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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog at www.forward.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).