Sheldon Schreter

How Much Has the Jewish Condition Changed Since 1948?     

The very question provokes indignation, certainly in Israel. 75 years after the founding of the first sovereign Jewish state in almost 2000 years, when Israel is such a success story in so many ways – you’re still asking? What is your problem? Are you one of those contrary nudniks who always complain, no matter what? Can you not see how much Israel’s existence has impacted and enhanced Jewish consciousness and well-being everywhere?

“Easy, easy,” I say mentally to my agitated fellow Israelis and Jews. I appreciate that it is far better to wrestle with the dilemmas of wielding power in our own society and in relations with other nations than it is to cope with relative powerlessness and extreme vulnerability. Nor have I forgotten that much of my family, including my four aged grandparents, were murdered in the Shoah, with no one to defend them. These are giant considerations, literally about life and death, but they do not exhaust the issues or lay all questions to rest. We are, to borrow from the Haggadah, an inverse “Dayyenu” people. We sing Dayyenu ironically, meaning the opposite. In the restlessness built into our national DNA, it is apparently never sufficient. We must always question, evaluate and demand meaning from life, for that is the human condition, or at least our human condition.

These musings began on May 5, 2023, when I found myself speaking at a small demonstration near the Israel Consulate in Montreal, which happened to coincide with my family visit there. This was no anti-Israel demonstration, something I would not participate in. It was rather an expression of support for the hundreds of thousands of Israeli demonstrators, including my wife and me, who have been protesting weekly for over four months against the Government’s proposed judicial overhaul and in favour of a robust Israeli democracy. Montreal is where I was born, raised and educated Jewishly, and I have many family members and friends there. My family name is known because of the iconic clothing store my father founded there in 1928, which is still going, presided over by the third generation of our family. I am a local boy who made aliyah 47 years ago, served in the army and raised four sons in Israel.

Why was the demonstration limited to 100 or so participants? Several people told me that, while sympathizing strongly with the protestors in Israel, they were uncomfortable about joining a demonstration near the Israel Consulate in Montreal. Why? Because of appearances, of fostering the impression that Jews were somehow “against” Israel and thereby providing justification to Israel’s enemies and validation to the anti-Semites who are never far away. It didn’t matter that this demonstration was emphatically pro-Israel and a celebration of Israeli democracy. The unstated assumption was that the role of Diaspora Jews is simply to support Israel and its government, and to keep any disagreements about them within the family, undisclosed publicly.

Some Israelis concur with this idea of the correct attitude of Diaspora Jews to Israel. On returning to Israel a few days ago, in the midst of a missile barrage from Gaza, one of my right-wing friends (yes, I have some) criticized me for “dissing Israel while abroad”. He believes that Israel and its government, especially its present government, are one and the same. It is bad enough that I am so critical of Netanyahu + Ben-Gvir + Smotrich + the haredi parties here at home. When I do it at a demonstration in Canada, I am committing something close to treason.

It would be easy to belittle this attitude with a classic Zionist “negation of the Diaspora” line. The success of Zionism and the creation of an independent Jewish state should have liberated the Jews, including Israeli Jews, from their obsessions about the Gentiles. Who cares what they think or say about us now, what matters is what the Jews DO! Of course we have our internal disagreements, just like any other people. That is nothing to be ashamed of or to feel we have to hide. Beyond that, since when do the anti-Semites and enemies of Israel need any encouragement, or seek it from us?

It would be easy, and fatuous, to respond in that pompous bravado vein. Jews are still a minority in the Diaspora. Anti-Semitic incidents, including violent ones, are lately on the rise. Paradoxically, some and perhaps many of those incidents are connected directly to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Diaspora Jews do not have to live in daily fear of attack, but to claim they have no cause for concern is arrogant and cavalier. Israel is a source of security and pride, but also sometimes of danger. Try attending a synagogue in most European countries, and you will need first to satisfy the security guards at the gate. Security measures at Jewish communal institutions in North America have become routine.

Many Diaspora Jews are reluctant to criticize Israel or its government. They reason: We don’t live there and don’t have kids in the army or the same stake. Let me suggest two reasons why this well-intentioned attitude is mistaken. First, those Diaspora Jews who feel so much love for Israel that they become passionate and articulate about its issues, are one of our greatest assets! They are a counterweight to the many other Diaspora Jews who are too apathetic and/or assimilated to care. I welcome their involvement and commitment, whether from the Left (New Israel Fund) or from the Right (Kohelet Forum) – so long as it is open and transparent. Second, we aspire to be the nation-state of the global Jewish people, which is not a simple or uncontroversial aspiration. But it is our raison d’être! We cannot take this position and deny Diaspora Jews the full right to participate in our internal discourse. It has real consequences for them as well.

