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Yom HaAtzmaut reminders in the Diaspora

Spending Israel's Independence Day in Boston woke me to just how invested non-citizens can be in a country far across the globe
Illustrative. Blue lights shine across the Boston skyline in honor of Israel’s 70th Independence Day, April 18, 2018. (Israel in Boston via Twitter)
Illustrative. Blue lights shine across the Boston skyline in honor of Israel’s 70th Independence Day, April 18, 2018. (Israel in Boston via Twitter)

In the United States on the week of Yom HaAtzmaut for the first time in more than 20 years, I was fascinated by the plethora of celebrations taking place across Boston. Of course, I heard numerous Israelis in town point out that celebrations of Israel Independence Day pale in intensity and meaning in America relative to what they are in Israel, and that’s undoubtedly true. But perhaps because I hadn’t witnessed it in decades, what struck me about celebrations of Yom HaAtzmaut in America — besides the outstanding programming at Harvard Hillel, where I happened to be — is the simple fact that they happen at all. What other country’s Independence Day is celebrated by so many non-citizens across the world?

“Non-citizens,” of course, is a term that utterly fails to capture the intensely intimate relationship that has long existed between Diaspora Jews and the Jewish state. Indeed, it is the inadequacy of “citizenship” as an organizing principle that has made the modern State of Israel such a profoundly meaningful reality for Jews the world over. And in this era of an indisputably widening rift between American Jews and Israel, an era in which we focus a great deal of attention on the ways in which American Jews need to rethink their attitudes to Israel, it is worth using Yom HaAtzmaut as a moment of reflection on the ways that Israelis, too, need to rethink the relationship, if we are to build any sustainable bridges over the chasms that have grown between us.

It is commonly reported that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has despaired of the vast majority of American Jews. There are more evangelicals in the belt between Los Angeles and Texas than there are Jews in the entire world, he knows, and unlike American Jews, their number is not decreasing. They vote more conservatively than do American Jews and care about Israel as a matter of faith — which produces fewer vicissitudes in their commitments. Why “waste time” battling for the support of increasingly progressive American Jews, Netanyahu is said to mutter, when he can procure more American political support by cultivating the Evangelicals?

If what mattered were only votes in Congress and America’s veto at the Security Council, that calculus might make sense. The problem with the calculus, though, is that it ignores Israel’s very reason for being. Israel was never meant to be a state of (only) its citizens, but a state that is, at its core, devoted to the entire Jewish people. That has been true from the very beginning.

The 1917 Balfour Declaration spoke of a “national home for the Jewish people,” not just for the Jews who would elect to live in it. Likewise, Israel’s Declaration of Independence says towards its conclusion, “We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream — the redemption of Israel.” Zionism’s pioneers and Israel’s founders always saw a Jewish state as a project of the Jewish people — not of any one subset of Jews who chose to live there.

Come to the Diaspora for a while and you’re reminded: the relationship of the Jewish Diaspora to Israel is unlike that of any other Diaspora community to its home country. Consider Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. At Jewish gatherings across America (and around the world), Hatikvah is sung immediately after The Star-Spangled Banner by people who have no intention whatsoever of living in Israel and who understand little or no Hebrew. Singing words that they cannot translate, words of the anthem of a country they have no intention of ever living in, they find themselves deeply moved, sometimes to the point of tears. They may be Democrats or Republicans, religious or secular, young or old – but for generations, American Jews have sung that anthem as an expression of some ineffable dimension of their soul. How many people who are not actually French or Canadian citizens sing La Marseillaise or O Canada with that depth of sentiment?

Interestingly, following Israel’s creation, there was actually some discussion among American Jewish leaders and in American Jewish organizations as to whether American Zionists should cease singing Hatikvah. After all, some argued, Hatikvah was now no longer the anthem of a worldwide movement, but of a different sovereign state. Logically, one could have made a very good case for dropping Hatikvah in America. Emotionally, though, that simply could not have worked. And in somehow managing not to decide, American Jews de facto allowed emotion to trump logic, because the sense of Jewish peoplehood that Zionism had provided had become so central to their Jewish senses of self.

