Solidarity: The moment after persecution

Following the redemption of their Soviet, Ethiopian and Syrian brethren, the Jews’ historic commitment to each other is eroding.

ranian Jews gather at a synagogue- turend-polling station, during the 2016 elections. Free to worship and travel (photo credit: RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS)
ranian Jews gather at a synagogue- turend-polling station, during the 2016 elections. Free to worship and travel
LIKE THE 1890 statement by the US Census Bureau about the American frontier’s disappearance, and like the statistical report in 2013 that Israel had become home to the world’s largest Jewish community – a quip by Israel’s chief spy in 1998 went unnoticed, though its meaning was profound.
The Mossad – its director in those days Efraim Halevy, told the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee – no longer saw anywhere in the world an oppressed Jewish community on whose behalf to operate; not even in Iran, which – unlike the Soviet Union in its time – did not, and still does not, prevent its Jews’ freedom of worship or travel.
Indeed, with the Jews of Eastern Europe, Ethiopia and Syria all liberated, and with the practice of Judaism now legitimized and even welcomed by governments throughout the post-communist world, no Jewish community anywhere around the globe is discriminated against or harassed by any government.
It is a revolution on a par with the geographic revolution of Jewish space.
Persecution accompanied Jewish existence for centuries, inspiring powerful writing throughout the ages by luminaries such as Rashi, the exegete who, after the First Crusade’s massacres, admonished the Torah to “Demand the insult of your followers/And the spilling of your scholars’ blood/ At the hands of sons of whoredom”; or Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, the jurist who, after witnessing the ceremonial burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1244, bewailed the Jews as a nation “breathing the dirt of the earth” while “walking in the moonless dark, craving the light of day”; and H.N. Bialik, the poet, who, after touring the killing fields of Kishinev in 1903, wrote of its famous pogrom’s victims: “The mark of death is on their foreheads” for “their spirit is dead, their vigor is gone and their God has abandoned them.”
Had any of these three lived to hear spymaster Halevy that forgotten day in the Knesset – they would surely assume the Messiah had arrived. Yet, happy though the seminal transition he announced obviously is, the disappearance of the Jews’ oppression over the past 25 years is beginning to erode their sense of shared destiny and commitment.
It is a prospect the Jews did not predict and cannot afford.
ANTI-JEWISH POLICY was pioneered when Rome banned Jews from residing in Jerusalem following its destruction.
Three centuries on, what began with pagan Rome’s blow to the Jews’ national aspirations became newly Christian Rome’s systematic assault on the Jewish faith, as the medieval church turned the Jews’ discrimination into a moral ideal, juridical principle, and political norm.
The subsequent rise of Islam, which imposed the inferior status of dhimmi on the Jews of today’s Iraq and Iran who had lived beyond Christendom, meant that no Jew anywhere in the world was a fully free and equal citizen of his or her land of residence other than in anecdotal communities such as China’s.
The French Revolution changed this when it abolished all anti-Jewish legislation – a gospel that, by the late nineteenth century, had swept all of Europe west of Russia.
Even so, what began in antiquity persisted until 1992 because there was always a sizable Jewish community somewhere that was persecuted.
Persecution was a fixture of the Jewish political situation much the way dispersal was a mainstay of the Jews’ geography.
Now, just before ceasing to be a dispersed nation, the Jews have ceased to be a persecuted nation following three turning points.
First, the Soviet Union let its Jews go. Then, in 1991, the bulk of Ethiopian Jewry was airlifted to Israel, shortly before that country shed its anti-Jewish policy and, finally, in 1992, Syria’s 5,000 Jews were freed.
With not one Jew anywhere forbidden to freely worship Judaism, travel abroad or inhabit Zion – the Jews are no longer “breathing the dirt of the earth” nor are they “walking in the moonless dark, craving the light of day.” It is a transformation for which they have not prepared.
For centuries, the Jews took it as a given that somewhere around the world there were Jews they had to help whether by giving money, lobbying politicians or praying, in the spirit of the Talmudic dictum “all Jews are responsible for one another.”
That is the origin of the ancient prayer that is still being said in synagogues every Monday and Thursday: “Our brethren, the entire House of Israel, who are in trouble and in captivity, may God have mercy on them and lead them from agony to salvation and from darkness to light.”
