Life as a Diaspora Jew

As a Jew living in Canada, I love and support the Jewish homeland. I have always felt connected to Israel and eagerly anticipate my next visit. However, I still struggle with my role as a Jew living outside of Israel. In recent years, I’ve begun to notice the uninformed and stereotypical opinions that some Israelis have of Diaspora Jewry. According to the 2016 Pew Research study of the Israeli populace, 31 percent of Israeli Jews see little or no common ground between American Jews and Israeli Jews, and only 59 percent of Jewish Israelis think that American Jews have a ‘good influence’ on Israel. These data points validate my experiences. I have interacted with some Israelis who are not respectful of Jewish life in the Diaspora. Especially for Israelis who have never visited a large Diaspora Jewish community, they think of Israel as the sole centre of Jewish life; they believe that Jewish life outside of Israel is weak and pales in comparison. This isn’t necessarily rooted in malice but more likely rooted in ignorance. Nevertheless, it’s still frustrating; as a proud Canadian Jew, I am very aware of the strength of our Jewish community. I witness the strength of the Toronto Jewish community every single day as I enter the doors of my Jewish high school, TanenbaumCHAT, along with nearly 900 other Jewish teenagers. I witness the strength of the Toronto Jewish community when I march with over 20 000 people in the annual Walk With Israel. I am extremely proud to be a Canadian Jew.

For many Jews living outside of Israel, their Jewish identity is intrinsically linked to their national identity. I am not just a Jew. Rather, I am a Canadian Jew. My Canadian nationality is an adjective that describes my Jewishness. Since the Enlightenment, Jews have acculturated, infusing their country’s values into their Jewish identity to become a modern Jewish citizen. I believe in finding this important balance between modernity and religious connection. While others may find this in Israel, many Jews have found a suitable balance in their Diaspora Jewish communities. We as a global Jewish community should be fighting assimilation by encouraging this balance of tradition and modernity without assuming that aliyah is the only solution.

During my semester in Israel in 2016, I quickly lost count of the number of times people told me I should make aliyah. I was not upset by the comments themselves, which were often asked with the best of intentions; in fact, I love that Israelis are so welcoming and proud of their country! However, I was frustrated by many of the reactions after I expressed a lack of interest in making aliyah. Often, I was met with disappointment and even attempts to change my mind. Their efforts didn’t succeed. I remain a proud Canadian Jew with zero intention of making aliyah. I respect and admire anyone who takes the leap and decides to make aliyah. However, I am troubled by the notion that a Jew must make aliyah to be truly accepted.

There have always been and will always be Jews living outside of Israel. Anyone who has studied Jewish history knows that there has been a sizeable population of Jews living outside of the Holy Land since the days of the Babylonian exile. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, only 44% of Jews live in Israel. If more than half of the global Jewish population lives outside of Israel, it is important to cater to them and help enhance their Jewish identities. Yes, there are issues of assimilation today just as there were in Babylon, but that should only embolden the global Jewish community to work harder to counter assimilation and strengthen Jewish identity. Doing so will maintain both the strength of Israel’s Jewish community as well as the richness and diversity of Jewish traditions in many other countries, guaranteeing Jewish continuity throughout the world. While Israel is a centre of Jewish life in the world, it is important to remember that it is not the sole centre of Jewish life. A tour of the Upper West Side or Thornhill or Le Marais would make that very clear. Jewish life continues to thrive both within Israel and in the Diaspora; both communities also face their own unique challenges. Neither is perfect, but both are important parts of the global Jewish community. We do not need to choose one over the other.

Although there is plenty of legitimate concern about the assimilation taking place outside of Israel, it seems to be happening in Israel as well; unfortunately, a significant portion of hilonim have lost most of their connection to the Jewish religion. Arguably, this population segment in Israel is nearly as unconnected to their Jewish heritage as many assimilated North American Jews. The biggest difference is that hilonim feel connected to their nationality as a citizen of the State of Israel, whereas assimilated Diaspora Jews lack any aspect of their identity that links them to Judaism. Hiloni Israelis do not feel the need to practice any Jewish traditions because they already live in a Jewish environment in Israel. In other words, no Jew must make the choice to be Jewish in Israel.

