Reframing the Israel-Diaspora relationship

Israeli Jews and American Jews are not the same. But, we are not as separate as many would have us believe.

American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Not long ago, I was walking back to my car from a Seattle Mariners’ game when I was approached enthusiastically by two fans. “You guys are doing a great job over there in Israel!” one of them said. Perhaps, noticing my kippa, he mistook me for an Israeli. But, equally likely, he made no distinction between Israeli Jews and American Jews. He assumed we were the same.
We are not the same. But, we are not as separate as many would have us believe. A lot has been written recently about the divisions between Israeli Jews and American Jews. The list of our differences is impressive. Most Israeli Jews serve in the army.
Most American Jews don’t. American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal. Israeli Jews have elected a far-right government for the past 10 years. Israeli Jews think it’s presumptuous of American Jews to judge their decisions about security from the safety of their homes. American Jews think that Israeli Jews disenfranchise them by showing disrespect for their non-Orthodox choices.
There is truth in all of these explanations. Yet, we’d be mistaken if we concluded that these two communities are headed inevitably in different directions. Yes, the relationship has changed, but mostly that’s a good thing. Would anyone want to go back to 1948 when the relationship was strong, but Israel was fragile? The battle for Israel’s survival is over, and Israel has won. Let’s celebrate. Rather than lament the passing of the old relationship, let’s reinvent it.
The old relationship was rooted in conceptions of Yisraeli/Israeli and Yehudi/Jewish that are changing as we speak. Yehudi is a Diaspora construct. The first time that the word Yehudi appears in the Bible as a synonym for the entire Jewish people is in the Book of Esther. Haman refers to “am echad/one nation” he wants to destroy. Throughout the story, this nation is referred to as “Yehudim/the Jews.”
Even after the dramatic the victory over Haman, this community of Yehudim, like all Diaspora Jewish communities, remained politically vulnerable because they lacked sovereignty. That is why it was essential that the new Jewish state be called Yisrael/Israel, and its Jewish citizens Yisraelim/Israelis. The name Yisrael evoked the glories of our Biblical past when we were in charge of our destiny in our own land. There was more than a political change at stake here. What was wanted was a change of identity.
For a while, the refusal of the Diaspora to disappear remained a threat to this new identity. In 1972, I watched the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof in Kiryat Shmona’s only movie theater. When we reached the Anatevka scene, the teenagers in the audience were laughing.
With good reason – Israelis are raised to be tough. Even after winning so many wars, the trauma of Jewish history still lay close to the surface of Israeli consciousness. These teens were still not secure enough in their own strength to show sympathy for Tevye. His vulnerability hit too close to home. And, this fear of vulnerability created psychological distance between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, between Yisraelim and Yehudim.
Nevertheless, a hard and fast distinction between these two identities never existed and was never viable. Seventy years after the establishment of the state, most Israelis call themselves Yehudim as well as Yisraelim. Jewish identity is enshrined in Hatikvah itself, in the words “nefesh Yehudi homiah/the Jewish soul yearns (to return). Needless to say, Yisrael was built by Yehudim. Ironically, what continues to make Yisrael Yisrael and not some amorphous binational entity is an overwhelming majority of Yehudim who are Israeli citizens.
Furthermore, there is a softening of the defensive reaction toward Yehudim. Initially, for Israelis, Jewish history consisted of the Bible, the Holocaust and 1948 and on. Some 2,000 years of Diaspora history were erased as too painful to remember.
But lately, there has been a small but growing interest among secular Israelis in Talmud study. The Talmud is a Diaspora creation. The psychology of Rabbinic Judaism can be summed up by the saying: “Anyone who sustains a single life, it is as if he sustained an entire universe.” The ability to make a difference is transferred from the collective to the individual. The Jewish home becomes a virtual Jerusalem, a substitute for our political capital. A gibor/hero is redefined as “one who masters his own impulses.” These are redefinitions of power by a powerless people.
We might think that with our return to collective power, the Talmud would be discarded. Yet, even as secular a thinker as A.B. Yehoshua called the Talmud a national treasure, to be cherished by Jews worldwide the way the French value Moliere. Why?
For one thing, a lot has changed since 1972. In spite of the obvious threats from all sides, Israelis are more secure than ever, not only militarily, but psychologically. They have proven themselves again and again. They do not need to justify their strength by distancing themselves from the history of Jewish fragility.
Israelis are also more comfortable with vulnerability. For a while, Israel’s successes were so spectacular that there was a sense that it was a country of super people who could do anything. But, as thrilling as this was for the Jewish world, it was unsustainable. It was inevitable that Israel would have its own Vietnam and it did in the Lebanon war. Israelis no longer believe they have to be invincible to be worthy of love. And, this makes the Yisraeli more at ease with his inner Yehudi.
For these reasons, it is conceivable that these are not the worst of times for Israel-Diaspora relations, but the best of times. Never before in all of Jewish history have we had an independent Jewish state and a Diaspora Jewish community of such remarkable strength. Do we have differences? Of course. And, we need to address them vigorously.
But, if we are going to be effective, we need a dramatic reset. Rather than see the current state of affairs as a crisis, let’s see it as a great moment of opportunity, a product of our unprecedented success. Rather than focus on healing our conflicts, let’s reframe our conversation around our evolving identity and our aspirations for the future. That would mean asking a very different set of questions:
What do the identities of Yisrael and Yehudi mean today? How do they impact each other? How can we fulfill the age-old dream of reconciling Yehudah v’Yisrael, not by merging them, but by creating a new synergy between them? In sum: What can our two great communities do together to create the best possible Jewish people?
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum is the senior rabbi at Herzl-Ner Tamid Congregation in Mercer Island, Washington.