From Strength to Strength

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 22 – “Israel@70: A Peoplehood Perspective” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Josh Weinberg

I would often end a tour of Israel’s national cemetery Mt. Herzl at the grave of the mountain’s namesake, Theodor Herzl. Standing on the mountain’s top, Herzl sits beneath a large black marble slab which once a year becomes the focal point for the official state ceremony celebrating Israel’s independence. It is there that after having toured Israel and woven our way through the memories of Israel’s fallen heroes, I would pose the reflective question: “If Herzl were alive today to see the State of Israel, what do you think he would say about it?”

Now, I would ask a different question: if Herzl were alive today and visited contemporary North America would he still deem a Jewish State necessary? Seeing the Jewish community in contemporary North America, would Herzl have arrived at the same solution for the Jewish problem – namely political Zionism? Or, would he internalize the general acceptance of American Jews and say that unlike Western Europe, the dream of acceptance was indeed fulfilled? Would he maintain that American Jews are not facing serious persecution and therefore have no need for a refuge?

In September 1899, at the height of his role as Zionism’s chief organizer and spokesman, Herzl wrote of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain whose 1895 conviction and later acquittal for espionage set France ablaze, that he was “nothing more than an abstract symbol.”

Dreyfus, he wrote, “is the Jew in modern society, who tried to adapt to his surroundings, speak its language, think its thoughts, sews its ranks on his coat – and here they come and tear those ranks off by force. Dreyfus is a stance that many have fought for, and continue to fight for, and which is – let us not fool ourselves – a lost cause!”

However, the proverbial Dreyfus’ of today’s North America are quite the opposite. We have adapted to our surroundings, speak the language, think its thoughts, and have the status that Herzl so desperately sought.

Many Israelis recognize the success achieved by American Jews and see it as a strategic opportunity for political and financial gain. However, few see the Diaspora as a source of Jewish cultural and religious inspiration to be played out on the Israeli scene. When religion is separate from State it’s possible to create a model of general tolerance or at worst indifference to one another, creating the opportunity for genuine partnerships across denominational lines. Diaspora Judaism has been a source of creativity and achievement. In today’s reality Diaspora Jews are figuratively Jews by choice, constantly seeking to adapt the challenges of modernity.

The Israel-Diaspora relationship has been experiencing a slow but massive shift away from a joint approach as Israel and the major Diaspora communities still do not really understand one another. We see thousands upon thousands of visitors to Israel and hundreds of Israeli emissaries, ‘American-Friends-of’ organizations, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis living abroad, but nonetheless there is a noticeable disconnect.

Rather than Israel looking to the US for financial assistance and North Americans looking to Israel for a shot of a quick Jewish identity booster we now have the opportunity to articulate an actual joint and common destiny. To strive together for that national self- elevation, with conscious direction and the strengthening and deepening of what it means to be a part of the Jewish people.

In his book, Kol Dodi Dofek, a classic text of Religious Zionist philosophy, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik establishes what he calls the Covenant of Destiny:

Destiny manifests itself as an active experience full of purposeful, movement, ascension, aspirations, and fulfillment. The nation is enmeshed in its destiny because of its longing for an enhanced state of being, an existence replete with substance and direction.”

Do we as a Jewish people share a joint destiny, and if not, how could we instill a joint vision of destiny with both substance and direction? Herzl’s ideological rival Ahad Ha’am, gave us the answer over a century ago.

“Zionism,” he wrote, demands the return to Judaism before the return to the Jewish State.

Zionism is actually the answer to create a stronger sense of a true exchange between Israel and the Diaspora communities. Rather than a continuation of the old model, today’s reality calls on us to offer one another from our strengths and successes, and to suggest models from our experience that could work to enhance the experience of the other.

What does North American Jewry have to offer?

Diaspora Jews have figured out how to build vibrant religious communities in a privatized economy. In North America, each institution, structure, building and organization (with minimal exception) has been built and developed without governmental support (except for tax exemption). Every single Diaspora-based institution must be self-sustainable. which is exactly the model that we should export to Israel.