It is that sense of peoplehood, rather than mere citizenship, which gives Israel its emotional horsepower. Photographs of Israel’s ingathering of Yemenite Jews in the early years of the state remain moving to this day, as do recollections of Israel’s rescue of Ethiopian Jews decades later. The one million people who made their way to Israel from the Former Soviet Union are also testimony to Israel’s magnetic pull, and it is not accidental that there are regular exhibitions about their immigration, successes and challenges at museums and cultural centers across the country.

When my wife and I were just married and living in New York, we were sent, like many others, to the Soviet Union to meet with and to help Refuseniks (Soviet Jews who asked for permission from the USSR to emigrate, but who were harassed and even jailed instead). In preparation, we met only with contacts in New York, but we knew that behind those sending us was the government of Israel, which, because it then had no diplomatic relations with the USSR, was not able to send Israelis. As we made our way from Moscow to Kiev and to Odessa, mostly (but not always) succeeding in evading the KGB so we could meet with Soviet Jews who wanted desperately to move to Israel, I was moved by the sense of peoplehood that the trip’s web of Jewish commitments entailed. It was the Israeli government sending young American Jews to clandestine Jewish Zionists in the Soviet Union. Those American Jews brought back names and addresses that had been passed to us surreptitiously in crowded gatherings, so the names could be passed on to New York and then to Israel, which would issue official “invitations” for those people to exit the Soviet Union.

The outpouring of support for Israel in times of crisis is another demonstration of this deep sense of shared purpose. So, too, was American Jews’ grieving for Yitzchak Rabin; they mourned him as if he had been their head of state. In a way, he was. Those are manifestations of what a people does and feels when it is animated by a sense of mutual responsibility. Moments such as those have been repeated hundreds of times in Israel’s history, and Israel would do itself irreparable harm were it to imagine that it is simply a country of its actual citizens. It is a project of a people, thousands of years old, spread across the globe, united (in differing ways) by a commitment to this enterprise.

The sense of purpose that pervades Israeli life in myriad ways would cease were Israel ever to say that it does not need a relationship with American Jews. That one foolish step alone could destroy Israel’s sense of self and purpose, perhaps beyond repair. The issue is not (just) political support for Israel – the issue is keeping a sense of Jewish peoplehood at the core of Israelis’ understanding of themselves and the purpose of their country.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the best way for Israelis to begin to sense the centrality of peoplehood to their own country’s sense of purpose is to leave it. At Shalem College —Israel’s first and only liberal arts college, devoted to preparing some of Israel’s finest students to shape the Jewish state for the coming decades — we have taken a group of students to the Bay Area each year for an intensive introduction to American Jewish life. The “Shalem Jewish Peoplehood Project,” made possible by the Bay Area’s Koret Foundation, has proven that the views of sophisticated, adult Israelis can still be shaped by powerful engagements with Diaspora communities. As one of our students put it upon returning from the trip, “For the first time, I’ve come to understand that we [Israelis] also bear a responsibility for the Jews living in the Diaspora. It’s a relationship like any other — it needs to work both ways. We have an effect upon them just as they have an effect upon us.”

For thousands of years, the Jewish people has addressed its major challenges through tzedakah and talmud Torah — philanthropy and education. The bridge-building that the Koret Foundation enables our students to become part of combines the two. How will the relationship between the world’s two largest Jewish communities play out? None of us can know. But here is what I do know. Were our students in Boston this week, they would not have smirked at the many celebrations of Yom HaAtzmaut taking place here. They would have been reminded, once again, that it is the relationship between Israelis and Jews in Diaspora, a relationship unlike any other in the world, that is part of the magic that has brought the State of Israel this far. Indeed, that is a central part of the reason that we all, no matter where we live, have such extraordinary accomplishments to celebrate.

About the Author
Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His most recent book, "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn," (Ecco/HarperCollins, won the Jewish Book Council "Book of the Year" award. His next book, is entitled: We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel. It will be released in September 2019.
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