A Relationship Cannot Live by Yelling Alone

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published June 16, 2010, issue of June 25, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It turns out that the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish Diaspora is a lot like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

Lately, though, something has changed. Like the weather, the relationship is getting overheated, and so is the talk. Analysis and invective are gushing forth in torrents, generating a virtual tidal wave of Israel-Diaspora pontification. The flood waters were unleashed in mid-May with the appearance of an essay in The New York Review of Books, titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” The author, Peter Beinart, argued that right-wing policies in Jerusalem are driving a wedge between Israel and the younger generation of American Jews, and that major Jewish organizations are abetting the alienation by their lockstep support for Israeli policies.

The argument wasn’t new, but it caused a stir because of the author’s baggage. Beinart is a former editor of The New Republic, arguably the house organ of lockstep Zionism. His apostasy has made him a media sensation and turned the arcane topic of Israel-Diaspora relations into front-page news. It’s shown up as a cover story in The Economist and generated no fewer than two major New York Times news analyses and at least three op-ed essays in the space of two weeks. Beinart appeared on the airwaves nearly nonstop for days, occasionally showing up on two channels at once, recalling the old joke about the high-flying former Israeli tourism minister Avraham Sharir and the time that two planes nearly collided over the Atlantic and Sharir was on both of them.

The debate’s echoes are nationwide. Rabbis are sermonizing about it. Almost every evening sees another public forum convening somewhere. Israeli consuls and attachés across North America gathered in New York in early June on short notice to discuss the uproar.

The truth is that alarm bells over Israel-Diaspora estrangement had begun ringing well before Beinart’s broadside appeared. The online journal Sh’ma published an Israeli-American roundtable discussion on the subject at the beginning of May. Commentary magazine’s June issue features a symposium, apparently months in preparation, with contributions by 31 prominent American Jewish thinkers and activists. Rumblings in the blogosphere started even earlier.

The proximate cause, it seems, is the increasingly bitter tone of exchanges between the Netanyahu coalition in Israel and Jewish liberals in the Diaspora over the past year. Somewhere between the East Jerusalem construction crises last fall and the Israeli media assault on the New Israel Fund this winter, relations between the two camps went from polite dislike to open hostility. The current explosion of Israel-Diaspora soul-searching, with all its symposia, op-eds and nonstop Beinart-mania, is simply the next phase.

Listening to the debate, an outside observer might conclude that the central bond linking Jews in Israel and the Diaspora is their squabbling over Israeli security policy. Diaspora liberals say Israeli actions offend them as Jews and weaken their sense of solidarity; this complaint seems to have become a principal vehicle of Jewish expression for some Jews. Many Israelis believe — as the latest B’nai B’rith poll of Israeli public opinion confirms — that the mission of Diaspora Jews is to endorse Israeli policy in public, whatever their private feelings. Both sides agree that the standoff is steadily fraying the bonds of global Jewish solidarity, though each side blames the other. In this view, whether or not the Jewish people endures into the next millennium depends on who says what about Israeli commando tactics.

Kibitzing from the sidelines are cadres of sociologists and Jewish educators who counter that Israeli foreign policy isn’t the main irritant in the relationship at all. They maintain that younger Jews are less attached to Israel mainly because they’re less attached to the Jewish people. They’re less tribal, more American. It’s a generational thing: The further removed Jews are from the direct experiences of the Holocaust and the birth of Israel, the less power these events have to shape and inform their consciousness.

In response, Jewish identity-boosters here and in Israel are looking for ways to bring Israel into the lives of young Diaspora Jews. It began with the notion of bringing the kids to visit Israel, to see it and touch it and bring it home with them. It’s growing into a virtual Manhattan Project of Israel-awareness. Natan Sharansky, the new chairman of the Jewish Agency, wants to turn the once-mighty social-service agency into a vast educational complex that will help build Jewish identity around the world, with Israel at its core.

Leaders of this enterprise say they’re revisiting one of the earliest philosophical debates in modern Zionism, between Theodor Herzl and his greatest critic, Ahad Ha’am. Herzl expected that Jews everywhere would relocate to his Jewish state, where all the business of the Jewish people would thenceforth take place. Ahad Ha’am saw the Jewish state strengthening the Diaspora rather than replacing it. Israel would be a cultural center, a great incubator whose spiritual and cultural creativity would revitalize Jewish life everywhere.

Herzl’s Zionism triumphed early on. Driven partly by the urgency of emerging disaster in Europe, his followers built a framework to absorb Jews and let them make a new life in a new land. Few had time to pursue Ahad Ha’am’s dreams.

Now folks are waking up to the fact that Herzl’s prediction was wrong. Most Jews didn’t relocate. Millions look to Israel today not as a refuge but as a source of inspiration. They want Israel to enrich their daily lives as Jews, the way Ahad Ha’am had proposed. That’s what Sharansky wants to deliver.

The trouble is that the Jewish state wasn’t built according to Ahad Ha’am’s blueprints but rather by Herzl’s. The great incubators of worldwide Jewish cultural experience never got built. For all its many achievements, Israel doesn’t have much to offer the ordinary Diaspora Jew by way of everyday enrichment you can wrap your hands around. Judaism can’t live on falafel alone.

It’s a puzzle. Maybe Sharansky and his team will figure it out, though it’s hard to see how. In the meanwhile, we’ll probably continue to communicate by yelling at each other. That, too, is a Jewish tradition.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at www.forward.com

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.