What kind of a cultural transformation or modification would have to occur for Israeli Jews to not be dependent on the GOI for Jewish community or ritual life? Many Diaspora Jews see religion as a conduit of liberal values and progress and believe that the Judaism should play a different role in Israel, where it is more than a technocracy of ‘permissible’ vs. ‘forbidden,’ and actually be about how we as a society should behave which does not require the rejection of religion.

What kind of seed funding would have to come from abroad in order to set in motion a self-sustaining system? This would offer a richness and a fostering of Jewish life that would encourage and respect a difference in practice and tradition and would act as an equalizer among the various streams.

What does Israeli Jewry have to offer?

Many in the liberal Diaspora Jewish circles often lament the fact that Israel does not “reflect their Jewish values” due to any number of critical issues whether it is the ongoing Occupation, the monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox over religious life, the treatment of African asylum seekers, and so on. These are indeed valid criticisms, yet, rarely included in the conversation on Jewish values are the foundations of Jewish culture, text, the Jewish calendar, and the Hebrew language. Put plainly, the commitment to social justice and ethics derived from our tradition are essential but there is also great worth in preserving the cultural, historical, and traditional context from which they are derived.

Israel has revived the Hebrew language and now we have music, movies, literature, etc. Israel allows Jews to see and touch our past, to make our history come alive. Israel has prominent Jewish thinkers in all realms of art, sciences, religious studies, etc.

120 years ago, Ahad Ha’am expressed this fundamental insight of what the Jewish world would have to gain from the establishment of a Jewish society.

This Jewish settlement, which will be a gradual growth, will become in course of time the centre of the nation, wherein its spirit will find pure expression and develop in all its aspects up to the highest degree of perfection of which it is capable. Then from this centre the spirit of Judaism will go forth to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora, and will breathe new life into them and preserve their unity; and when our national culture in Palestine has attained that level, we may be confident that it will produce men in the country who will be able, on a favourable opportunity, to establish a State which will be a Jewish State, and not merely a State of Jews.”[1]

Now, the Herzlian question should be asked, but of Ahad Ha’am. How does today’s State measure up to the expectations of being a “Jewish State”? One measure of Ahad Haamian success is that many Diaspora Jews and organizations look to Israel and Israelis to be the beacon of Jewish culture through which they will enhance the identities of their constituents.

For instance, “Birthright Israel seeks to ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel via a trip to Israel for the majority of Jewish young adults from around the world.”[2] The Jewish State as a cultural and religious center is already the tool being used to strengthen identity and ensure a future connection. Israel already exports thousands of shlichim to communities, camps, and youth movements attempting to turn the trend towards language, culture, and peoplehood.

What would it look like for Diaspora Jewry to adapt a sense of peoplehood beyond a religious definition of Judaism? An infusion of more substance to their Jewish lives: not just Jewish religious services and discussion of “values,” but distinctly Jewish cultural manifestations. Israel must cease to be only or even primarily a political cause for American Jews, but become what it is in fact a vital, living, breathing Hebrew-speaking culture in which we, too, are invited to play a part.[3]

David Hazony writes: “Israel, not as a political cause but as a civilizational one, might offer an opportunity to disrupt Jewish identity in America… [This would] mean rediscovering Israel as a country, not just a cause, and yourself as someone searching rather than acting out of certainty…. Developing a new spiritual infrastructure. Having the confidence of who you are that is required to expand who you are – to see the Israeli other not as a threat but as a resource for your own journey.”

At one point it was apt to describe relations between Israel, the United States, and the American Jewish community as a strategic triangle whereby the three sides to the triangle provided sustenance for the other two.

This was not an equilateral triangle: Israel has now replaced U.S. Jewry as the global center of Jewish life, and the United States is still the world’s dominant power. But a vibrant and involved American Jewish community was nevertheless a vital player.

Each needed the other and each gave something to the other. In today’s reality Israel will always continue to see the U.S. as a vital ally politically and militarily, but will it be able to learn and benefit from the Jewish community’s achievements and models?

Will American Jewry be able to reverse the trends of the past century and come to see themselves as National Jews who have a shared collective narrative, common symbols and a joint destiny?

I hope so.

[1] Ibid.
[3] Rabbi Joe Schwartz, Foudner of “IDRA: Beit Cafe-Beit Midrash”

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem and is currently living in New York.