Next Time Invite American Olim Instead of A.B. Yehoshua

By David Chinitz

Published May 19, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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Earlier this month Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua created a tempest in a teapot by stating that one cannot live a fully Jewish life outside of Israel. As an American immigrant to Israel, I read with amusement and frustration about Yehoshua’s blast at the American Jewish Committee’s 100th anniversary conference and about the predictable indignation of his hosts — amusement because we’ve seen this road show before, frustration because the script is always a dialogue between straw men.

Yehoshua is a straw man because reality flies in the face of the assertion that one cannot live a fully Jewish life outside of Israel. Numerous Jewish institutions of learning, culture and social action flourish all over the world. There is nothing in Jewish law or history to support the proposition that you have to have an Israeli address in order to have a Jewish identity.

Yehoshua knows this, of course, which is presumably why he hastened to clarify his comments as furor over them mounted. But he also knows that his hosts invite him over and over to state the egregiously ridiculous because they like hearing it as much as he likes getting hosted to say it.

American Jews like Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic and himself active in AJCommittee, are likewise straw men. They respond to Yehoshua by saying that there is no way all Jews are going to move to Israel, when they know full well that neither Yehoshua nor most Israelis think that should, or could, happen.

Indeed, the Wieseltier types feast on Yehoshua’s hyperbole, fretting and kvetching that the author’s type of Israeli brashness only serves to further remove Jews from any connection with Israel. And they wonder with concern whether all Israelis think that way about them.

This never-ending clash of Israeli absolutism with Jewish Diaspora relativism — both charming, but sometimes aggravating, Jewish traits — is a perfect recipe for straw-man arguments. And where there is straw, there is usually someone making hay.

Yehoshua, and dozens of other Israeli intellectuals largely ignorant of their American audiences and speaking English crippled by Israeli accents, get notoriety and perhaps some pecuniary benefit. Wieseltier and his ilk, for their part, find justification for their endless search for the holy grail of Jewish identity.

Millions of dollars and rivers of ink are invested in trying to determine whether Jewish identity is based on the Holocaust, or on Jewish texts, or on knowledge of Hebrew, or on the link to Israel, or on the fight against assimilation, or on some combination of all of them. And, as in most such quests, every budget cycle adds new increments to those American and Israeli institutions that are happily involved in the never-ending story of Jewish identity.

The sad truth behind this story is that the only Israelis who really spend any time thinking about Jews in the Diaspora are those figures distinguished enough to be invited on speaking tours. Rank-and-file Israelis don’t have much time to spend pondering relations with their Diaspora brethren, and therefore have no well-formed opinion on the matter.

There is, however, at least one group that actually has something empirically grounded to say about these issues: the 60,000 Anglo-Americans who by choice have moved from the West to Israel. But we are never included in these self-perpetuating debates. The reason is that what Anglo-Americans in Israel have to say is perceived as combustible material to men of straw on both sides.

Open discussion of large immigration to Israel has been considered out of bounds since the 1950s, when Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, promised American Jewish leader Jacob Blaustein to keep the subject off the Jewish agenda. For American Jews, the risk of their children even considering moving to Israel was reduced, and for the Israeli establishment the money of American Jews was always preferred to their potential as local competitors for control over the Jewish state and economy.

Since no surveys have polled Anglo-American immigrants to Israel, permit me to suggest some hypotheses, based on my own experiences in the 25 years since I immigrated to Israel from the United States.

Only a tiny minority of us think that all Jews should live in Israel. What we would like to see, however, is more Jews at least consider the move realistically. In order for that to happen, the subject has to be tabled in the Jewish educational system — not as an ideology, but as a life option like any other. In reality this subject is ignored or systematically suppressed, including by the vaunted programs that bring American youth on visits to Israel.

In addition, Israel and the North American Jewish community should develop a strategy for supporting those young minds open to the idea of engaging in the exciting evolution of a society that combines Jewish and American values and enterprise. And American Jews living in Israel are the best source of input for developing these strategies.

The presence of, say, 1 million more American Jews in Israel would be a boon to the Israeli economy, lessening Israel’s dependence on American aid. It would further develop Israel’s democratic institutions, which are already impressive but still in need of improvement, with an infusion of people demanding standards of accountability associated with Western-style democracy.

Like the wave of Russian Jewish immigration in the early 1990s, an influx of American Jews to Israel would drive home to the Arab world the understanding that the Jewish state is a demographic reality that cannot be destroyed. Furthermore, issues of Jewish identity and Diaspora-Israel relations would likely fade, for the simple reason that most American Jews would have at least one relative who had moved to Israel.

And finally, Israel would cease to be perceived as little more than a haven for refugees and the residue of the Holocaust — as opposed to the vibrant expression of Jewish self-determination that is the country’s real raison d’etre. In a world that is having to adjust to large waves of migration, accommodation of religious fundamentalism and adaptation of democracy to various cultural contexts, the project of Jewish immigration to Israel could be a source of important global learning.

Would that the periodic outbursts of Yehoshua and his fellow Israeli intellectuals, and the resultant American Jewish temper tantrums, serve as catalysts for such thinking in the organized Jewish world.

David Chinitz, a senior lecturer in health policy and management at Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health, immigrated to Israel from the United States in 1981.

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