Leif Knutsen
Leif Knutsen

My Israel cousins, siblings, and my own mirror

Self portrait of the author at Kibbutz Palmachim in 1979.
Self portrait of the author at Kibbutz Palmachim in 1979.

The “Unpacking Israeli History” podcast episode “Does Israel Represent All Jews?” was the triggering event for this piece and is worth listening to or reading for many reasons, including providing context for what you are about to read.

To a great extent, the history Noam Weissman recounts in his episode concerns how Israeli and Jewish American leaders try to figure out their mutual and separate interests through several stages of Israeli and American history. I have several thoughts:

  • Just to be clear: The situation for American Jewry is not immediately applicable to Jews and Jewish communities in other countries. To paraphrase Tolstoy, each Jewish community has complications in its own way.
  • There’s an underlying disagreement about the premises for the discussion. Jewish Americans have for the most part treated as a given that the US is their permanent home, whereas Israelis are less sanguine.
  • The extent to which you feel that Israel is entitled to speak on your behalf therefore depends on whether you think of an Israeli as a cousin, a sibling, or the person in the mirror.
  • You obviously wish your Israeli cousin well, but the differences between you don’t keep you up at night. You know how to avoid certain topics when you occasionally meet at various kinds of events. You’re not going to feel disloyal if you disagree with your cousins in public, and you may even be open about your differences. You may or may not be invited to their important events, and you don’t need a big excuse to stay away.
  • You’re willing to stick up for your sibling, even if they’ve taken a path and chosen a life that’s different from yours. You will make an effort to understand his or her point of view, empathize with their decision, even make sacrifices for their well-being. You show up for their lifecycle events and will behave appropriately. Any differences you have you try to keep private.
  • The day you look yourself in the mirror and realize you have become or should become an Israeli constitutes a momentous existential event. It may be joyous, a dream fulfilled; or it may be full of ambivalence, because you had to reluctantly give up one thing that was valuable to you in order to get something else; or it may be terribly sad, brought about by fear, resignation, or disillusionment. Most likely, it’s way more complicated than these three scenarios.
  • For any given Jew, this is likely to change through a lifetime, from day to day, or even hour to hour. Jews born in Israel emigrate and keep in touch with their Israeli siblings; Diaspora Jews see their close friends and family make aliyah; and they will contemplate and sometimes act on that option themselves.
  • For all its diversity and controversy, Zionism has a constancy of purpose that has no credible countermovement. What it’s like to be a Jew in the Diaspora varies tremendously from country to country and over time; but the Israeli proposition remains the same: move here, become an Israeli.
  • This feeds in a problematic neurosis: Jewish Norwegians, Americans, Canadians, Brits, Australians, Swedes, etc., are integrated, loyal, dedicated citizens of their respective countries. Living in liberal, ostensibly tolerant and diverse societies, they should never have to experience any contradiction between their Jewish and Norwegian, American, Canadian, British, Swedish, etc. identities. In fact, it would be a fundamental failing of these Western liberal democracies if such contradictions became real issues.
  • Obviously, Jewish Norwegians, Americans, Canadians, Brits, Australians, Swedes, etc., will make every effort to reduce these contradictions in their own countries. Making aliyah under pressure to become less Jewish is to capitulate not just on Jewish life in these countries, but also on the countries themselves. Norway, the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Sweden, etc., are not good societies for anyone if they are not good societies for Jews.
  • If Israel wants to play a more constructive role in the life of Diaspora Jewry, it needs to fully recognize and position itself to not just its siblings, but also its cousins.
  • If Diaspora Jewry wants to build legitimacy and voice in Israel, we need to fully appreciate both the diversity as well as the constancy of purpose that Zionism provides. We may vehemently disagree with Israeli policy and be saddened by the necessity of Israel’s existence, but we can’t ignore its obvious need.
About the Author
Leif Knutsen has observed, reflected, and written on Israeli and Jewish issues since the late 70s and has personal experience from Jewish life in the US and Norway. He is currently one of the oldest PhD students in Norway, conducting research on digitalization of complex organizations.
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