By now, the tremor that A.B. Yehoshua set off along the relatively sensitive Israel-Diaspora fault line has subsided. But the aftershocks have exposed a widening rift between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. Earlier this month, at the 100th annual conference of the American Jewish Committee, during a symposium entitled, “The Future of the Past: What Will Become of the Jewish People?” Yehoshua said in part that, “only those living in Israel and taking part in the daily decisions of the Jewish state have a significant Jewish identity.”
This idea was not shocking as it has been expressed before and indeed, has some following in Israel. What riled people up was that Yehoshua had the gall to accept an invitation from a quintessential Diaspora organization, stand before a “who’s who” of Diaspora Jewish leaders and confront them with what many see as a much deeper underlying statement: We may no longer be one people — at least not one equal people.
He went on to say in a clarifying article in Ha’aretz on May 12 that was meant as a conciliatory salvo, that “a religious Israeli Jew also deals with a depth and breadth of life issues that is incomparably larger and more substantial than those with which his religious counterpart in New York or Antwerp must contend.”
Understanding Both Sides
Yehoshua’s classification of a more “significant” Jew in Israel and a less complete Jew in the Diaspora should not surprise anyone. While perhaps offensive in his bluntness, his comments have some basis in Jewish thought. They are consistent with classical commentaries on biblical texts that extol the virtues of a Jewish life in a Jewish land, as well as comments that reflect the embodiment of our eternal yearning for a return to Zion.
Through this prism, one can understand the frustration of Israelis. They uprooted themselves from dispersed lands, followed the biblical charge to reclaim our ancient homeland, built up an army, cleared a path and invited the exiles to return home. And many came. Today, with a secure state, modern infrastructure, booming economy, multiple airline carriers, Israel is the most attractive it has been in the past 2,000 years. Yet, American Jews by and large have refused this invitation.
And one can understand the frustration of American Jews. They also came to America from dispersed lands — many before the founding of the Jewish state — fought for equality, built Jewish centers of education and worship, supported the State of Israel and fought for Jewish rights the world over. Today, with many strong Jewish institutions, unrivaled political and economic success, one can argue that Diaspora Jewry is flourishing.
So, why the tension?
A New Phenomenon
The undercurrent of tension between Israeli and American Jews is understandable. It is largely due to the fact that we are confronting a new phenomenon. There is no precedent in Jewish history for the existence of an independent and thriving Diaspora alongside a strong, stable and sovereign state.
There is however, a precedent for different warring factions within our people. We have seen a plethora of divided and even bifurcated communities in our past: The tribes of Israel vs. the tribes of Judah. The Pharisees vs. the Sadducees. The Karaites vs. the remaining tribes. The Hellenists vs. the Hasmoneans. But during the periods when we had the temple — or control of our land with a strong presence in Israel — we have never experienced a strong and rooted counterbalance in a Diaspora that sees its future as part of the Diaspora.
And herein lies the conflict. Our national aspirations throughout our scattered Diaspora have always centered on the “return to Zion” mantra. It is the 2,000-year dream that many never thought possible. Except it is now real and staring us all in the face. And after 58 years of absorbing immigrants from every corner of the globe, many rescued from hostile environments, the flood of olim has now slowed to a trickle.
So when Israelis, like Yehoshua, feel the need to stick it to Diaspora Jews and point out that it is the Israelis in Israel who are fulfilling our common destiny and ensuring our future, it does not go over well. Don’t they realize that we in the Diaspora struggle with saying “next year in Jerusalem” at each Passover seder when we know we have no intention of ever moving there, at least not willingly?
And there is resentment. A mild undercurrent of anger that Israelis dedicate three years of their lives to the state and often serve in reserve duty while Diaspora Jews benefit from this blanket of security. Sure, American Jews provide substantial monetary assistance to Israel and work to ensure strong relations between the U.S. government and Israel. But while many Israelis appreciate that support, many view these donations as disingenuous, meddling and condescending, especially when conditions and control are part of the gift.
