At Home With Exile


By Leonard Fein

Published January 10, 2003, issue of January 10, 2003.
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Israel proclaims itself the center of the Jewish world, the source of Jewish loyalty and inspiration. Even those of us who not only dwell in the Diaspora but who are in some real sense Diasporists — people who find Jewish meaning and potential in our dispersion — are for the most part prepared to acknowledge that Israel is the most significant undertaking of the Jewish people in our time.

That significance derives principally from the fact that Israel is, finally, the project that counts, the bold and even heroic project to build a nation-state that fully reflects the wisdom of our people. We who celebrate America may be right or wrong in our assessment of the American Jewish prospect. But if we are wrong, if all we turn out to be is just another bourgeois group that bathes in nostalgic longing for moments of dimly remembered glory, that tells the story of Abraham smashing the idols in order to feel good about itself rather than to remind itself that in every generation there are idols to be smashed and widows and orphans to be clothed and fed — well, that would be a shame, a waste, a betrayal.

But Israel? Israel cannot afford to be wrong. It cannot afford to forget about the idols, to turn its back on the vision, to become a nation like all the others. Too much is at stake.

The dream of Israel as a genuine source of pride and inspiration, though, is bumping into the reality of a country whose rabbinate is corrupt and benighted, a nation that chases the wretched American record for income inequality, a nation that persists in active discrimination against the 20% of its citizens who are Arabs, a nation that treats strangers — guest workers, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza — with contempt.

It is, of course, easy to rationalize Israel’s failures and flaws as products of the intense pressure with which its people must live. There are always reasons, always excuses. But even if one makes appropriate allowances, the gap between dream and reality grows menacingly wide. Israel is still now and again an astonishingly thoughtful and creative country, but measured against the hopes and expectations of a half-century ago, these days it is a spiritual disappointment. Nor is that likely to change soon, now that the overriding national project of the Jewish state has become sheer survival.

In the meantime, we, the Jews of America, have lately become a welcome spiritual surprise. Some of what American Jews have achieved can perhaps be dismissed as merely a passing fad. Much of it is bound to leave Israelis unimpressed, since the Jewish orientation it bespeaks is so very different from and even alien to Israelis’ sense of what Judaism and Jewishness are. We operate in very different settings, and American Judaism responds to very different needs and is expressed in very different ways, ways that would leave many Israelis puzzled if not downright derisive.

Despite what many Israelis believe, American Jewry is not a museum piece, nor are we merely audience to a Jewish drama that unfolds exclusively on a Middle Eastern stage. We are also actors in our own Jewish drama, with an agenda of our own and ambitions of our own and with achievements some of which might even be worthy of Israelis’ consideration.

But wait: Isn’t our population declining? Do we not, for all the advances in adult education, continue to suffer from gross Judaic illiteracy? Are we not, finally, strangers in a strange land?

The answer to that last is by no means clear. America is in many ways a strange place, but we are scarcely strangers here. We have made it our own — for better and for worse — and if we are strangers at all, it is for the most part because we choose estrangement as part and parcel of the Jewish commitment, an estrangement that follows from both Jewish memory and Jewish aspiration. So, too, are there Israelis who see themselves as strangers, albeit strangers in a familiar land, estranged as Jews are meant to be wherever there is still injustice — which, of course, means everywhere.

And that frames the narrative that connects our two communities: We are, all of us, strangers. We were strangers in the land of Egypt and strangers we have, even at our best, remained. It is easy for us in America to forget that, so comfortable have so many of us become. And it is easy for Israelis to forget that, so preoccupying is the conflict with very real enemies they must endure.

But difficult as it may be in such settings to speak of strangeness, of willed estrangement, we would do well to remind ourselves and one another that the Golah, or Diaspora, is the name of a place, any place that is not the land of Israel, while Galut, or Exile, is the name of an existential condition that is fundamental to the Jewish understanding. One can live in New York or in Jerusalem, in Israel or in the Golah — but whether or not one lives in New York or Jerusalem, a serious Jew lives in Galut.

In the end, it is that perception that both fuels and warrants the stubborn persistence of the Jewish people. Let it wither, as it always threatens to, and we fall victim to assimilation, whether in Boston and Chicago or in Tel Aviv and Afula. See to it that it is sustained and passed on from generation to generation, and we remain Jews, connected.

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