A response to Asa-El

The Zionist vision, the future of the Jewish people in Israel and in the Diaspora

Amotz Asa-El (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Amotz Asa-El
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)

Amotz Asa-El’s B’nai B’rith Award-winning series of essays in The Jerusalem Report, published in full in the June 27 issue, is an important and thought-provoking analysis of the centrality of the State of Israel in the future of the Jewish people and Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora. As non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewish communities decline while Israel flourishes, basic differences between the two, conflicts and controversies have arisen which threaten traditional relationships and cause tensions. Although not new, these differences have become more prominent. Asa-El’s examination of some of them, therefore, is an opportunity to think about the cause, what can be done, and, where no solutions are available, to live with what is – and remain friends.
Solidarity, he reminds us, is vitally important for Israel and the Diaspora. But that is being tested by some Diaspora Jews whose demands on Israel verge on blackmail, conditioning support on acquiescence. It’s a dangerous game because Israeli leaders are elected to serve their country and its citizens. That’s the way a democracy works. Outsiders may pay, but they don’t get to play. Israel cannot afford to make strategic mistakes and take security risks to satisfy wealthy foreign investors and powerful politicians. Criticism of Israeli policies, moreover, often fails to appreciate the nature of Israeli society and disregards what could turn out to be dire consequences; it is not only confusing, but it undermines solidarity.
One of Asa-El’s interesting proposals is that Israel become a “new spiritual” center. Although not a new idea, it could provide a bridge for a more sustained and creative relationship in reviving Diaspora communities. Eretz Yisrael has always been and will continue to be the spiritual center of the Jewish people. The continuity, of course, is the historical connection. During the first and second Jewish commonwealths, Jewish life centered on the Temple; in exile Jews turned in prayer towards Israel; in Israel they pray towards Jerusalem, and in Jerusalem towards the Temple Mount. This is a statement not only about faith, but consciousness. Jewish life and culture could and did flourish throughout the world, but Jewish history in Eretz Yisrael was central. A glass shattered at every Jewish wedding, building a sukkah, observing special holy days and festivals are essential parts of Jewish life, even though they may be observed minimally. Jewish memory is the key to Jewish survival; the focus was and is Eretz Yisrael.
Israel’s role as a “spiritual center,” however, depends not only on its political status, but its place as the third Jewish commonwealth, Zionism as a civilization, encompassing all of the creativity and passion which Jews express and imagine. Inspired by archeological discoveries, which document the history of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael, there is an instant connection between ancient and modern Jews. There is nothing more powerful than standing at a historical site and reading a relevant passage from the Bible to feel the transformative experience. Even more exciting, these discoveries document the authenticity of the Bible. Yet, contemporary issues intrude.
Fundamental questions remain: who is a Jew and what does being a Jew mean? Is it biological, or does it require making a commitment and being involved? Asa-El refers vaguely to “semi-Jews,” but that is not a valid Jewish or coherent category. One is a Jew by birth, or conversion; it requires self- identity and commitment. Israeli nationality, serving in the IDF and Israeli citizenship are not substitutes for Judaism and Jewish identity.
This leads to the heart of the problem: non-Orthodox Jewish congregations are dwindling; many are dying. Unable to sustain themselves due to assimilation and lack of interest, they rely on converts, non-converted spouses and gay/lesbian couples to fill their empty seats. This brings into question the nature of the conversion process and conflicts with the Israeli Rabbinate, which adheres to halacha and has a mandate from the state to decide such issues as marriage and divorce. Non-halachic “Jews” can and do become Israeli citizens, but their Jewish status is questionable. All sides need to ensure that our tent is open and accessible – and that there is a tent. Without a supporting structure the tent will collapse.
For Jews living in the Diaspora, it is easy to hide their identity and assimilate; in fact, most do. In Israel, however, one can not only live freely as a Jew, but can flaunt it. Being a Jew in Israel – unlike any other country -- is normal and experiential. Observing the laws of kashrut – even for secular kibbutzim which operate facilities for guests – is taken for granted. Observing Shabbat in Israel is not only a religious obligation, but for many a cultural norm. Israeli cultural and social life reflect a wide variety of interests and vibrant creativity. Opportunities for Torah study in Israel are virtually unlimited. This provides a nurturing atmosphere for exploring and living one’s “spirituality” as a Jew.
