A People Without a Land

In a shocking shift after nearly 50 years of peace activism: “It doesn’t make sense to talk about two states.” – A. B. Yehoshua, Dec. 21, 2016

“Just before I entered the hall [to address the American Jewish Committee symposium on the future of the Jewish Diaspora], my youngest son phoned from Israel and told me how moved he was by the memorial ceremony, in which he and his wife and toddler daughter had just taken part, for the fallen of Israel’s wars. I made a brief comment to the panel’s moderator about the fact that the symposium was taking place on the eve of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and I hoped that, amid the many congratulatory speeches … this would be noted and [honored with] a minute of silence. But this didn’t happen … given that the deep and natural identification that a large portion of American Jewry once felt with Israeli life has been steadily and seriously weakening [and] a slow process of disengagement of American Jewry from Israel has been intensifying [due to] the fact that the ‘Israeli drama’ has lost many of its attractive features for American Jews, and to the accelerated processes of assimilation occurring to varying degrees within America itself. … I may have been the only one to begin by talking about the failure of most of the Jewish People to foresee in the 20th century the depth and vehemence of the hostility toward it, which eventually led to an annihilation unprecedented in human history. … But such a tough and piercing reckoning … is not welcome at the festive opening of a convention of a Jewish organization (AJC) that, like many other Jewish organizations at the start of the 20th century, shunned, if not actively opposed, the Zionist solution. … Therefore, right from the start, I felt like I was spoiling the nice, pleasant atmosphere with my anger. And instead of joining in the celebration of the…cultural renaissance in America … I tried nevertheless to outline at least a fundamental boundary between Jewish identify in Israel and Jewish identify in the Diaspora.

“Jewish identity in Israel, which we call Israeli identity (as distinct from Israeli citizenship shared by Israeli Arabs) … has to contend with all the elements of life via the binding and sovereign framework of a territorially defined state. And therefore the extent of its reach into life is immeasurably fuller and broader and more meaningful than the Jewishness of an American Jew [whose] Jewishness is voluntary. … We in Israel live in a binding and inescapable relationship with one another … for better or worse. We are governed by Jews. We pay taxes to Jews, are judged in Jewish courts, are called up to serve in the Jewish army… Our economy is determined by Jews. Our social conditions are determined by Jews. And all the political, economic, cultural and social decisions craft and shape our identity… While this entails pain and frustration, there is also the pleasure of the freedom of being in your own home. … Thus, I cannot point to a single Israeli who is assimilated, just as there is no Frenchman in France who is an assimilated Frenchman – even if he has never heard of Moliere and has never been to the Louvre… It is clear that Israeli Jewish identity deals, for better or worse, with the full spectrum of the reality and that Diaspora Jewry deals only with parts of it.

“I keep bringing up the matter of texts, because in liberal Jewish circles this has recently become the most important anchor of identity, as evidenced by the return of manifestly secular people to the synagogue – not in order to find G-d, but to clutch onto identity. As someone who has spent his whole life dealing with texts … I am incensed by the increasingly dangerous and irresponsible disconnection between the glorification of the texts and the mundane matters of daily life. Instead, I propose that we continue to nurture the concrete and living value of ‘the homeland,’ rather than the dull and warn- out value of Jewish spirituality.” (A. B. Yehoshua, Ha’aretz, 12/05/06)

A. B. Yehoshua is a widely acclaimed writer and intellectual of the Israeli Left. He is not someone who would be considered religious, yet he is unequivocal on the subject of pride and love for his Jewish moledet (homeland) and “the inescapable relationship of all members of a sovereign nation” living together with his fellow Israeli Jews. His pride and love for his country, so evident in his writings, are part of his personal identity. Israel and his fellow Israelis, of all religious persuasions, are at the top of his list of priorities. American Jews and American Jewish organizations come to the discussion with a very different set of priorities amid a Diaspora agenda.

The year 2017 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War. A Jew would think that the day Israel’s soldiers entered and reunified Jerusalem – June 7, the third day of the war – should have been commemorated by every Chicago Jewish organization. The stories of the reunification, of soldiers both secular and religious, rushing through the Lion’s Gate, running through the narrow streets and walkways to get to the Wall. The iconic vision of Rabbi Goren at the Wall with Torah scroll and shofar. The exultation was overflowing.

I represent the Zionist Organization of America at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the Jewish Federation in Chicago. Since I hadn’t received any information about plans to commemorate this pivotal moment in Jewish history, I suggested such a resolution to one of the JCRC representatives several months before the date. After all, the Jewish Federation of Chicago and its JCRC claim to be pro-Israel, often noting Jerusalem’s status as the “eternal and undivided capital” of the State of Israel – when it comes to fundraising.

After several emails, I finally received the rather bizarre reply that a resolution commemorating Jerusalem’s reunification as the eternal, undivided capital of Israel had already been passed – in 2001. Buried deep in the fourth paragraph of a roughly 700-word document was a mere 50-word statement from 16 years ago. How many Chicago Jewish millennials – or members of the older generation, for that matter – would have remembered: “We reaffirm our support for Jerusalem as the eternal, undivided capital of Israel. We continue to call for the swift implementation of the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act of 1995, acknowledging Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and calling for the immediate transfer of the United States Embassy to that city.” That was it! Not exactly rousing, to say the least.

