Israeli and American Thinkers Debate Viability of Diaspora

Rephrasing a question put to American and Israeli scholars at a two-day conference held here last week, author Charles Silberman quoted the 137th Psalm: “How do I sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

Quite well, answered the author of last year’s controversial “A Certain People,” which argued that the American Jewish community has succeeded — in terms of spiritual health and social and political acceptance — as no diaspora community has succeeded before.

Not surprisingly, Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri had a very different answer to the same question.

“Off-key” best summarizes the response of the author of an equally controversial analysis of American Jewry. Last spring, Avineri’s “open letter” in the Jerusalem Post, written at the height of the Jonathan Pollard spy case, accused American Jews of having a “galut mentality” as they “cringed in fear” of charges of dual loyalty.

Thus the battle lines were drawn, in a meeting sponsored by the B’nai Zion fraternal order and entitled “The Coming of Age of American Jewry — A Zionist Perspective.”

The conference, held Dec. 1-2, could as easily have been called “The Coming of Age of Zionism — An American Perspective,” since the speakers spent as much time debating the centrality of Israel as they did the vitality of the diaspora.

American participants included Silberman, former Brandeis University Chancellor Abram Sachar and sociologist Steven A. Cohen. The Israeli speakers were Avineri, novelist Amos Oz and Bar-IIan University Chancellor Rabbi Emanuel Rackman.

DIASPORA AS ESSENTIAL AS ISRAEL

Speaking at the Tuesday morning session on “Is America a Galut?”, Silberman drew on theological and historical precedents to argue that diaspora Jewry is as essential a component of Judaism as is the Jewish state.

At the heart of the religion, he said, is the idea of dialectic and paradox. Conflict not only characterizes the relationship between Israel and diaspora Jewry, he argued, but provides the very rationale for the continued existence of the diaspora side-by-side with the Jewish state.

“The genius of our tradition is that these tensions are always perpetuated, never resolved,” said Silberman. “Judaism is not an either/or religion, but requires both sides of the dialectic.”

Silberman then quoted the morning blessing recited by religious Jews, in which God is blessed for creating in human beings “many passages and vessels,” organs and ducts, all of which perform in inseparable harmony.

A new blessing is needed, said Silberman, to celebrate “the interconnectedness of the Jewish national body, the interdependence of Israel and the diaspora. We need each other, not to support Israel’s military, not to make American Jews feel Jewish, but because we are of the same flesh.”

ISRAEL NOT AS DEPENDENT AS BELIEVED

Responding to Silberman, Avineri did not deny the interconnectedness of the Israeli and world Jewish communities, but he did say that the perception of need may not be equal between the two. Avineri maintained that whereas diaspora Jewry relies on support of Israel to unify its usually divided constituency, Israel is not as dependent on the largess of world Jewry as is often believed.

The former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry drew gasps from the audience when he compared Israel’s annual budget — $25 billion — with the $3 billion it receives in American foreign aid and the three-quarters of a billion dollars it receives from world Jewish philanthropy.

“Israel’s three-and-a-half million Jews carry the burden of the remaining billions, while all of world Jewry represents only 2 percent of the budget,” said Avineri.

He maintained that overemphasis of the financial link has added to the conflict between Israeli and diaspora Jews, and said the “cash nexus” needs to be replaced by a “people nexus.” A “people nexus,” he said, demands that aliyah becomes a priority in America and Israel, with Jewish students and families being encouraged to spend at least a year in Israel.

Avineri appeared forthright in describing Israel’s drawbacks — saying it was neither the safest nor the most pleasant place to live. But he said that Israel offered what no other country could: Jewish autonomy and a Jewish population “whose lives don’t depend upon the goodwill of others.

“Jews in Israel have self-determination,” he continued. “Whatever is wrong is wrong because of us. We have no one else to blame.”

‘SPIRITUALLY DISASTROUS’ DIASPORA

At the Tuesday afternoon session, novelist Oz echoed Avineri’s words, but with a stern twist. “Yes, it may be dangerous to live in Israel, but to live in the American diaspora can be spiritually disastrous,” said the author of “In the Land of Israel” and “A Perfect Peace.”

Oz said that while American Jewry produced outstanding Jewish individuals — writers, artists and scholars — as a community it could not match the “collective creativity” of Israel, whose elements include the Hebrew language and the kibbutz.

In response, sociologist Cohen stood up for achievements by American Jews, including their political sophistication and influence on Washington’s foreign policy.

But Oz, like the other Israelis at the symposium, remained firm. “Israel is the Jewish stage, while the diaspora is the auditorium,” he said.

(Yitzhak Rabi also contributed to this story.)

NEXT STORY