Asa-El proposes “a cluster of new universities” that will bring Diaspora Jews to Israel to be trained as pro-Israel Jewish educators. Students won’t make aliyah, but will return to their homes (in the Diaspora), which “will help the Diaspora preserve itself and also find new meaning.” He envisions “secular Jewish schools,” whatever that means, since “secular” and “Jewish” are contradictory, but hopes that an Israeli experience will bridge the gaps between “non-Orthodox” and “traditional” (I suppose he means observant) ways of life. How will that happen and what does that entail? And, who will run the new university? Will it be called “Birthright U” or “Diaspora U”?
Brandeis University was supposed to provide a Jewish pro-Israel experience, but it failed. Moreover, Israel already has wonderful yeshivot – such as Aish HaTorah, Or Samayach, Darche Noam, and Machon Meir, and women’s seminaries such as Nishmat – which provide a real Jewish education. The Shechter Institute (Conservative) and Hebrew Union College (Reform) also attract Diaspora students.
Rather than invest in a new campus, subsidies could be provided for Jewish students from abroad at Israeli universities and, if necessary, current facilities could be expanded or new ones built. Moreover, Israel’s Open University has online classes. Other Israeli institutions could produce virtual classrooms throughout the world where people can access lectures on Judaism, Jewish history and the Israeli perspective at anytime and anywhere. Although there is nothing like being in Israel, this could supplement learning and would serve millions, who cannot move to Israel due to family responsibilities or financial reasons.
The fundamental problem with Asa-El’s proposal of a “New Spiritual Center” is its lack of Jewish content, the religious and historical connection between the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael. A spiritual center is not built on economic, technological, literary and musical achievements and innovations; it is founded on Judaism, living one’s life as an authentic Jew. The problem is that since the Oslo Accords, “the peace process” and accepting a Palestinian state became the focus instead of Israeli national and strategic interests.
Asa-El acknowledges the failure of the Rabin/Peres “New Middle East” as a form of “Spiritual Zionism,” but he does not account for why it failed. It was based on false, unrealistic beliefs, such as “land for peace” and “the two state solution,” i.e., another Palestinian state. Issues such as “the occupation” and “the Palestinian narrative” masked the reality of incitement and terrorism. It was an attempt to cut down, or at least curtail a new social and political force that was challenging the Left’s power: Religious Zionism.
Religious Zionists are taking on the Left’s political and social dominance. This power struggle transcends any notions of unity and even national survival, and is evident in politics and policies. For example, it explains why the Left supports withdrawal from Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), and supported the Oslo Accords and withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria (“Disengagement”). Catastrophic mistakes, they are rooted in an ideological conflict that reverberates throughout Israeli society and influences Israel-Diaspora relations as well.
Liberal, Progressive, Reform and Conservative movements in the Diaspora have made their peace with the Orthodox at home because they can function independently. They are at odds with the Orthodox in Israel, however, because state and religion overlap. Secular, pluralistic, humanistic Jews continue to reject authentic Judaism and oppose Israel as a Jewish state – that is a state which prioritizes the interests of Jews and the Jewish people. Seeking to harm Israel and Jews living beyond the Green Line (armistice lines of 1949) while supporting the Arab Palestinian war against Jews, directly and indirectly undermines the state and the Jewish people. It is no surprise, therefore, that all anti-Israel organizations, which claim to be Jewish, are led by secular and non-observant Jews, and those persons who claim to be Jewish.
Although non-Orthodox Jewish communities in the Diaspora are increasingly dependent on Israel to ensure Jewish survival, many Jews and especially Jewish leaders fail to understand or appreciate that our relationship is symbiotic. There will always be differences and tensions, but nurturing a willingness to overcome differences, we can embrace common interests and goals. Torah is our guide; Hatikvah is our anthem; Hebrew is our language; and Eretz Yisrael is our sacred homeland.
The State of Israel will continue to welcome every Jew; that is its raison d’être. It will continue to be a Jewish spiritual center, a place where Jewish creativity flourishes and where one can find meaning and purpose. That is the Zionist vision.
The author is a PhD historian, writer, and journalist. His book of short stories, ‘As Far As the Eye Can See,’ was published by the New English Review Press