The Narrative of a Proud Diaspora Jewry
By Gidi Grinstein
Two months ago, the Government of Israel decided to cancel the so-called Kotel compromise and to deny recognition from conversions performed by many Diaspora rabbis. Serendipitously, shortly thereafter it was disclosed that the Rabbinate of Israel has been blacklisting world Jewry rabbis, including prominent orthodox ones. This combination of events sent Israel-World-Jewry relations into a tailspin.
While many in Israel seem to have moved on, among World Jewry, particularly in the USA, the storm has not subsided. Unlike previous crises, which affected the more distant and unaffiliated parts of the Jewish community, in this case, it is the heart of the pro-Israel Jewish community that has taken the deepest offense.
Many stepped up to respond, suggesting ‘targeted boycotts’ of the Government of Israel, ‘outreach across the divide’ or issuing calls for mutual respect among the distancing communities. The undersigned too wrote an article titled “Time to End Diaspora Complacency,” which built upon my own book Flexigidity: the Secret of Jewish Adaptability and on the extensive study of the Reut Institute on the condition and direction of Israel-Diaspora relations.
In my article, I called upon World Jewry leadership to stand up, tall and proud, for both its legacy and its place in the Jewish future. I argued that such an outlook is not only essential for a healthy relationship with the State and Government of Israel, that is based on two powerful, confident and unapologetic narratives, but also for remaining true to the essence of Zionism and to the ethos of Israel as the nation state of the entire Jewish People.
But what is narrative that underlies such an outlook by World Jewry and what are its historical foundations? Well, in essence it must be founded a number of key moral and practical arguments.
The first arguments is that the moral standing of Diaspora Jewry is as robust as that of Zionism’s, emanating from the notion of Jewish Peoplehood. Avraham Infeld, in his coming book Passion for a People, argues that “Jews are people, not a religion,” holding Jews to be a family and a tribe, whose unity transcends its diversity and internal adversity. Thus, both an anti-Zionist Satmer and an Israeli settler communities are equally Jewish. In other words, the notion of Jewish Peoplehood not only incorporates the ideal of Jewish nationhood but also inspired it. Indeed, Zionism was designed by its founders like Pinsker, Herzl and Ben-Gurion to serve all Jews irrespective of their outlook.
The second argument builds on history to establish solid foundations for the legitimacy and prospects of Diaspora Jewry. Many Zionists trace the Jewish right to the Land of Israel to Abraham. They view exile as an unnatural condition for the Jewish People, plagued with poverty, insecurity and persecutions, which was finally and irreversibly corrected with the ingathering of the exiles in the twentieth century to a sovereign State of Israel. Alas, this narrative is inaccurate: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob spent significant periods of their lives among foreign cultures, and henceforth, almost uninterruptedly, so did a significant portion of the Jewish People. In fact, it seems that Diaspora existence is as integral to Judaism as the quest for Zion. Furthermore, periods of persecutions and poverty notwithstanding, most Diaspora Jews during most of Jewish history enjoyed relative prosperity, religious and communal freedoms and security. The three-centuries-long Golden Era in Spain is a well-known example, but the Jews of Egypt, Babylon, Poland and Germany, and now in the USA, Australia and other places enjoyed similar golden epochs.
The third argument is that Jewish life outside of Israel is probably more resilient than Jewish sovereign existence. Zionism, which emerged primarily in the late nineteenth century in Eastern Europe, has embraced a dismissing view toward Diaspora Jewry, notwithstanding the continuous Jewish existence in the Diaspora for twenty-six centuries; the three failed episodes of sovereignty during the First and Second Temple Eras; the existential threats to Israel in 1948 and 1967; and the framing of Iran as another such concern. In the bigger picture, while some Diaspora communities rise and then decline, Diaspora Jewry as a whole survives and even thrives. Organized as a network of communities, it permanently evolves and adapts to respond to ever changing technological, political and economic realities, and gravitates around the world in pursuit of security, prosperity and freedoms. While key centers have existed in Babylon, Egypt, Spain, Poland and Germany and now in the USA, some of the fastest growing Jewish communities in world are in China, Hong Kong and Singapore, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis re-embracing Diaspora life. This structure confidently supports the prediction that hundreds of years into the future, well past the existence of all present nations, Jews will still be lighting Shabbat candles across the world, and even on Mars, should a human community exist there. In other words, the societal structure of World Jewry deserves much deeper respect from Zionism, since it is probably the most resilient in human history.
The fourth argument focuses on the Jewish contribution to humanity, which happened primarily outside of the Land of Israel. Notwithstanding Israel’s significant, outsized and distinct contribution to the world, it seems that rather the absence of sovereignty pushed Jews to build remarkable ethics-based communities, with universal healthcare, education and welfare systems.
The fifth argument is that Israel-Diaspora relations are mutually reinforcing and represent a societal whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Hillel the Elder came to Jerusalem from Babylon with ideas that would transform Judaism altogether, and the Babylonian Talmud overshadows the Jerusalem Talmud as the leading Halachic text. And even nowadays, rabbinical thought leadership and innovation are ceaselessly emanating from the Diaspora within all denominations. Furthermore, the State of Israel is the creation of World Jewry, and both entities support each other in countless ways, including security, education, legitimacy, business and economics.
The sixth argument contends with assimilation and intermarriage. It is common to hear Israeli Zionists speaking about the need to save Diaspora Jewry, especially of progressive outlook, from its inevitable destiny of disappearance due to dwindling numbers. This view often underlies the disregard of Israeli leaders to non-Orthodox Jewish factions. Fortunately for the Jewish future, this dooms-day notion is false. It is a fact of history that Jews have been assimilating and intermarrying throughout their history since Biblical times and antiquity, as told by the stories of Purim and Chanukah, and a fact of life that they will continue to do so as long as they interact with and live among non-Jews, which means forever. In other words, there is absolutely no reason to assume that millennia of Jewish existence and significance in spite of continuous assimilation will end soon, especially given the remarkable innovation by Rabbis around who work to tilt the double-or-nothing situation of intermarriage in Judaism’s way.
For all these reasons, a proud World-Jewry leadership must be able to transcend its inferiority complex in relation to Israel and to confidently assert that a vibrant Diaspora is a Zionist imperative. In other words, if Zionism is to remain true to its ethos of serving the continued meaningful existence of the entire Jewish People, its domineering outlook must end and World Jewry in its full diversity must be embraced so that Israel can truly become the nation state of the entire Jewish People.
Gidi Grinstein is the Founder of the Reut Group and the Author of Flexigidity: the Secret of Jewish Adaptability and the Crisis and Opportunity Facing Israel. Sections three and four of his book deal with the vision of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish People.