Building a bridge over troubled waters
The current security crisis of Jewish communities in Europe has reawakened ideological questions that we had long stopped asking. How should Israel respond to the renewed threats on Jewish life in Western Europe? Should it press European governments to better protect their Jewish populations, or should it simply tell the Jews to come home? Does Zionism believe in Jewish communal existence outside of the Land of Israel? Are the Jews meant to be a world people, or is their proper identity only as a nation-state?
For Israel, the answer has been clear. In every instance of perceived threat against the Jews, we petitioned the governments to protect their communities and did what we could to help them. We view the defeat of anti-Semitism as a mission of state, not an instrument of aliyah. And we have acted to make Israel part of the solution for the dialogue with Islam in Europe, rather than part of the problem. Regarding the threat to Jewish communal life from the parties of the European far right, Israel has taken a principled and uncompromising stance against their repeated attempts at political engagement. Despite their growing electoral strength, in lockstep with the Jewish communities of Europe, we have shunned all contact with neo-fascist parties, and we will continue to do so.
In sum, rather than pursuing a misplaced Zionist orthodoxy that might seek to negate the Diaspora, the Israeli state and its institutions have acted out of deep intuitions of Jewish solidarity. The worn talmudic instruction still guides us: כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה (The entire Jewish people are responsible for each other, Sanhedrin 27b); and through history, Israel has displayed willingness to act contrary to its political self-interest on behalf of Jewry — from the capture of Eichmann to the demand for freedom for Soviet Jewry.
The Diaspora is of our flesh, and therefore the State of Israel will act at all times, with all means of state, to protect and secure the safety of Jewish communities everywhere. When Diaspora communities are in distress, Israel will not look away.
Zionism grows up
This moral reality reflects the maturation of Israel and its founding movement. The Zionist ideology was formulated when the Yishuv was a backwater of world Jewry and the achievement of Jewish political sovereignty but a distant, utopian dream. Even after its establishment, Israel for many decades was one of the smaller communities of the Jewish people. On the eve of the Six-Day War, Israel’s population was one fifth that of world Jewry combined. But in 2015, Israel is the largest Jewish community and will soon, or may already be, the home of the majority of Jews, as Diaspora communities suffer demographic decline. After many decades of economic struggle, Israel today enjoys strong growth and remarkable cultural vitality. At the historical moment when the pendulum has swung this far in the direction of Hebrew culture, the negation of the Diaspora is wrongheaded and becomes inappropriate triumphalism.
Yet despite my belief in these convictions, at gut level, they leave me conflicted. I care for the Diaspora, but believe in Israel, and in the primacy of its claim on the love of the Jewish people. In my belief, Israel is the greatest Jewish achievement in two millennia, and it still dumbfounds me when young American Jews (and young Israelis) don’t fathom this. Yeridah from Israel breaks my heart, and it would be a personal failure if my children chose not to live here. In religious terms, I view life in Israel as a mitzvah. The incredible success of Israel, the robustness of its reborn language, and the naturalness of being at home on this once barren land, are for me undeniable arguments for the Zionist view that the Jews are meant to live as a sovereign nation. In brief, I believe in aliyah — that the choice to build one’s life in Israel means to ascend.
And yet, Jewish history and all my personal experience of the Jewish people makes me know that we are also a world people. Every Israeli diplomat feels this, whether in Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Montevideo, San Francisco, or Kiev. In the furthest reaches of the Exile, the connection with the local Jewish community is always intimate, a coming home. Israel feels the love of the Jewish people everywhere, and this is a source of comfort and strength in trying times.
Zion and the Diaspora as vital needs of Jewishness
If “We Are One” in such a profound sense, why are we are pulling apart? The connecting fabric between Israel and North American Jewry is fraying, and has been for many years. Two dynamic processes drive this crisis.
The dilution of Jewish identity in America is the primary cause of the widening distance between us. It is absurd to expect a young American Jew to feel a greater connection to Israel than to his or her own internal Jewishness. The reality of American life and the assimilatory response of the greater mass of American Jewry is an inescapable fact that Israel and the American Jewish leadership need to ponder without evasion and with unsparing clarity if we mean to address it in any meaningful way.