Etched into a globalized nation’s DNA, the solidarity of the Jews produced a global energy that compensated for their lack of a state. When thousands of Jews were auctioned in slave markets from Persia to Algeria following the Ukrainian massacres of 1648-9, an intercontinental fundraising effort redeemed them by collecting vast ransoms through Polish Jewry’s umbrella organization – the Council of the Four Lands – as well as the Jews of Venice, Hamburg, Amsterdam and Istanbul.
WHAT JEWISH solidarity accomplished in that case financially, it achieved the following century diplomatically when the expulsion of Prague’s Jews in 1745 was canceled after Ottoman banker Yehuda Baruch reported the scheme to Sultan Mahmut I who threatened to attack the Habsburg Empire.
The more times modernized, the more sophisticated Jewish solidarity became. The joint struggle in 1840 by British, French and German Jewish leaders to release Jewish notables blood-libeled in Damascus was animated by a media campaign fueled by the Rothschilds.
Czarist Russia’s humiliating defeat in the war of 1905 was underpinned by banker Jacob Schiff’s resolve to fight the oppressors of Russian Jewry by underwriting a $200 million bond issue on behalf of Imperial Japan. The same Jewish solidarity was obviously at play in the face of Nazi and Soviet oppression, as well as in the face of the Arab threat in 1967 to annihilate Israel.
The Jews, who last century sheltered Jewish refugees and pressured anti-Jewish governments, were driven by the same instinct that drove their ancestors to redeem the Ukrainian prisoners ‒ the reflex that every Jew is “my brother’s keeper,” as the signs Western Jews carried in rallies for Soviet Jews announced.
Jewish solidarity expanded in recent centuries from political oppression to social plight.
French Jews established a network of Jewish schools in Muslim lands through Alliance Israelite; German Jews settled Jewish farmers in Argentina through the Jewish Colonization Association; and American Jewry’s Joint Distribution Committee fed and sheltered World War I’s devastated Jewish communities.
It was with this charitable psyche that Jewish solidarity arrived for its encounter with the Jewish state.
“THE FUTURE development of Israel,” a lordly American Jewish Committee president Jacob Blaustein told prime minister David Ben-Gurion, “will largely depend upon a strong and healthy Jewish community in the United States.”
And, in what reflected the confidence of a US Jewry that was at the time 4.5 times larger and infinitely richer than Israel’s one million mostly destitute Jews, Blaustein first asserted that “American Jews vigorously repudiate any suggestion or implication that they are in exile,” and then demanded that Ben-Gurion vow “not to interfere in American Jewry’s internal affairs.”
The meeting having taken place in 1950 at the King David Hotel, with the damage from the 1946 bombing still visible at the other end of the lobby, Ben-Gurion was in no position to reject the imposition of Jewish solidarity’s representative, a gas-station magnate who was one of the wealthiest Americans of his day. Israel’s founding father, therefore, did as he was asked and also declared that “the Jews in the US do not live in exile.”
The road to American Jewry’s organized financial assistance to the Jewish state was thus paved, and Israel Bonds was established the following month in the same King David Hotel.
Today, that encounter’s entire setting and frame of mind are gone at both ends: The Diaspora is no longer that strong, and Israel is no longer poor.
In what would have sounded like science fiction to Ben-Gurion and Blaustein when they met, Israel is, so far this century, the developed world’s fastest-growing economy, sporting one of the world’s strongest currencies, healthiest debt-to-GDP ratios, narrowest budget deficits, lowest unemployment rates, highest per-capita foreign currency reserves, lowest inflation rates and fastest-growing average incomes.
Between them, the disappearance of oppression in the Diaspora and the rise of prosperity in Israel are coming at the expense of the solidarity that persecution and misery historically fueled.
The children of the American baby boomers, who last century rallied in their thousands for an embattled Israel, are often indifferent, critical, and even hostile to an Israel whose existence they take for granted, whose challenges they have not been raised to appreciate, and whose achievements they are often unequipped to salute.
Worse, to them the entire Cold War era is history and they, therefore, have no recollection of the oppression it involved, much less of having personally fought for its Jewish victims.
