Diaspora Jewry and Israel: Rethinking the Partnership

[This essay is the first part of a longer article by Donniel Hartman. To read or download the entire essay, click here; first published in 2008.]

by Donniel Hartman

“Next Year in Jerusalem;” “If I forget you Jerusalem;” “And to Jerusalem Your city may You return in compassion”; May our eyes behold Your return to Zion.”

For close to 2,000 years these words gave expression to the Jewish people’s longing for redemption and their dream to return to their homeland in Israel. With the rebirth of the State, its founders expected, and with good cause, that all Jews would move there. This movement in the Zionist lexicon was called aliyah (literally: ascent), rising from an inferior existence in the Diaspora to begin a new life in Israel – a life of greater opportunities and broader horizons made possible by the newfound reality of Jewish statehood. In the eyes of the State’s founders, Israel was to be not merely the center of Jewish life, but was to become its exclusive location. The Zionist narrative did not leave any place for a vibrant and ongoing Jewish community living outside of Israel and which would constitute a permanent and parallel center for Jewish life. In the Zionist narrative, within a few years of the rebirth of the State, Diaspora Jewish life, for all intents and purposes, was to come to an end.

Sixty years on, it seems the founding fathers both under- and over-estimated the potential of the fledgling Jewish state. Israel of 2008 is stronger, abler and more successful than the ’48 generation could have ever imagined. The same, however, can be said of world Jewry. Rather than diminish and gradually disappear, Jewish communities around the world have grown and prospered. What has changed and over the last two decades even diminished and become ever increasingly tenuous, is their relationship to Israel. As the holocaust has become more of a historical event rather than an existential reality, and the threat or experience of anti-Semitism has decreased, at least in North America, the role of Israel as a “safe haven,” a shelter of last resort for world Jewry, has become less compelling. In fact, as will be discussed below, much of world Jewry are more “worried” about the future viability of Israel than their own safety.

In addition, together with their vitality and viability, world Jewry is increasingly reticent to see Israel as their leader in shaping their Jewish spiritual, intellectual and collective agendas. Even their philanthropic enterprises, once so central in confirming Israel’s centrality, are in general being directed inwards, as the major percentage of tzedakah dollars are being funneled to local needs. When the United Jewish Communities – the main fundraising arm of American Jewry – created four allocation pillars, it tellingly placed Israel in its “overseas allocation” pillar rather than the Jewish “renewal” pillar. For North American Jewry, Israel is an overseas allocation and not a local need, contributing to their Jewish identity and life.

‘Next year’ an Empty Incantation

World Jewry has built a vibrant, dynamic Jewish life independent of Israel. In the past, when Jews sang “Next year in Jerusalem” it was with the sincere intention of one day – whether in the near or distant future – making aliyah. Nowadays, the song is often little more than an empty incantation; an expression of solidarity perhaps, but not of actual yearning. Israel and world Jewry are entering a new stage, a stage in which each celebrates its own vitality and independence. Unfortunately, though, the stronger Israel and world Jewry get, the weaker the connection between them becomes. Today, as we stand at the advent of Israel’s 60th year, the ties that bind us are being significantly challenged.

This is particularly true of the younger generations, who do not regard Israel as in any way germane to their Jewish identity (see Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel”). Israelis, on the other hand, do not recognize the power and autonomy of Jewish life outside Israel. The two communities are currently growing further and further apart, with the schism threatening the very fabric of Jewish peoplehood.

We can choose, as we have done so far, to ignore the burgeoning challenge, hoping that some new wave of anti-Semitism or war in the Middle East will emerge to revive our sense of solidarity and collective commitment; or we can address and begin to eliminate the causes of the growing rift. This essay attempts to do just that. The present reality, I would posit, is not an aberration, but a result of years of systematic failure on behalf of Israeli and world Jewry to establish foundations for a sustainable relationship. The crux of any healthy, loving relationship is that each party sees the other as the other sees itself. Such a foundation is fundamentally lacking in the Israel-world Jewry dynamic. Rather than adopt the other’s self-perception, each community has imposed on the other a patently incongruous image, borne more of its own needs and preconceived notions. Israel and world Jewry, in essence, do not see one another. If we are to salvage our status as one people, we must put an end to this mutual misperception. It is time to rethink and radically alter the relationship between Israel and world Jewry.

World Jewry in the Eyes of Israel

Let us begin with the Israeli view of world Jewry. For the greater part of Israeli society, Judaism is defined chiefly through categories of sovereignty, land, life in Israel and civic participation in the Jewish state. For most secular Israelis, living in Israel is not a substitute for Judaism, but a new way of leading a meaningful Jewish life: dwelling in the land, dealing with the totality of moral challenges uniquely generated by Jewish sovereignty, speaking Hebrew, serving in the army, consuming Israeli culture, and celebrating the Jewish calendar (the national calendar of Israel) all infuse secular Jewish identity with new significance.

