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

By David Chinitz

Published May 19, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • 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.