From the Diaspora’s end, then, Jewish solidarity is challenged by a mixture of apathy and ignorance that, in recent years, due to anti-Israeli commotion on American campuses, are the subject of much discussion.
Yet, Jewish solidarity will also be challenged in the near future from the Israeli end of the axis, while fueled by a mixture of arrogance and conviction that might prove even more potent than the Diaspora’s evolving ignorance and apathy.
THE ISRAELI retreat from Jewish solidarity has yet to mature or even coalesce, but its roots run deep and its approach is already audible.
The roots lie in the Zionist school of thought that believed the Diaspora’s very existence constituted a national malaise, a view shared by major Israeli literati from the so-called “generation of 1948” such as Yizhar Smilansky, Moshe Shamir and Binyamin Tammuz.
Such opinion makers demanded that every Jew move to Israel, especially from America, which poet Nathan Alterman – the young Israel’s most influential newspaper columnist – dubbed contemptuously “New Pumbedita,” referring to the Babylonian city where many of the Talmud’s sages lived and worked.
This anti-Diaspora hostility had been expressively voiced in the 1942 short story “The Sermon” by Haim Hazaz, where an otherwise silent farmer named Yudke, spews an anti-Diaspora tirade out of the blue, saying it adds up to “darkness, negation and contradiction,” which inspire an existence where “sorrow becomes more ideal than happiness; pain becomes better understood than bliss; destruction more understandable than construction; subjugation more than salvation; and dream more than reality.”
In the nonfictional setting of historiography, the young Hebrew University’s Isaac Baer, the German-born dean of the historians of the Jewish people, wrote in 1936 in an essay titled “Galut” (”Exile”) that “all we [Jews] did on foreign soil was a betrayal of our own spirit” because “the dispersion of the Jews among the nations is unnatural” and “everything that loses its natural place loses, thereby, its natural support – until it returns.”
Mainstream Israel has long abandoned this kind of radical discourse, just like no one in today’s Israel would ban the staging of Yiddish plays, as Ben-Gurion did in Israel’s early years. However, the Diaspora’s delegitimization can be expected to resume the morning after Israel emerges as the Jewish mainland.
Harbingers of this attitude have already been offered from both Right and Left.
On the Right, while crusading against the government’s planned allocation of a plot for non-Orthodox prayers by the Western Wall, messianic activist Matti Dan recently said Diaspora Jews “can’t come from abroad and change the prayer arrangements at the Holy Sites.”
Fueled by a theology that sees the Diaspora’s survival as an obstacle on the path of the approaching Messianic era, Israelis, such as Dan who heads the influential NGO Ateret Kohanim, are prone to intensify their hammering at the value of Jewish solidarity the more Israel grows and the Diaspora shrinks.
The dismissal of the Diaspora’s future by secular Israelis can be even harsher, as its current prophet, novelist A.B. Yehoshua, makes plain.
To the 80-year-old Israel Prize laureate, all Jews living in the Diaspora, no matter how committed, giving or traditional – are “partial Jews,” whereas Israel’s are “complete Jews,” as he told a deeply offended American Jewish Committee forum in 2006.
In Yehoshua’s view, “Israeli Jewish identity deals, for better or worse, with the full spectrum of the reality of dozens of problems through which Jewish values are shaped and defined,” whereas “Diaspora Jewry deals only with parts of it.”
“We in Israel,” he told Haaretz at the time, “live in a binding and inescapable relationship with one another…. We are governed by Jews. We pay taxes to Jews, are judged in Jewish courts, are called up to serve in the Jewish army and compelled by Jews to defend settlements we didn’t want, or, alternatively, are forcibly expelled from settlements by Jews. Our economy is determined by Jews. Our social conditions are determined by Jews. And all these political, economic, cultural and social decisions craft and shape our identity…. While this entails pain and frustration, there is also the pleasure of the freedom of being in your own home.”
SUCH BICKERING may have made sense, or at least been harmless, in the distant years of Blaustein and Ben-Gurion, but in the fast-approaching era of Israeli centrality it would be morally, nationally, politically and culturally reckless.
Morally, secular dismissal of a Diaspora Jew’s nationalism is much the same as ultra-Orthodox denial of a Reform Jew’s Jewishness. Identity is, first of all, a matter of emotion and only then a matter of choice.
