Brent Sasley

Detaching Exile from Zionism

What do David Ben-Gurion, Ariel Sharon, and A.B. Yehoshua all have in common? All believe(d) that Jews would always be in danger (physically and spiritually) so long as they remained in exile and did not make aliyah to Israel.

In addition to being an outdated assumption, there is a symbiotic relationship between Jews in Israel and Jews outside of it that these would-be recruiters overlooked. There is the very real danger that removing one part of the Jewish people from the other will cause serious harm to both.

Although not about emigration specifically, the issue of exile also touches on contemporary debates about how diaspora Jews should treat Israel, particularly when it comes to policy toward the Palestinians. In the recent debate between Peter Beinart and Daniel Gordis over the role of US Jews in this process, Gordis specified that Beinart had the right to speak to these issues even though he doesn’t live in Israel. But he quickly followed up by stressing that there is a qualitative difference for those who have to comfort their children in the midst of an air siren warning of a terrorist attack. What is the foundation for such a point if not the argument that exile is bad and living in Israel is good?

Zionism is and always was about changing the Jewish condition. Under the circumstances in 19th century Europe, Jewish emigration to their own state was considered essential to protect and safeguard the Jews from persecution, to end the repression and the ridicule, and to make the Jews as normal as any other national group.

But the early Zionists also believed that redemption of the Holy Land was also redemption of the Jewish people, in physical, spiritual, and emotional forms. Of the main strands, cultural Zionists wanted Jews to take pride in their culture and heritage. Revisionist Zionists wanted Jews to take pride in their agency. And socialist Zionist wanted Jews to take pride in their industriousness.

Indeed, Aham Ha’am, as the leading cultural Zionist, argued that a Jewish state was necessary to reinvigorate the cultural and spiritual lives of Jews in Palestine and the diaspora. He also contended that Jews everywhere needed to feel as a single nation.  

There is, of course, debate about how attached Western Jews are to Israel. (The most prominent one takes place in the United States.) Regardless of one’s position in that conversation, it’s clear that diaspora Jews haven’t met the targets of Jewishness set out by the cultural Zionists. How many Jews in the US and Canada, for example, go to Jewish schools and study Jewish topics? How many speak Hebrew fluently? Can name the major figures of Jewish and Israeli history? Know which prayers to recite at which rituals?

These are genuine problems, and moving to Israel might address some of them, but certainly not all of them (the lack of seriousness with which Israeli children have been found to treat the Holocaust is the most dramatic recent example). In addition, Israel has a slew of its own problems that undermine the Zionist project as conceived by its early thinkers and organizers.

Beyond this is the hard fact that many Jews do not want to live in Israel, and don’t see this as a problem. 59% of American Jews haven’t even visited the country. For the bulk of them it isn’t a question of lack of time, money or opportunity; it’s because their Zionism doesn’t necessitate a physical presence there. They are happy where they are.

Zionists living outside of Israel can still fulfill their Zionist longings and obligations. Thousands do visit and contribute to the economy. They give aid. They lobby on Israel’s behalf. They defend it against anti-Zionists. Haven’t we all become new Jews? Haven’t we exerted a muscular Judaism? Do we not stand up to anti-Semites and anti-Israel types, on college campuses, in politics?

And, to bring it back to the discussion of how Jews living outside of Israel should treat it, doesn’t this then give these diaspora Jews the right and the ability to also critique and engage Israel on its policies?

The sooner we acknowledge that the old make-aliyah-or-not debate (however it is framed) just doesn’t fit the reality or the needs of Zionism (or Israel) today, the better.

About the Author
Brent Sasley is Assistant Professor in Political Science, at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches Israel and Middle East politics, and works on the politics of Jewish identity