The cultural divide between Israel and the core of affiliated American Jewry is the secondary challenge to our unity. Increasingly we miscommunicate and fail to intuit each other, even inside the family discourse. The parents quarrel and fume, and the children — the future generations of Jewry — are victim. In some ways, this is a deeper tragedy than assimilation, because it can be prevented, if we can only stop forgetting how much we need each other.
Contemporary Jewish society grows along two disparate tracks. Broadly speaking, these are the Hebrew culture being created in Israel, and the American Jewish culture which creates in the general language of humanity.
The Hebrew playground is potent, political, radical, retrograde, high culture and trash, enmeshed in tradition, but irreverent, spiritual and often vulgar, east and west, cosmopolitan and deeply parochial, liberal and benighted, rooted and brashly new, and driven by creative contradiction at every Jerusalem and Tel Aviv street corner. Israeli culture is jostled by the Mayflower participation of Jews of every ethnicity, economic class, religious and ideological stripe, from the Samaria hilltops to the software castles of Herzliya.
But Israeli society, for all its multicolor, suffers from structural insularity. Israeli identity is becoming thicker, more familial, and internally connected. The Hebrew language is spoken only by us, a minority people in a small demarcated region. Hence, Israeli culture is introspective and self-involved, and at times not adequately equipped to encounter the broader world. More critically, it is one with which American Jewry is not conversant — primarily because American Jews lack mastery of Hebrew and sufficient knowledge of Israel, and are not physically present, but also because Hebrew culture is not engaging them or granting access.
American Jewish culture is the complementary opposite. It creates in the lingua franca of general human society. At one time this was the Jewish contribution to world culture in Philo’s Greek, Maimonides’ Arabic, Spinoza’s Latin and Buber’s German. Today it is the unprecedented Jewish cultural achievement in the English language. Jewish creativity in American culture is Nobel-Prize caliber, cutting edge, capable of universal humor, progressive, assimilatory and uniquely attuned to the American scene. Some fear that American Jewish creativity is aging and lacks resources for renewal. For the time being at least, it communicates with the entire world in a way that Hebrew culture by its essential nature cannot.
Hence, what it is actually a cultural divide between the Jewish communities of Israel and America is misinterpreted as a values argument. When Israeli society acts as a caring family, displays a forward-minded liberalism by speaking with empathy to its ultra-Orthodox population, making room for them in the cultural landscape and trying to welcome them in, American Jews misread this as a sign of Israel going backwards, another example of what used to be called Israel’s “Levantinism.”
When Israel deals high-handedly with minorities and illegal immigrants, it displays moral amnesia, forgetting that we were slaves in Egypt and the Diaspora experience of being outside. American Jewish critics at times neglect the fact that Israel is an actual country and the harshness required of states, but Israelis too quickly dismiss the critique, not fathoming its essential Jewishness. The Israeli educational curriculum would do well to include Philip Roth’s “Eli the Fanatic” as required reading, and it is common trope to hear an Israeli say “I learned how to be a Jew during my stay abroad.”
As both a nation-state and a world people, Jews need both Zion and Diaspora, and we will be impoverished as a people if we do not maintain both of these divergent spheres of creation. Were it not for the American Jewish component, the Jewish cultural achievement would suffer diminished brilliance and lack global significance. Lacking the dynamic texture of Israeli Hebrew culture, it is uncertain whether Jewry possesses sufficient energies to maintain itself. Without Israel, American Jewry would doubt its future. Without a vibrant American Jewish community, Israel would feel very lonely in the world.
Zion and the Diaspora are the necessary polarities of the Jewish people. We complement and require each other to create significant meaning and to maintain ourselves. But increasingly we drift apart, with no strategy for correction.
A strategic plan for the Jewish people
The State of Israel is less wealthy than the Diaspora, but it is sovereign and capable of mobilization. Hence, it is incumbent upon the Israeli government and its institutions to be proactive, by reaching out to Jewish leadership in the Diaspora so that together we can formulate and realize a plan for maintaining the Jewish people and our unity. The following are suggestions for how we might progress.
