Drifting Apart, Coming Together


Spring is the time of year when many Jews reflect on the condition and direction of the Jewish people. This period from Pesach through Shavuot to Tisha b’Av, and from Yom HaShoah through Yom Ha’Atzmaut to Yom Yerushalayim ties together the gravest moments of powerlessness in Jewish history in two millennia with the this era of our super-power and the mission to be a light unto the nations.

The first thing to observe is the unprecedented power, influence and prosperity of the Jewish people. Simply put, it has never been better to be Jewish, perhaps since the days of King Solomon. It is not only the considerable military power and economic and diplomatic capabilities of Israel and the astonishing prosperity and influence of diaspora Jewish communities, but also the flourishing world of Torah and Jewish culture, much of which laid in ashes just 70 years ago. The recent embodiment of this unprecedented condition was the ability of the prime minister of Israel, with the support of leading American Jews, to speak to the American Congress in Washington in the face of opposition by the U.S. president.

Yet this is also a time of considerable vulnerability. Many of the characteristics that have ensured the continued survival, resilience, recurring prosperity and leadership of the Jewish people have been compromised in recent decades. Primarily, both in Israel and the U.S., the architecture of the Jewish people as a network of communities organized around powerful community institutions is disintegrating, atomizing our people into households and individuals. Further, we are no longer unique in being worldwide, universally literate and possessing a global legal system. And a global wave of anti-Semitism and the rise of a potentially nuclear Iran cast a dark cloud on the future of many Jews around the world.

Nonetheless, the primary concern is the growing disharmony, mutual disinterest and even sometimes alienation between American Jewry and the State of Israel. This worry goes deeper than the sentiments of Israel-fatigue that one encounters across communities and around the USA, which is caused by the permanent fight against the relentless anti-Semitic attacks on Israel’s legitimacy, as well as by the need to deal with Israel’s idiosyncrasies. In fact, the hard reality is that American Jewry and the State of Israel may actually be evolving in different directions, away from each other.

The fundamental condition of powerlessness for diaspora Jewry and of sovereign power for Israeli Jewry shapes outlooks and mindsets. Any diaspora Jewry will inevitably be predominantly liberal in its outlook, since it requires a tolerant and accepting host country in order to survive and thrive. Any diaspora Jewry will inevitably be religiously tolerant since no religious body exercises control over the entire community. Meanwhile, in Israel, the law allows one group to reign over another such that the minority Orthodox population — both charedi and the national-religious — controls key aspects of the public sphere and determines personal status issues for non-religious Jews. In addition, Israel’s unending conflict with the Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims gives rise to Jewish voices in the Israeli public sphere that are chauvinist and even sometimes unfortunately racist.

Many Israelis believe that while this rift between Israel and diaspora Jewry is unfortunate, it is also inevitable. Classical Zionism holds the view that non-Orthodox diaspora Jews are likely to intermarry and assimilate, that anti-Semitism will inevitably drive most other Jews to Israel and that ultimately the only viable Jewish future is in Israel. Many Israelis view Zionism as a revolution, a disengaging from the legacy of diaspora in favor of a new Hebrew civilization. Therefore, the unwanted divide is destined to grow. But this mindset and outlook are wrong.

Diaspora Jews, in fact, have been exceptionally resilient, with a legacy that stretches back 26 centuries and will likely extend deep into the future. Judaism has been able to transcend the rise and decline of great powers such as Persia, Rome, Spain and Poland, who were hosts to its greatest communities. In all of these places, golden epochs were followed by massive setbacks that dramatically shifted the geographic spread of Jews — from the Land of Israel to the Babylonian diaspora, from the East to the West, from Spain to Poland and from Russia to the U.S. Further, calamities such as the destruction of the Second Temple, the expulsion from Spain and the persecutions of Czarist Russia in the Pale of Settlement never paralyzed the Jewish people. Instead, they were often followed by spurts of intellectual innovation and by great prominence and prosperity in another areas. In other words, the survival mechanism of the Jewish people has been potent.

The State of Israel obviously represents a radical departure from these dynamics of diaspora resilience-yet-powerlessness. As of the 1880s, Zionism concluded that the diaspora model failed the Jews. It argued that only a sovereign state of Jews, recognized by world powers and international law, could solve the Jewish predicament in Europe. For many, the Shoah provided the ultimate proof of the necessity of Jewish sovereignty. The State of Israel was founded in 1948, ending 19 centuries of forced exile and re-establishing Jewish reign in Zion. By the 1990s, virtually all Jews that so desired could freely immigrate to the state of the Jewish people, de-facto offering them a shelter and a home.

Thus, we should all acknowledge that today the Jewish people embrace two models to assure its survival and security: one is the diaspora model, which is based on a self-organizing, decentralized worldwide web of communities. The other is Israel’s government-led, centralized, top-down model of security based on a powerful military. Both are essential and complementary.

Both models are here to stay, as they should be. Zionism sought to solve the Jewish predicament in the diaspora by concentrating all Jews in Israel, yet the Jewish community in Israel may soon become the only one under an existential threat by Iran. Meanwhile, the stature of diaspora Jewry has been elevated by the existence and successes of Israel, which makes the Jewish nation equal in standing to all other nations.

This condition naturally calls upon diaspora Jews to support Israel’s survival, security, legitimacy and prosperity with their financial means and political influence. It also requires Israel not only to view a vibrant diaspora as an imperative of Zionism, but also to help shape its outlook taking into account the diaspora’s needs. In other words, the historical condition of Babylon and Jerusalem is playing out again centuries later: two great communities, two outlooks, two Talmuds, neither obsolete and both essential.

Gidi Grinstein is the founder of the Reut Institute and author of “Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability and the Challenge and Opportunity Facing Israel.”