Meaning and Belonging in Israel and the Diaspora Today

by Yehudah Mirsky

The challenge of managing and deepening relationships between Israel and world Jewry has been with us for decades. Today far-reaching changes are being rung on these familiar questions.

For Diaspora Jews, Israel is one possible element of their Jewishness; for Israeli Jews, Jewishness is one possible element of their Israeliness.

What has changed? We live in an historical moment which complicates perhaps as never before relationships between the particular and the universal, the global and the local. The welter of forces to which we refer in shorthand as “globalization” and “the Internet” are collapsing distances and reconfiguring the very shape of identity.

Jewish identity itself is hard to define, but whatever it is, it is some synthesis of meaning and belonging, of finding and experiencing meaning – moral, religious, spiritual, social, cultural – in and through one’s being attached to some larger entity, a people, land, civilization. Building that attachment in an age of discussion is a defining challenge of our time.

For younger Jews, particularly in the Diaspora, belonging as such, certainly as defined by external threats, is far less compelling than meaning.

What then can be done? We must work to increase the multilayered and crosshatched weave of connections between Jews everywhere, including between Israel and the Diaspora. The idea behind Birthright points a way – creating the framework for I-thou encounters between Jews and through the medium of Israel. Social media are fascinating and helpful but limited; even today there is no substitute for meeting and building face-to-face, through study, group projects and more.

On the political side, the challenge is how to keep discomfort or criticism from turning into estrangement. Though all politics are local, Jewish politics are global. Surveys show that the Israeli policies which most deeply disillusion and distance Jews, in particular younger Jews, are less those revolving around issues of territory and security as such and more those relating to the Jewish and democratic character of the state – such as “Who is a Jew?” and religious coercion (and now maybe loyalty oaths).

Jews who are fundamentally committed to Israel will not necessarily give any Israeli government a blank check, nor should they. But their criticisms will be rooted in engagement and care.

Efforts to strengthen Jewish identity abroad necessitate a parallel effort by Israelis to strengthen their own Jewish identity, awareness of their belonging to the Jewish people as a whole and familiarity with Jewish communities abroad. Without a shared cultural language, Israel and the Diaspora will simply talk past each other, if they talk at all.

Yehudah Mirsky is a member of the Board of Yerushalmim, a fellow of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a Contributing Editor at Jewish Ideas Daily. Published in conjunction with The Conference on the Future of the Jewish People, 2010; courtesy JPPI.