Renew the conversation on Jewish continuity
American Jewry responded to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey report on Jewish demographic decline and the rising rate of intermarriage with a cry of “gevalt” and a decade of mobilization. When the follow-up survey in 2001 showed equally dire findings, talk of Jewish continuity shut down and became taboo. Instead of a search for new strategies, the survey methodology was attacked, and there was an unstated agreement by leadership that American Jewry would never again count itself. The present mode of response to rising intermarriage and shrinking numbers is patchy and dependent on local initiatives. For the most part, organized American Jewry approaches the Jewish demographic crisis with a fatalistic complaisance. It is time to renew the conversation on Jewish continuity.
This could be done under the auspices of the President of Israel, who could convene a summit of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. By presidential invitation, the communal, spiritual, cultural, and philanthropic leadership and best minds of Jewry would gather for a directed, well-prepared conversation on stemming numeric decline, advancing Jewish literacy, bridging the perceived values gap between Israel and the Diaspora, and adopting a bold and imaginative plan of action for maintaining the Jewish people. This conversation should include the following:
A financial plan for Jewish education
The crushing cost of Jewish education in the United States is self-selecting of only the most committed Jews. What strategy is required to increase the accessibility of Jewish education, and what steps would enable doubling, or tripling enrollment in Jewish day schools and summer camps in the next ten years? We are in need of a financial plan for the Jewish people to radically deflate the cost of Jewish education, through innovative fiscal instruments and tapping of the vast resources of American Jewry. Why is no one in Jewry trying to even imagine the possibility of universal free Jewish education? Without deep rethinking, the current model of Jewish schooling cannot widen the circle of participants, and may at best maintain the current trajectory of decline.
Birthright is the one truly strategic program in Jewish life aimed at the majority of Jews, i.e. the non-affiliated. As such, Birthright waiting lists should not be tolerated by Jewish communities or the Israeli government, and failing philanthropic funding, Israel should prevent this scandal and foot the bill itself. Currently, more than half of Birthright applicants are waitlisted, and most will never reapply. The full cost of the annual North American cohort is approximately 200 million dollars, most of which would be spent in Israel. We should be long past budgeting the waiting list, and thinking about how to expand Birthright to include new demographics, not only the formative young, but Jews of all ages. Two-thirds of American Jews have never visited Israel, and we need to institute structures to ensure that the greater part of American Jews engage in a meaningful encounter with Israel and its people at least once in their lives.
Advancing the Hebrew language and Jewish literacy
Despite its brilliant success as the reborn language of Israel, Hebrew has fared poorly as the language of the Jewish people, and has yet to play the uniting role once filled by Yiddish as the binding glue of Ashkenazic Jewry. We require a renewed effort for teaching the Hebrew language to the Jewish people, so that they can gain access to our foundational texts and an affiliation with Israeli culture.
Greater Hebrew literacy will increase our intimacy as a people and deepen Jewish identity in new directions. We will learn again to use an evocative vocabulary, so that we will be able to say כלל ישראל, the entirety and fullness of the Jewish people at present and in history, rather than its pale shadow, “Jewish peoplehood.”
Israel has to do its part to improve the knowledge of young Israelis about Jewish culture. Hebrew eases our access to Jewish texts, but does not mitigate the embarrassing ignorance of Israel’s young secular generation. Israel needs to correct how its education system managed to wreck the teaching of the greatest literary creation of all times, the Hebrew Bible. Investing more in Jewish education will make us not more religious, but more Jewish. It will strengthen the State of Israel and increase the affinity of Israel’s youth to the wider Jewish collective. We will become more authentic, cultured and moral, and a better Jewish democratic state.
Addressing religious pluralism with derech eretz
The Israeli state needs to overcome internal politics in its relationship with the liberal streams of Judaism in order to show greater respect and extend formal recognition to the rabbinic leadership of the large majority of American Jewry. The Reform and Conservative movements need to understand the limits of elasticity in Israeli society and show greater sophistication and empathy towards Israel’s traditionalism, in particular with regard to the legal definition of Jewish identity. We need to return to initiatives like the Ne’eman Commission, which gathered religious leadership from all the streams of Judaism and forged agreement on mutually accepted standards for conversion inside Israel.
