We will tell the story in Hebrew, and in English. In French and in Arabic. In Russian and in German. Around the world, whether in Israel or in the West, whether in major Jewish centers or the small remaining fragments of almost vanished Jewish communities, we will gather to read the Haggada and to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
It is the story of the ancient Israelites, of their redemption from slavery, and the beginning of their long trek to the Promised Land. Yet “in each generation we are obliged to see ourselves as if we, too, were redeemed from Egypt.” It is, therefore, not only their story, but ours as well. We, too, are communities that fled slavery, and we, too, are communities that sought Promised Lands.
Similar though the texts we will recite and study may be, the personal stories through which we read them are dramatically different. We fled different sorts of enslavement, and even more importantly, if we are to be honest, we chose very different Promised Lands. There are still thriving Jewish communities in Australia and in Europe, in South America and in Russia, but the vast majority of the world’s Jews are divided between two primary Jewish communities – the United States and Israel. Though we fret about the growing divide between American and Israeli Jews, the truth is that though the chasm may be painful, anything else would be surprising.
IN ONE community, Jews – while certainly confronted by a difficult acculturation at the outset and periodically since, have flourished, enwrapped by a wondrous blanket of physical safety in a society that has welcomed them in unprecedented ways and has afforded them opportunities for success that they never had anywhere else. In the other center, Jews have been struggling, at least since the outbreak of the Hebron riots in 1929 (making the Jewish-Arab war in the Middle East at least 87 years old), to keep themselves safe. Financial success has come to Israel, too, but the physical security that American Jews often take for granted remains elusive for Israelis.
Those Jews who went to America between 1880 and 1920 chose a country in which they believed a brighter future awaited them. Life would not necessarily be easy, but the goal was a brighter future, less poverty, more security. The Jews who came to Palestine at the same time often chose ideology over security, occasionally even wild-eyed passion over realism. Life in Palestine was, to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, often “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” For many of them, though, that was the price they were willing to pay for the ultimate goal, which was Jewish sovereignty.
If Jews went to America often seeking a more promising future for themselves and their families, many of the Jews who went to Palestine did so motivated by ideologues whose writing focused not on family, but on the future of the Jewish people. The enterprises were thus entirely different at their core.
The Jews who went to America knew that they would remain a small minority.
They might achieve unprecedented success, but they knowingly chose a land in which they would have to accommodate themselves to living amongst a Christian majority, and in which, though separation of church and state was paramount, the “ether” of society would be Christianity.
The Jews who went to Palestine, and then to Israel, chose a different “ether.”
They chose to be the majority, not the minority. They chose a society in which the entire purpose was not to divorce religion from the very purposes of the state (though today’s anti-Zionist, racist, misogynist Orthodox rabbinate in Israel clearly demands radical change), but to build a society on explicitly Jewish foundations.
For those raised on the certitude of the UJA “One People” slogan (an echo of Herzl’s declaration “We are a people, one people”), recognizing how different the world’s two leading Jewish communities have become is painful. Recent articles by Elliott Abrams and others in Mosaic Magazine, by Donniel Hartman in the Times of Israel and many others have bemoaned the widening divide between these communities, but offer different explanations and varying responses.
PERHAPS, THOUGH, as we prepare to recite the saga of our enslavement and our liberation, we ought to be guided not by sadness or by disappointment, but by a deepening awareness that we simply chose different sorts of liberation, disparate images of what thriving Jewish life meant. Perhaps the question that matters is not how we narrow the gap, but how, like cousins once close in childhood but growing distant in adulthood, we can support each other when needed, even as we recognize that the lives we choose to live will increasingly bear little resemblance one to the other.
Our Haggadot vary, often dramatically, but almost all of them include, somewhere towards the conclusion of the Seder, the words “Next Year in Jerusalem.” There is something lovely about Jews world-over sharing that vision, but here, too, is it not time to acknowledge that we mean very different things by that phrase? There are Jews who mean, literally, that they will be “next year in Jerusalem,” that whatever the challenges and the disappointments, whatever the dangers and the failures, that the vision of Jewish life to which they wish to dedicate their lives is one in which Jewish sovereignty and Jewish national renewal are core.
And there are other Jews for whom Jerusalem is symbolic; it is a metaphor for peace, for Jewish security, for Jewish flourishing.
Next year, these Jews mean, may we be a better people, a more secure but also a more selfless people, a more just people, a people more committed to the vision of the prophets who prophesied in and around Jerusalem.
They are both profound visions for Jewish life. Neither is easy, and both require deep devotion. Each is in many ways dependent on the other, as well.
But these visions are not the same. We have chosen two stories. We have escaped enslavement and hopelessness – in Europe, but also in North Africa, Iraq and Yemen – by seeking and shaping different Promised Lands. And we hope to find refuge in different Jerusalems. What will bring liberation to the Jewish people is not pretending otherwise, but recognizing the distance between our dreams and the undeniable differences between the kinds of human beings – and Jews – we pray liberation will allow us to become. The writer is Koret distinguished fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His new book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, is forthcoming in October from Ecco/Harper- Collins.