“Israeli Jewish identity, which we call Israeli identity (as distinct from Israeli citizenship, which includes as well Arab citizens) confronts all facets of life though the sovereign and obligatory framework of a country with its own specific territory. The homeland, the national language and the obligating framework are the constitutional components of the national identity of every person. Therefore I cannot point to any Israeli who is assimilating, just like there is no Frenchman in France who is an assimilated Frenchman” (A. B. Yehoshua, Homeland Grasp, p., 63).

For religious Zionists, the land of Israel is not merely a place where Jewish national aspirations reach their fruition, but rather the land is the sole place where Israel and Judaism can live and thrive. In the words of one of the ideological founders of religious Zionism, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook:

“The land of Israel is not something external, an external possession of the nation, serving merely as a means to the end of forming the collective and sustaining its material and even spiritual existence. The land of Israel is an independent reality, bound by a life force with the nation and internally entangled with its existence. Authentic Israelite creativity, in thought, life and action are only possible for Israel within the land of Israel. It is impossible for an individual from Israel to be committed and loyal to his beliefs, reflections, ideas and imagination outside of Israel to the degree that he is loyal to them within the land of Israel.” (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Orot; “Eretz Yisrael,” section 1 & 3)

Governed by this “Isracenteric” ideology, Israelis cannot begin to understand – to say nothing of respect – Diaspora Jewish life.

“Using a metaphorical articulation one might say as follows: Zionism is the name for the drug which is meant to cure the form of “disease” called Diaspora. (A. B. Yehoshua, Homeland Grasp, p., 47)

For me, Jewish values are not contained in an adorned spice box, to be opened on the Sabbath or holidays, and to enjoy their fragrance, but are a reality of daily life with tens of challenges. (Ibid, p., 63)

For this reason, the scope of (Judaism’s) application within life (in Israel) is immeasurably more full, broad and meaningful than the Judaism of an American Jew, for whom the critical decisions affecting his life are determined within the context of his American nationality or citizenship.” (Ibid)

While sometimes jealous of their economic standing and opportunities, for decades, the only category Israelis had for world Jewry was “those who had not yet made aliyah.” As aliyah is no longer on the agenda for most of world Jewry, and even Israel has stopped sending aliyah emissaries to Jewish communities not at risk, Israelis had to devise a new category through which to relate to Jews living outside Israel. The basic category functionally adopted was that of “re-affirmers” with the primary purpose of world Jewry being to confirm the centrality of Israel to contemporary Jewish life. A telling example of this role finds expression is the way Israelis understand the importance of “Birthright,” the program which offers all Jewish youth a free trip to Israel. The founders and funders of Birthright see it as a vehicle for reconnecting young Jews to their Jewish identities. However, in advertisements aimed at the Israeli audience encouraging them to be welcoming and hospitable to Birthright students, the selling point of the program to Israelis is that it is creating thousands of ambassadors for Israel on North American campuses. It is not the assistance that it provides to North American Jewish life, nor its importance in enhancing Jewish survival, but rather Birthright’s role in furthering the viability of the State of Israel which is of sole concern and interest.

This role of “re-affirmers” comes, as everything else in Judaism, with its own set of symbols and rituals. The most significant ones are the expectation that Israel’s needs be placed at the top of the world Jewish communities’ tzedakah priorities, and during political elections, that they choose their candidate primarily on the basis of his or her attitude toward Israel. Within this context, Israelis, in return, engage in a parallel ritual of welcoming Diaspora delegates who are “re-affirmers” with open arms, granting them unprecedented access to the highest echelons of the country’s leadership. Jews arriving in Israel on various contribution missions are treated with the all the ceremony of state officials, their presence seen as unequivocal testimony to Israel’s importance. The loneliness of living in the heart of a hostile Middle East, and the sense of failure at the state’s inability to attract all Jews to its midst, have left Israelis feeling insecure, anxious for Diaspora Jewry to reaffirm their predominance over the Jewish world.

The role which many Israelis have assigned world Jewry is one which no Diaspora Jew can afford to play. If Jewish life around the world is to survive, it is only to the extent that Diaspora Jews resist the role of reaffirming the centrality of a Jewish life and drama lived by others, and assert themselves as full and active players of a game whose rules they shape and in whose outcome they are invested. Pivotal and as expansive as it is, Israel does not hold the monopoly over Jewish life. North American Jewry, have over the past two decades experienced a renaissance of Jewish vitality and activity, despite the looming challenge of assimilation. The term “Diaspora,” in this sense, no longer seems fitting; the Jews of North America are not strangers in exile, but equal citizens, who feel fully at home and have adorned their home with a full and vibrant Jewish life. They do not, nor should they consider themselves Jewishly inferior to their Israeli brethren.

If Israelis persist in blinding themselves to this fact, if they continue to regard world Jewry as no more than a silent witness to their centrality, they will remain forever alienated from the Jews of the world. And, as world Jewry grows less and less inclined to play second fiddle, its relationship with Israel will decline and ultimately disintegrate.