Jonathan Goldin
Psychotherapist, Podcaster, Eclectic Jew

Israel/Diaspora: Either/Or vs Both/And


I’m beginning to feel deeper empathy for the existential dilemma for those Jews who have become shut down, shut out, or shouted down about their connection to Israel or Jewish identity.  And we have the power to do something about it both radical and effective. But it’s not simple or instant. 

The “we” in this case is anyone, Jewish or not, Israeli or not, that can convey emblematic stories of Jewish wisdom, struggle, and heroism about Jews there or HERE! 

To emphasize even louder, “What part of the word ‘here’ do you not understand?”

My newfound empathy goes like this: the nation state called Medinat Yisrael (as distinct from Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael) is now showing the world its arrogant and oppressive side. The optics suck, and thus Israel holds little or no attraction, but rather is a source of shame and confusion for many Diaspora Jews, especially under the age of …forty? fifty?

This is about two divides: between Israel and Diaspora and between the generations. Baby Boomers like myself still recall being inspired by the Six Day War and the outpouring of solidarity, admiration, and volunteering in its aftermath. I was one of those volunteering on kibbutzim beginning summer of 1969, and for my generation it’s non-negotiable that Israel exist. 

But for those who’ve only known Israel through decades of its abuse of power, their sense of Jewishness is not as deeply linked  to or burdened by the reality of Israel. What fills the Jewish identity gap for them is problematic because there’s been almost no attempt to inculcate a Jewish American identity via stories and themes that magnify the triumphs and tribulations of our journey.

Since Israel enjoys plenty of officials, citizens, volunteers, and supporters able and willing to counter the alienation that younger Jews in the Diaspora feel, let’s weigh in for the Diaspora side. I’m in synch with the vision of Ahad Ha’am, who promoted the potential synergy of Israel and Diaspora, thus taking a both/and approach. 

What is this entity called Diaspora and specifically its American version? 

Forget the statistics and get straight to the narratives of some pathbreaking American Jews. It’s specific stories that have the impact to wrench the heart, stir the conscience, or provoke the passionate need to act! 

Resurrect some of hidden gems of our American journey, which far too long has lacked an overarching theme beyond achieving the American Dream, advocating and volunteering for the State of Israel, and remembering the Holocaust.

To set the record straight and fill some of the deficit, here’s just a slice of our history as Jewish Americans. 

Emma Lazarus, posthumously famous for her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, is considered America’s first important Jewish poet. The inscription which reads in part,

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It was Jewish sponsored labor unions and workers in New York and other cities; garment workers and meatcutters, among others, who fought exploitation and oppressive conditions and helped build a mass movement, secure government protected rights, and make the five-day work week the norm.

It was Jews who provided a model of immigrant resettlement with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) which helped launch the social work profession and paved the way for other immigrant groups to be protected, integrated, and respected.

It was Jews who helped build and fund almost many of the progressive pro-civil rights, pro-individual freedom movements, and mass opposition to the Vietnam War. Jewish lawyers helped defeat segregation, racism, and oppression against black people. One of the most respected progressive Supreme Court Justices, Louis Brandeis of Boston, has a university named after him! 

In June 1964, three Summer Freedom Riders, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were murdered in Mississippi. Schwerner and Goodman were New York City Jews. The story has resonated for decades and was the subject of a major Hollywood film, Mississippi Burning, 1988. 

Jews developed the Broadway musical, stand-up comedy, the Borscht Belt of the Catskills, the Yiddish theatre, and much of the film and television industry of writers and producers and directors and actors and studio founders and executives. 

It was Jewish songwriters, producers, talent agents, and record company executives and founders who ushered in rock’n’roll, Broadway musicals, and elements of jazz and classical. 

Four Jews collaborated on and off for almost a decade to write, produce, direct, choreograph, provide lyrics and the score which became West Side Story (one of the greatest Broadway musicals and films) in 1960: Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, and Arthur Laurents. Lenny’s groundbreaking score was also used in the remake of 2022, directed by Stephen Spielberg.

Jewish athletic coaches, particularly in the NBA such as Red Auerbach, set new standards for humanistic coaching and Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, and heavyweight fighters such as Max Baer, demonstrated that Jews can also be gutsy and tough. 

Jews built the fashion industry including some of the most famous fashion houses and department stores. The Garment District, in New York is just one proof of this.  

Jewish philanthropists have endowed and continue fund a vast spectrum of educational and cultural institutions which has become a model of philanthropy across the board.

Jewish scientists stood against nuclear testing and nuclear war, including Albert Einstein who also just happened to change the course of history forever with his mind, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the creators of the atom bomb. 

This is a universal lesson that a small group in number can wield massive influence via hard work and vision. Not by an evil conspiracy but through strong-willed, focused intentions and energy, born of oppression, and combined with belief in God, or secular humanism, or socialism.

Despite these gifts to the fabric of our country, we’re misunderstood; most American and Jewish Americans aren’t aware of the Jewish contributions as an overall force for progress and significant to the history of our country. 

Why is understanding of Jews and Jewishness so lacking, and misunderstanding so simple? Could it just be that we are a complex people, almost the quintessential definition of modernism, multilayered to the core, and lacking cohesion as no consensus among us is possible or wanted.

We see outrageous misunderstanding, even (or especially) by members of the World of Ivy, students, and faculty. Just a quick glance at the fanatics online, who can’t even recognize that our attachment to the Land of Israel, which extends for thousands of years, is real or legitimate!

But I fault our leadership, educators, and academics for focusing primarily on the Holocaust to explain our history and universal moral lessons. 

The Holocaust lessons of Jewish Heroism and the cautionary tale of Silent Bystanders are important takeaways but to limit our awareness to the “never again” trauma of the near obliteration of European Jews, is insufficient to explain who we are.

It would be analogous to limiting Black History to their enslavement, without celebrating the triumphs and tribulations and outstanding contributions they’ve contributed to the fabric of our nation.

We need new models of leadership that embodies the both/and   path, not the disastrous false choice of either/or.

When it comes to developing and disseminating new ideas, Jews are at the forefront. When we can tell our own story with pride and courage, the compulsive need to debate with fanatics will fade.

About the Author
Jonathan (Johnny) Goldin is a psychotherapist (LICSW) in private practice for more than 20 years, first in Amherst and now Lexington, MA. Known particularly for his work with Adult ADHD he completed his MSW at Boston University in 1997, received a J.D. from American University Law School 1982 and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1983. He's been to Israel seven times between 1969-1994 and lived in Jerusalem 71-72. Born and raised near Washington, DC, he's also lived in the Bay Area (CA), the Boston Area, and Western Massachusetts.
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