The current crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations, grave as it might be, is not unprecedented. Throughout the history of the Yishuv and the 70 years of the State of Israel, there have been various flashpoints and escalations, dating back to the 1920s, when Haim Weizmann and Louis Brandeis clashed over control of the Zionist movement. David Ben-Gurion’s first visit to the United States as Israeli Prime Minister only took place in May 1951, after a bilateral agreement was reached not with the US government, but with the leaders of the American Jewish community, preventing the Israeli leader from calling on US Jews to make aliyah. Together with the sense of kinship, there are and will remain diverging interests in the relationship between Israel and American Jewry.
Yet there is something fundamentally different this time around. The significance of the current situation lies in its religious aspect, which cuts to the core of American Jewish identity. The deal between the Mapai establishment of Israel in its first decade and North American Jewry was a marriage of convenience. The secular leaders of Israel, despite their often-Orthodox upbringings, did not much care about the mostly liberal religious identity of American Jews. Reform and Conservative identities were hardly understood and occasionally ridiculed, but it was not a key factor in the relationship, and the discourse evolved mostly around the question of the negation of the Galut (Diaspora) or its legitimation.
This mode can best be epitomized by the now famous poem of Nathan Alterman, New Pumbedita, which mocked the idea of two Jewish cultural centers — like Jerusalem and Babylon of old — and claimed essentially that Jewish American thought was designed to justify their aversion to immigrating to Israel.
But Israel has changed. In recent decades, Israel has been undergoing a post-secular turn. Religion has gained significant political and cultural traction, and the public sphere has become contested around issues of Shabbat, and so on. Religious and political identities have been fused together, and the secular reading of Zionist history is being replaced by a mostly religious one. The events of today, of the movement of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, symbolize the completion of this transformation of power from the secular-based Israeli identity of Tel Aviv, to the sanctified one of Jerusalem.
In some circles, the move carries religious weight, where President Trump is portrayed as Cyrus, the Persian king who helped the Jews return from exile and build the Temple in Jerusalem. The recent struggles around the right of prayer at the Western Wall can also best be understood against this backdrop, in that they demonstrate the way in which both the political and religious legitimacy of Diaspora Judaism is contested.
How did it come to this? And could things have been different? It is actually David Ben-Gurion who might hold the key to answering this question. Ben-Gurion’s religious worldview was often misunderstood. He never considered himself secular, and certainly not an atheist. His Spinozian understanding of God and fascination with the Prophets bore many resemblances to Jewish-American thought. In a letter from 1963, as the complexity of religion-and-state issues hit home, Ben-Gurion writes: “I will not belong to any community — not Reform, not traditional [Conservative] nor Orthodox, but I perceive the existence and the reign of the Orthodox community in Israel to be a disaster and a falsification.”
After accounting for the Israeli election system, which he claimed gave a small minority political power it did not deserve, he goes on to say: “But the blame lies also with the Jews that have a need for a synagogue — even once a year — that there is no synagogue in which men and women pray together, not necessarily using the traditional wording, which contains passages that the modern taste cannot tolerate (such as sacrifices etc.).“ Ben-Gurion is wagging his finger at non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, who had left the sphere of religious practice and organization solely to the Orthodox.
Healing the rift between Israel and Diaspora Jews therefore requires a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, there is a need for better understanding of American Jewish life and religious traditions by the Religious-Zionist and traditional publics in Israel. On the other hand, secular, liberal and other stakeholders in the complex and hybrid landscape of contemporary Jewish identity in Israel need to understand what is at stake for them as well. After 70 years of independence, it is now the responsibility of the State of Israel to suggest a new model for intra-Jewish relations in Israel and abroad, which lives up to the vision of Israel as a home for the entire Jewish people.
David Barak-Gorodetsky is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Israel Studies at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is one of the organizers of the panels discussing Israel’s relations with the Jewish world at the international conference, Israel: A Case Study – The Jewish State through the Prism of the Social Sciences and the Humanities, being held this week at Ben-Gurion University’s Sede Boqer campus.