We built a state in the land of our fathers and we brought millions of our brothers to its shores.

Now let us take the next great step that destiny demands of us. Let us embrace our shared land of Eretz Yisrael and our shared peoplehood of Am Yisrael so that we can teach our children about the meaning of their Jewishness and make them care passionately about Israel.

In so doing, we will maintain the vibrancy of our nationhood for centuries to come.