Israel is hardly in the clear. No country is without problems, but how many have threshold nuclear powers committed to their annihilation? The basic question of whether Israel is to be a democratic, open, pluralist, constitutional, live-and-let-live type of society, or rather one in which orthodox religious norms and nationalist settler priorities increasingly dominate – remains unresolved. The shrill intensity of Israel’s internal controversies has always been singular, never more than in recent months when even President Herzog felt compelled to warn against the danger of civil war!

The stubborn persistence of the existential conflict with the Palestinians continues to cast its shadow over the country. Fifty-six years after the Six-Day War, Israel remains locked into its control of the West Bank and heavily engaged in fending off Arab terror from there, Gaza and Lebanon. The achievements of its settler movement have made the two-state solution a distant dream, while taking a deep toll on Israel’s international standing. Opposition to Israel’s position vis-à-vis the Palestinians has grown enormously, particularly in the media and academic worlds, with harsh consequences for the identification of younger generations of Diaspora Jews with the Jewish State.

The Israel-loving Montreal Jews who expressed discomfort about demonstrating against or just around Israel’s Consulate were not only concerned about their own status in the eyes of their non-Jewish neighbours. They were in my opinion primarily distressed about Israel’s standing in a world which tends to judge it according to double standards not expected of other countries. Israel has to contend daily with its enemies in the mass and social media, in the battle over images and public sympathy. All too often, especially in its conduct in the West Bank, Israel makes life easy for its critics. There is simply no painless way to “manage” a civilian population fundamentally opposed to your presence there. Israel can describe this any way it likes, but almost everyone else calls it “occupation”.

Back to the question with which we began. Certainly Israel’s existence has impacted powerfully since 1948 on Jewish self-perceptions and the available options of Jewish life, though not as much as expected. Unintended consequences are always in play. We have our sovereignty, independence and a Jewish sanctuary, a vast blessing and privilege which our grandparents could barely fantasize about and our generation is charged to protect and nurture. But our insecurities are far from over, not in the Diaspora, nor even sadly in Israel.

The responsibility of sustaining Israel lies heavily on our shoulders, as we struggle to justify the awesome sacrifices which preceded its birth and enable its daily survival. We are not satisfied with just surviving, which is difficult enough, and have a certain double standard of our own. We want to create a society worthy of our forbears, our prophets and our hopes, and to avoid the disastrous errors which doomed our people in ancient times. We continue trying and falling short, worrying, warning and trying again.

Zionism was very focused on the abnormal predicament of the Jewish people, with its precarious minority status in the Diaspora, exposing it to endless persecution. “Normalizing” the Jewish situation by creating a full-fledged Jewish country was intended to heal this malady. It would also give those Jews still living in the Diaspora a purchase on normality through their association with a proud, sovereign nation – theoretically.

Some of this has come to pass, but reality is always more complicated than our dreams. The most we can say is that this normalization is a work in progress, and doesn’t happen automatically. Jewish insecurity and self-doubt have not all been erased and replaced by serene self-confidence: they linger. Normalization in the sense of relaxation and casual self-assurance, in the way the Italians can treat Italy and their “Italian-ness” and the French their “French-ness”, is not yet here. A certain tension and subjective pressure continue to pervade our Jewishness and Israeliness, and maybe always will. Maybe that kind of normalization was never in the cards for us. Maybe it is not even “normal” for the Jews, state or no state. Who decides what constitutes normal anyway?

Jewish tradition posits that we have rights deriving from the virtues of our ancestors, going back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, the Bible also insisted that our title to the Land of Israel was not eternal, but rather conditional on creating a just society there – a message hammered home by the Prophets. The relation of the Jews to their God and the benefits He bestows is thus covenantal, or contractual. In every generation anew, we are expected to live up to its terms (whether we observe Jewish rituals or not), to pass the test of moral living, individually and collectively.

That is the price of our freedom and self-determination, and the never-ending challenge of “being a free people in our land”, as we sing in the Israeli national anthem. Establishing a sovereign state in which Jews are the responsible majority multiplied the stakes and expectations enormously.  That really is a gigantic work in progress, with no allowance for smug resting on our laurels. It demands the finest efforts of Jews everywhere, both in Israel and abroad. That part of “the Jewish condition” is not meant to change, but to continue challenging and inspiring – or threatening – us. May we prove worthy.

About the Author
Born and raised in Montreal, Canada, studied at McGill, U. of California, Berkeley, and the London School of Economics, living in Israel since 1976, former director of the WUJS Institute (Arad) and of the Israel-Diaspora Institute (Tel Aviv U.), involved in the Israeli plastics industry (former vice-president of ZAG Ltd.), and later in the aquaculture industry in Sri Lanka. Resident in Ra'anana.