The Reform and Conservative movements, if they wish to achieve a more profound influence in Israel, need to build communities and commit resources that will make them thrive in an Israeli Hebrew environment; but Israel also has to level the playing field by enabling access to public funds.
Until such time, Israel must find a way to lessen the offense experienced by the liberal movements. Even when we cannot find fully satisfactory solutions, the dialogue needs to be handled by professional officials, and delinked from Israel’s tumultuous politics. No matter one’s conviction regarding innovation in religion, our present behavior as a state is lacking in derech eretz, which precedes Torah.
Protecting the legitimacy of Israel
The attempts to boycott and delegitimize Israel once seemed like a caricature of radical politics. But these have reached levels of clamor that impair reasoned discourse and have made inroads among well-meaning progressives, many of whom are uninformed on the Middle East, but hire their opinions from iconic figures fixated on demonizing Israel. This occurs without appropriate pushback from the academic and business communities, or even the more progressive corners of the Democratic Party. A bizarre situation has ensued in which Israeli speakers alone are denied free speech on respectable college campuses, and one can feel a palpable anti-Israel McCarthyism taking root in many parts of the academy.
It has become increasingly clear that the selective attack on Israel is blatantly anti-Semitic, and not less so when pursued by Jews and Jewish groups. Like anti-Semitism itself, the demonization of Israel is an illness of Western civilization. Israel and the Jewish communities need to garner resources and achieve greater clarity in order to quell this new incarnation of an ancient hatred before it gets out of hand.
The peace corps of the Jewish people
Beyond a strategy for renewal, beyond Iran’s nuclear quest, anti-Semitism in Europe and all the woes that befall the Jews — we suffer most from our own failed imagination. Israel and the Jewish world need a project of compelling scope and ambition that can inspire the next generation of young Jews and Israelis.
A Peace Corps of the Jewish People, in which young Israelis and Jews carry out the humanitarian development program of the Jewish people, is a structure missing from Jewish life that can revitalize the idealism inherent in Judaism and in the founding of the State of Israel. It would enable Israelis and Jews to join together in realizing Judaism’s fundamental values of chesed and the advancement of human dignity. A Jewish peace corps would attract our best and brightest college graduates, IDF veterans and young professionals to Jewish life, and create reservoirs of qualitative devoted leadership for Israel, the Jewish people and the world-at-large.
The Peace Corps of the Jewish people would operate along the following principles:
Development plan of the Jewish people
The Peace Corps of the Jewish people will not engage in aid tourism or in random donor projects, but will carry out the global development plan formally adopted by the Israeli government and the Jewish people, representing our best capacities and crafted by development experts in Israel and the Diaspora in coordination with the sustainable development goals of the United Nations.
Joint volunteerism of Israelis and Diaspora Jews Projects will be staffed jointly by Israelis (Jewish and non-Jewish) and non-Israeli Jews between the ages of 22-35. Participants will commit to 12-36 months of service in separate tracks for professionals (doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, social workers, financial planners) and lay volunteers. All volunteers will participate in an initial period of training and study at the School for Development to be established in Israel, perhaps in the Negev Desert.
Israel-Diaspora Force for Emergency Humanitarian Response — future IDF field hospitals in places like Haiti and Nepal would be staffed not only by Israeli doctors and nurses, but by Jewish health and social service professionals who have committed to periodic training exercises in Israel and call-up availability. The Jewish Peace Corps will develop a substantive emergency response ability capable of rapid deployment to meet humanitarian crises around the world.
A mission that unites
Many have envisioned a Jewish national project of this sort, and a number of exceptional Jewish service organizations have emerged in response. But to date, Israeli and Jewish leadership have not committed to the vision and dedication of resources necessary for realizing a Peace Corps of the Jewish People on the scale and at the level of seriousness required for making our mark in the developing world, and attracting our best people to this endeavor.
A Peace Corps of the Jewish People is a project for our time, and it is within our reach if only we decide to do it. It will help us to unite as a people, and recommit us to our ideals, to the world, and to each other.
This article is one of 17 important perspectives on the current state of the Israel-Diaspora relationship published in a special issue of Eretz Acheret magazine, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and available free of charge to Times of Israel readers. Access the full digital edition at:
Come let us reason together