Probe Centrality of Israel and Centrality of Judaism in Israel-diaspora Relationship
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Probe Centrality of Israel and Centrality of Judaism in Israel-diaspora Relationship

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An attachment to Israel, largely built on sentiment and a consciousness of the Holocaust, cannot become a substitute for Judaism, Prof. Gerson Cohen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Conservative), told a seminar on “Israel and World Jewry” held here last week. A dimension of greater centrality is required, Cohen insisted–namely, the centrality of the Jewish people.

He opened a session of the seminar devoted to “The Centrality of Israel.” The three-day seminar, attended by Jewish scholars from around the world, was held at the home of, and under the patronage of, President Ephraim Katzir. The press was not invited to attend the seminar. The real center of Jewish life must be Jewishness, Cohen continued. This would generate multiple loyalties–to the land of Israel, to the people of Israel, and to the Torah of Israel.

This view was challenged by Prof. Yitzhak Greenberg of City College of New York who asserted that the Holocaust had made Israel’s centrality a fact. It has brought to an end diaspora Judaism in the sense of a way of life which took exile as normative.

After the Yom Kippur War, Greenberg continued, voices had been raised in America suggesting that American Jewry must prepare for Jewish survival no matter what happened to Israel. This view had been stillborn and treated with derision, Greenberg said, Israel had inaugurated a major new cycle of Jewish history characterized by Jewish sovereignty and self-determination, he added.


On the subject of the diaspora’s influence on Israel’s policy-making, Prof. Charles Liebman of Bar-Ilan University asserted that it was minimal. Among the reasons for this, Liebman listed: the diaspora’s only limited efforts to try and influence Israeli policies; Israel’s own unwillingness to legitimize diaspora influence in its policy-making; the absence of political instruments for channeling diaspora pressure; and the secondary quality of diaspora leadership.

Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Dr. Immanuel Jackobovits, urged more effective diaspora-Israeli consultations. He cited the recent Israel government decision to honor Lord Moyne’s killers with a state burial. Jewish leaders in Britain had been horrified by that decision, the Chief Rabbi said. They should have been consulted by Israel in advance, he added.

Prof. Nathan Rotenstreich, the Hebrew University philosopher, said the reality of the co-existence between the State of Israel and the Western diaspora was the decisive reality of our generation. The need for support had become a more important basis for the relationship than any other consideration. He felt the discussion should not center on the centrality of Israel but on the primacy of Israel over the diaspora in the Jewish people’s scale of priorities.


Katzir himself, who delivered a closing address on the last day of the seminar, agreed with many speakers who urged a greater role for the diaspora in links of all kinds with the State of Israel. The process, he said, should be reciprocal–in that the State of Israel-should figure more prominently in all aspects of diaspora life, too. Katzir surveyed the Jewish people’s unique ideals and historic goals stressing that the State of Israel could provide a normalized basis and give direction to the realization of these ideals and goals.

The seminar’s chairman, Prof. Moshe Davis of the Hebrew University’s Institute for Contemporary Judaism, noted that overseas participants in the seminar had tended to speak each of their own diaspora and its special problems. There were many diasporas, he noted, even within a single geographical community.

Davis said the seminar was part of an ongoing effort to attack world Jewry’s current problems on a scholarly level. He referred to the previous seminar at the President’s home–which had produced the book “The Yom Kippur War: Israel and the Jewish People.” edited by Davis himself.


The first day of the seminar had been devoted to problems of Jewish identity, with one of the main lectures delivered by Prof. Zvi Gitelman of Michigan and Tel Aviv Universities. Analyzing Jewish identity in the Soviet Union. Gitelman said the recently held theory that Soviet Jewry was the most assimilated of all had been thoroughly disproved by events. In fact Soviet Jewry, while on the whole thoroughly acculturated, had not become assimilated but had retained its Jewish identity.

Gitelman ascribed this to three causes: Soviet government policy (which establishes official identity and heavily influences the choice of identity by the individual); secular, social, economic and demographic trends; and the perception of Israel. A recent Soviet immigrant to Israel, Alexander Goldfarb, took up this theme, saying that in the USSR nationality is the only identity, and for Jews the only solution was to leave for Israel.


The seminar devoted its second day to discussing anti-Semitism. Dr. Haim Avni of the Hebrew University said Latin American Jewry has since the Yom Kippur War found itself facing a new anti-Semitism at the governmental level. Even some of the regimes which are not anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic might be hard put to maintain their positions while at the same time fostering their ties with Arab extremist states.

The noted Israeli Arabist, Moshe Maoz, reviewed anti-Semitism in Arab lands. He pointed out that the previous image of the Jew that was common in the Arab world and was not totally negative was steadily giving way to a totally and absolutely negative stereotype. Jews, Maoz said, had become the central focus of hostility among Moslem Arabs. The great majority of the Arab masses tended to accept unquestioningly the (relatively) new anti-Jewish ideology which was presented to them as rooted in their religion and tradition.

The distinguished Jewish historian, Salo Baron, termed anti-Semitism “a disease of the gentiles.” What the Jews did was always wrong to them–and the Jews’ actual behavior was not a decisive factor. Anti-Semitism, said Baron, would last as long as there was Jewish minority existence and as long as it could be useful for other purposes.

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