There is almost a subtle competition between the two intransigent sides. Those in the American Diaspora who believe in a continued strong presence in their American home versus those in Israel who feel that Zionism has given purpose and expression to Judaism and see the full return of Jews to Israel.
An ‘Aliyah Deficit’
But in this battle for bodies and souls there is a disturbing reality. A large number of these Israelis have hardened around an Israeli identity that increasingly grows independent from its traditional Diaspora Jewish identity. For many in Israel, their connection to the Jewish people is by accident, by virtue of the state’s Jewish calendar and its control over civil affairs. A more disturbing outgrowth of this reality is what I have started to call an “aliyah deficit.” In the balance of trade of Jewish immigration, Israel is for the first time in its history experiencing a deficit. More Jews are leaving Israel than are moving there.
Today there is a whole class of Israelis who have decided to move to the United States. By many estimates, there are more than 700,000 Israelis living there. This has created an entirely new dynamic. Suddenly, there is a new subset of Jews amid the American Jewish community who do not connect to established institutions and largely identify as Israeli.
We are faced with a pressing challenge: the potential bifurcation of our people. While there is a necessary tension that naturally permeates the Israel-Diaspora relationship, there is a now clearer concern that the eternal oneness of our Jewish identity has somehow morphed into two: Diaspora Jew and Israeli.
Today, we in America lead distinct parallel lives from our Israeli brothers and sisters. What were once close relatives as in brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe or North Africa, have become first cousins, and are now second cousins. As a function of time, this familial evolution is inevitable. It is our job however, to ensure that these parallel lives intersect and become stronger together. Underlying our communication should be an understanding that Judaism without Israel has no home but an Israel without Judaism has no soul.
Yehoshua went on to write in Ha’aretz, “Since we see ourselves as belonging to one people, and since the two identities are interconnected and flow into one another, the relation between them must be well clarified.” I could not agree more.
A New Generation of Israeli and American Jews
It was with this spirit that I founded an organization dedicated to bridging this growing divide for a new generation of Jews. We chose to call it Dor Chadash, meaning “new generation” in Hebrew. Our goal is to find a common language between Israeli and American Jews, one that crosses the widening identity chasm. Volunteers carry out educational, social and cultural programs which build bridges between the two communities, break stereotypes and showcase the best of Israel. Focusing on Israeli and American Jews ages 22 to 45 living in New York, we have built a supportive community of more than 6,000 people in New York who believe deeply in strengthening the Jewish people through understanding and shared experience. We are on the path toward developing this model in other cities.
Such an organization could not have come about years ago. The Israelis living in American Jewish communities are our partners in this process. A growing number of Israelis are seeking an identity in a Diaspora community in a way that they have never had to do in Israel. Even more significant than those who made the decision to come to the United States are their children, in many cases “hybrids,” born to one Israeli and one American parent.
These are the tens of thousands of Israeli-American Jews coming of age now who speak both languages without an accent, who see both sides of the story and who can help bridge the gaps. Many of their parents, even after living in America for years, are not connected to the organized Jewish community. They are not members of synagogues, they do not attend programs at JCCs, they do not give to UJA-Federation and they are not lay leaders of communal organizations, especially the younger ones. As Bradley Burston wrote of these children in a May 16 Ha’aretz article, “Their problems of Jewish identity are among the most complex and difficult anywhere.” But we have seen with Dor Chadash that they can be an incredible force if their energy is properly directed. And moreover, on their shoulders we can build a bridge to connect our two communities.
Thank you, A.B. Yehoshua
Rather than getting angry at Yehoshua for pointing out our national schizophrenia, we should thank him for sparking an important discussion. And we must work to find other creative ways to help both sides better understand one another in order to move forward as one people.
Next month I will serve as a United States delegate to the 35th World Zionist Congress. As delegates from across the Diaspora and from Israel gather in Jerusalem, I can think of no greater theme than the issue of global Jewish peoplehood, and developing a connected community-oriented vision for 22nd-century Judaism.
David Borowich is founder and chairman of Dor Chadash, the bridge between Israeli and American Jews (www.dorchadashusa.org) and is a delegate to the 35th World Zionist Congress.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.