How can one debate anyone’s emotions? Nationally, ever since the Holocaust, Jews are in no position to scorn other Jews’ Jewishness, whether actively, passively, administratively or just verbally. As Charles de Gaulle once told underground activists who complained that “too many Jews” were joining the Resistance: We will never be too many.
Politically, with all due respect to Israel’s economic maturation and despite the Diaspora’s steady shrinkage, the latter’s contribution to the former’s future will remain crucial, even after Israel’s emergence as the mainland of the Jewish world.
Yes, the Diaspora’s philanthropy, now totaling an estimated $2.3 billion per year, even if combined with the Israel Bonds enlistment last year of $1.13 billion, adds up to hardly 1 percent of Israel’s GDP. While indeed a sharp contrast to the 1960s when the bonds were a major component of Israel’s development budget, these sums are still misleading because Jews from the Diaspora invest additional billions in Israeli real estate, hi-tech, and venture capital, as well as their estimated 27 percent share of incoming tourism.
Such traffic is difficult to gauge because an investor’s Jewishness is not formally stated in the course of such financial transactions.
However, some of what Diaspora Jews did as the Israeli economy traveled from austerity to prosperity is all too obvious, whether in terms of their Jewishness, dedication or effect.
Such, for instance, was Shamrock Holdings president Stanley Gold’s leadership of the rescue, in 1987, of holding company Koor Industries, Israel’s largest employer at the time, whose bankruptcy was an emblem of Israeli socialism’s demise, and whose privatization spearheaded the transition to capitalism.
Such was also the unsung leadership of the late Harvey Kruger, vice chairman of Lehman Brothers in the 1980s and ’90s, who broke Israeli hi-tech’s path to Wall Street.
Gold and Kruger were fueled neither by greed nor ego, but by time-honored Jewish solidarity, and their Jewishness needed no one’s confirmation, not even the venerable A.B. Yehoshua’s. Even so, the synergies that governed Israel-Diaspora relations over 70 years are now at a crossroads as fewer Israelis see in the Diaspora a source of security, and fewer Diaspora Jews see in Israel a source of pride.
THE APPROACHING tension between a triumphal Israel’s arrogance and a shrunken Diaspora’s estrangement threatens the future of Jewish solidarity. It is a prospect the Jewish people has yet to fathom and cannot tolerate.
Israel would be mad to belittle, let alone undermine, or even just ignore the age-old energy that until recently connected a disjointed nation. Jewish solidarity is a strategic asset on par with squadrons of fighter jets.
Israel, therefore, had better continue deploying what Gold’s and Kruger’s successors will wield on Wall Street, in Hollywood, on Broadway, Madison Avenue, in Harvard Yard and, of course, on Capitol Hill.
Yet, beyond this utilitarian value, the Diaspora will have a moral role to play in the Jewish future once Israel becomes the center of the Jewish world.
True, the newly peripheral Diaspora will no longer be in a position to patronize Israeli leaders the way Blaustein did, nor to try and steer the Jewish state’s political wheel, as some in the Diaspora are trying to do today, from both Right and Left.
However, the shrunken Diaspora will loom as a paragon of Jewish-Gentile harmony and cross-fertilization. It will be an example many Israelis may well need.
Centered in the English-speaking world even more than it already is, the New Diaspora will be entirely different from the Old Diaspora’s Russian, Polish, Ukrainian and German versions that Hazaz, Alterman, and Baer knew and abhorred.
Along the belt that sprawls from Britain through North America to Oceania, the historic experience of persecution was defeated by the rise of a Gentile-Jewish neighborliness that most Israelis did not experience and many still fail to understand.
Because the new Jewish mainland will likely continue to face Middle Eastern hostility, the predominantly Anglophone Diaspora will defy many Israelis’ belief that the Jews are predestined to be “a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations,” in the words of the biblical Balaam.
But this role will be passive. The active test for both the Diaspora and Israel – at a time when many claim Jewish solidarity is no longer relevant or feasible – will be to reinvent it.
The test will unfold on two fronts: the faith of the Jews and the hatred of their enemies.
This is the second in a five-part series on the five great transitions reshaping the future of the Jewish people. In the next issue: Faith: The Jewish nation’s improbable divider.