I recently was invited to address some Israeli NGO leaders regarding “how can Israelis help bridge the gap between the Diaspora and the State of Israel.” This question reflects Zionist maturity, acknowledging that Diaspora Jews aren’t waiting with passports stamped and bags packed to make aliya.
A healthy relationship requires Israeli self-reflection, responsibility and creativity. It also requires some Israeli sensitivity to Diaspora realities – which should have stopped right-wingers from supporting an idiotic Banana Republic law barring boycott activists that makes Israel look undemocratic. It also should have stopped Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg from flying to AIPA C’s Policy Conference (I’m guessing on the Jewish people’s dime), then joining boycott protesters outside. She looked foolish: she explained she is “against the occupation and with Israel,” but she was duped; some of her fellow protesters are simply against Israel.
So, the first answers emphasize what not to do. The aliya guilt trip, whereby heavily-accented, pot-bellied Israeli war veterans insult Diaspora Jews for not living a pure life in Israel must enter the museum of Zionist anachronisms with the Jaffa orange and the kova tembel (tembel hat). Also, because most Diaspora Jews are secular, invoking God’s name won’t help. Finally, the antisemitism card, the Crisis Zionism that ignited the movement thankfully doesn’t work in free democracies. Beyond what Natan Sharansky calls an “aliya of choice” we need a voluntary, affirmative Identity Zionism, seeking roots and meaning.
The second answer is also easy. Just as we say “happy kids, happy parents,” an “Israel with fewer ills is Zionism fulfilled.” Imagine a Diaspora-Israel conversation with Israel as the exemplary society Zionists envisioned: peaceful, just, equitable. Israel wouldn’t be caricatured as the central Jewish headache but would inspire.
Most pressing, anyone concerned about Israeli-Diaspora relations must push the Netanyahu government to implement the Western Wall compromise permitting egalitarian prayer. True, this symbolic issue most irks the minority of engaged Reform and Conservative Jews. Still, rabbis and Jewish leaders consider this the test determining whether Israel respects Diaspora Jewry and its pluralism.
Just as Israeli Zionism finally accepts the democratic diasporas as lasting communities, Diaspora Zionism has shifted. American Zionism used to be Social Work Zionism, sending other, oppressed Jews to live a hard, heroic life “over there.” Now, in the Age of Birthright, Identity Zionism dominates, asking not what you can you do for Israel, but asking what can your country – Israel – do for you? Israel is no longer the Ark, saving Jews from storms of Jew hatred. Israel can be every Jew’s personal burning bush – offering an inspiring, redemptive Jewish “wow” moment in the Holy Land.
Israel should also be the Jewish People’s new Tent of Abraham, welcoming, open on all four sides, but defined clearly – offering natural, appealing, 24/7, 3-D Judaism.
While modernizing, Israel should remain counter-cultural.
• Israel is a small, dynamic country where individuals can make a difference, not a big, static country where individuals often feel powerless.
• Israel remains a country pivoting around “we” not just “me.” Family counts. Community matters. National service is a value, particularly for young people whose peers elsewhere follow a more indulgent path. Zionism emphasizes giving, even sacrificing, to find greater meaning in your life, countering the American culture of getting up front, and eventually getting around to giving.
• Israel is about yesterday and tomorrow, not just here and now. Theodor Herzl’s “Altneuland
,” Old-New land, appreciates tradition for orienting us in a changing world.
Israel must make the unfashionable fashionable, fighting postmodern materialism, nihilism and cynicism with nationalism, patriotism, communalism, religion and heritage. Zionism offers four Mems: masoret
, tradition; moledet
, homeland; musar,
morality; and mishpacha,
family, as building blocks of healthy communities – and fulfilling lives.
More practically, while triggering this ideological shift, consider five practical initiatives:
• Take Taglit-Birthright Israel’s open yet focused approach: by inviting participants to chart their own “Jewish journeys” with no organizational or ideological strings attached, Birthright offers Jews welcoming, non-judgmental opportunities to experience the Jewish homeland, engage with Jewish traditions and feel a part of the Jewish People.
• Get personal: Israelis should open their homes to visitors, not just for Shabbat meals but for interactions that become more memorable when you see where your new friend lives, not just the local cafe.
• Build communities through careerism: most moderns identify themselves by their jobs, and internships and exchanges based on common career interests can evolve from professional identities to Jewish and Zionist identities.
• Learn the two key lessons of the Jewish Agency’s P2K, now called P2G, Partnership2Gether: get intimate, go mutual. Rather than supporting “Israel” generically, Diaspora Jews built community to community ties. By hosting Israelis, not just being hosted, and building long-term projects and relationships, Jews built friendships, history, pride with Israelis in their “adopted” homes, acquiring special footholds in their homeland.
• Resurrect Hebrew – not English – as the Jewish People’s language: uniting through language unites the people. We neglect Hebrew’s importance in transmitting Israeli culture, Jewish tradition and Zionist pride. Teaching even a little Hebrew can give Diaspora Jews keys to unlocking Israeli culture and Judaism.
Finally, as Birthright’s Mifgash program and many Israel-Diaspora initiatives teach, healthy exchanges help Israelis, not just Diaspora Jews. Israelis often learn about building more creative, voluntary, pluralistic Jewish lives; Diaspora Jews often learn about building deeper, more enveloping Jewish lives. Such mutuality creates the lasting bonds we need to unite without adversity despite our diversity.The author, a Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University and a Visiting Professor at the Ruderman Program at Haifa University, is the author of
The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, published by St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s
The Zionist Idea. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.