In contrast, Diaspora Jews do not live in a Jewish state. We do not have the privilege of being Jewish simply because we live in a Jewish environment. Instead, we must wake up every morning and make the choice to be Jewish. I think there’s something profound and special about this concept. It is easy for a Diaspora Jew to wake up and simply ignore his/her Judaism (Sadly, there are plenty of people who do exactly that. After all, it’s much easier not to practice religion in today’s secular world). But for those of us who make the daily decision to remain connected to our Jewish identities, we are doing something brave and admirable. While Israelis must serve in the IDF and struggle with the challenges of living in a difficult region of the world, Diaspora Jews must live their entire lives making the choice to be Jewish (something no Israeli will ever have to do). I’m not saying that there is an equivalency. I am, however, pointing out that both Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora face obstacles. Any Israeli who suggests that we are somehow lazy for living in the Diaspora is clearly missing out on the beauty of this daily choice to be Jewish.

As a Diaspora Jew, I often wonder why Israelis lack an understanding and appreciation of Diaspora Jewry. After a lot of thought, I think I may have an historical answer that is based on Israel’s economic development and the waves of immigration to Israel.

For the first few decades of Israel’s existence, the country accepted many Jewish immigrants, particularly those fleeing from Arab countries and Holocaust survivors emigrating from Europe. At the same time, the country was struggling to survive; poverty was rampant, the economy was weak, and powerful enemies surrounded and threatened Israel’s existence. In its first thirty or so years, Israel’s survival was heavily dependant on financial assistance from outside of Israel. Jews in the Diaspora fundraised huge amounts of money to support Israel’s economic development and finance its security. And since many Israelis were immigrants themselves, there was a much greater appreciation of Jewish life outside of Israel.

In the next stage of Israel’s history, it began to develop as a state, especially after signing a peace treaty with Egypt and increasing its military strength relative to its neighbours. In these next few decades of Israel’s development, Diaspora Jews continued to send money while also aggressively lobbying their governments to support Israel. Politicians in the U.S. government, lobbied by AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups, became ardently supportive of Israel, a shift from the more tenuous support of the 1940s-1970s. Meanwhile, Israel continued to receive large numbers of immigrants, this time from Ethiopia and later from the Soviet Union.

In my opinion, Israel is now in the third stage of its development. The Start-up Nation is thriving economically like never before. And despite Iran’s threat to the region, Israel has unparalleled defence technology and is the safest it has been in nearly 70 years of its existence. While it still receives billions of dollars of U.S. military aid, there is a far reduced need for Diaspora Jewry’s donations or lobbying assistance (although Israel is still isolated on the international stage, it hasn’t impacted the country’s day-to-day functioning). Simply put, Israel is the most self-sufficient it has ever been. Israel’s economic success has made it less reliant on the Diaspora for help. Since the mass immigration of Soviet Jews, which concluded around 2006, there has been no large-scale immigration to Israel. The young generation of Israelis identify primarily as Israeli, even if their parents emigrated from Russia or Ethiopia, or their grandparents emigrated from an Arab country or from Europe following the Holocaust. Since they were born in Israel and identify strongly with the Israeli nationality, this new generation of Israelis has much less of an understanding of Jewish life in the Diaspora compared to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The combination of these factors — Israel’s economic success and increased self-sufficiency, the development of an Israeli identity among the new generation of Israelis, and the absence of a recent wave of immigration to Israel — has, in my opinion, caused Israelis to feel less appreciative of Diaspora Judaism. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing that Israel is thriving and does not need to rely on Diaspora Jewry for its survival. However, it also means that there is a reduced feeling of co-dependence, which is weakening and straining the relationship between us.

At a certain point, Diaspora Jewry must demand the respect we deserve as members of the global Jewish community. I hate feeling that I am not a proper Jew unless I live in Israel. I don’t want my identity as a Canadian Jew to be frowned upon by the citizens of a country I love, support and admire. If we continue on this path, I am worried that future generations will not be able to experience the strong connection I feel to Israel.

We are all members of the global Jewish community. Our respective nationalities should not affect the strength of our relationship.

About the Author
Ben Levitt is a nineteen-year-old who studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Ben has always had a passion for writing and is excited about contributing to the blogs section of the Times of Israel. In grade ten, Ben participated in Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim, living in Israel for a semester. Ben is a proud graduate of Robbins Hebrew Academy and the Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.
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