This was the same point A. B. Yehoshua made in his speech to the AJC. Just a minute of silence? Where were the priorities of the JUF and JCRC? Was the JCRC too busy with more important matters? Did they believe this commemoration in Israel’s history didn’t warrant reminding the community in some way? Was it too political? The excuse I received was that “there needs to be new policy for the JCRC to consider a resolution or an addendum.” Bureaucratic gibberish! The Jewish Federation certainly touts its unyielding support for Jerusalem when it asks for money. Were they saying, We did it 16 years ago. Isn’t that good enough? And what’s the big deal about fifty years?

This was about Jerusalem. This was about Psalm 137: By the river of Chicago, there we sat and wept when we forgot about Zion. For there our Progressive-Left Jewish organizations requested songs of surrender (and money) from us. How can we sing the song of Hashem upon the soil of Cellular Field? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth. The Federation’s right hand hasn’t forgotten its skill for supporting Syrian refugees or Nepalese earthquake victims, while its tongue cleaves to its politically correct palate. But Jerusalem?

Now, in full disclosure and fairness, when I questioned the JCRC representative, he was kind enough to send me a second resolution on the subject, titled “Resolution on Jerusalem,” which last saw the light of day on June 13, 1994—twenty-three years ago, when we were all much younger and the ink on the charade called the Oslo Accords had just dried. But since then, much has happened in the Middle East, so why not freshen-up the language and put it out there to inspire in the community a renewed and reinvigorated commitment to Jerusalem and modern Israel? Was there another agenda? Could it have been a calculated slap at Israel’s policies, such as “no member of the current Israeli government will be welcome at the Chicago Jewish Federation” because we represent non-Orthodox, egalitarian, Progressive, Democrat-voting Jews (p who might visit the Western Wall once in their lifetime, and who don’t like the way it’s controlled by the Orthodox, some of whom pray at the Kotel three times a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year.) We, the Diaspora Jews of America – “part-time” Jews – demand the same unrestricted access to the Wall that “full-time” Jews have, (even though Americanized non-Orthodox Jews, if they do come to Israel, send one or two days of a whirlwind “mission” on a “Disneyland” Israel experience.) Furthermore, if you continue to allow serious Orthodox Jewish observance at the Wall to disrespect us, we might take Rabbi Danny Gordis up on his suggestion to stop sending money to various Jewish institutions in Israel. Sounds like an infantile temper tantrum. Is Gordis suggesting that Israeli institutions “sit up and beg”? Those days are over.

Americanized non-Orthodox Jews – and Rabbi Gordis, one would hope, should know better. Instead of destructive defiance and conditional solidarity, they ought to appreciate the crucial significance of Orthodoxy before demanding the right to re-create Judaism in their own image. There are plenty of non- Orthodox synagogues in Israel where they can practice their brand of Jewish any way they want; but at the Kotel, they should leave their arrogance behind in their hotel room and show the utmost respect for this holiest of sites and for the authority of the State to define its standards of observance. It should be clear that in Jerusalem and at the Kotel, the Orthodox are the home team; they make the rules, and for the vast majority of Israeli Jews, this is simply a non-issue.

Just as Jews wouldn’t walk into a church or a mosque and dictate how their prayers should be conducted, neither should Diaspora Jews feel entitled to express their own form of Judaism at the Western Wall, knowing full well how divisive their behavior would be. “It is clear that Israeli identity deals, for better or worse, with a full spectrum of the reality, and that Diaspora Jewry deals with only parts of it.”

As Conservative convert to Orthodoxy Rabbi Danny Gordis noted, in one of his more lucid moments, “If anything is to be blamed for the increasing estrangement, it is not what Israel is doing or not doing, but rather the fundamental deterioration in American Jewish identity.

If this situation continues to upset Americanized non-Orthodox Jews, you have several options. You may not want to go to Israel, which would be unfortunate since there is so much there for a Jew of any denomination to be proud of. Yet, if projections are right, only one in ten non-Orthodox Jews has ever traveled to Israel; so apparently, much of Diaspora Jewry have already made their decision. If you do go to Israel, you can stay in an incredibly modern 21st century Tel Aviv and avoid the religious hardships you may face in Jerusalem. But beware, Israel is becoming more observantly Jewish, and that might be uncomfortable for your liberal-Jewish sensitivities as well.

But in these Days of Awe and reflection, I truly would hope all our denominations will come together and appreciate that Jews in every land will soon be making a glorious statement to the entire world. All over the planet, our people will be ushering in our New Year on September 20, 2017 – not on January 1, 2018 – and our G-d will be smiling down on all His people, hoping they will again come together as we did 3,300 years ago when we all stood at the foot of Mount Sinai—as one person with one heart.

L’Shana Tova, 2 Tishrei, 5778 (09/22/17)         Jack “Yehoshua” Berger*
* Back issues archived at The Times of


About the Author
Educated as an architect with a Masters in Architectural History, Jack Yehoshua Berger became a practicing architect and real estate developer. In his late 30's he met a Rabbi who turned him on to the miracle of Israel and he began learning how the amazing country, against all odds, came to be the miracle of the modern world.