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Friday, August 1, 2014

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The Diaspora is here to stay

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This issue of The CJN appears on Yom Ha’atzmaut, when there’s hardly a Jewish community in the world that doesn’t mark Israeli Independence Day in one way or another. The anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel has rightly become part of both our national and our religious calendars.

But that’s not enough for A.B. Yehoshua, one of the most important writers and public figures in contemporary Israel. For him, Diaspora existence – now that we have a Jewish state – is vacuous and neurotic.

He insists that if you want to be a complete, not a partial, Jew you must live in Israel, not just celebrate if from afar. He has spoken about it for decades, most recently last month in Jerusalem. To live outside of Israel today is for him “a very deep failure of the Jewish people.”

Though nobody is making aliyah on the strength of this or any other speech, many Jews in the Diaspora seem to enjoy the flagellation, especially when it comes from a distinguished Israeli. That’s why we keep inviting Yehoshua to our communities to tell us off at well-attended events. Perhaps deep down we suspect that he’s right. Not that we intend to do much about it, but maybe we think that a well crafted moralizing talk is good for the fractured Jewish Diaspora soul.

Having now lived both in Jerusalem and in Toronto for more than a decade, I feel moved to react to the admonition – but not to agree with it.

I love being in Israel. My Judaism is particularly enriched by Jerusalem and what it represents. But I also know that much of the tradition to which I’m committed has been shaped elsewhere.

Jewish history is primarily Diaspora history. Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which we recall this day with pride and joy, is misleading when it states that “Eretz Yisrael was the birthplace of the Jewish People.” It’s not even certain that it’s there that our “spiritual, religious and national identity was formed.” Scripture and history indicate that we’ve been shaped by the gift of Torah starting in the desert – in no-man’s land. 

Therefore, although I’m a long-term, card-carrying Zionist, I cannot agree that our choice as Jews is either Israel or extinction. Whether or not individuals decide to live in Israel or remain in the Diaspora, as a people we belong to both, even if sometimes our enemies around the world try to get rid of us.

Jewish existence has always been precarious. Even the establishment of the State of Israel, although essential for our survival after the Holocaust, doesn’t guarantee our future. The legitimate nervousness of Israelis in the light of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a telling indication of fears of what might happen to Jews living in their homeland, despite the stress on security and preventive action, and despite the rhetoric and the bravado of politicians and generals.

In that struggle, as in much else, the presence of vibrant and influential Jewish communities, around the world no less than in the United States, is an asset that Israel cannot do without.

Even more significantly, the nature of Judaism itself is to this very day shaped as much by the Diaspora as it is by Israel. Unlike Yehoshua and his supporters, many thoughtful Israelis have come to recognize it and are paying great attention to what’s happening in the Jewish world. Though some only point to antisemitism abroad, most affirm the continued vitality of Jewish life outside the Jewish state. They’ve come to respect the Diaspora far beyond its fundraising potential.

They recognize that what’s needed in our time is a creative fusion, indeed a creative tension, between Israel and the Diaspora. Much of contemporary Zionist thought and practice is engaged in this work.

It’s nowadays also prepared to integrate critical Jewish voices abroad as part of the ongoing debate. Thus critical American J-Street and related organizations around the world are gaining legitimacy as members of the collective Jewish enterprise with Israel at its centre.

All this bodes well for the future. Jews everywhere will continue to be enriched by the writings of Yehoshua and his Israeli peers, yet ignore his indictment of them as partial Jews for not heeding his call to move to Israel.

Independence Day is a splendid opportunity to celebrate this Israel-Diaspora partnership.

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