Middle Israel: Who's a complete Jew?

Israeli Jewry is wealthy, vibrant and arrogant while the Diaspora appears on the defensive.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Summer 1950 was no happy time here.In Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa sweating customers stood for hours in snaking lines before finally exchanging rationed coupons for a slice of meat, half a dozen eggs or a piece of cloth. Down south fistfights broke out outside Beersheba's only butcher shop while a nearby bakery was stormed by a hungry mob. Up north, immigrants attacked a government office after one Avraham Harouch, a father of nine, collapsed and died upon learning his housing request had been rejected. Abroad, the Cold War was already raging, replete with bloody battles in Korea, Western warnings toward China and reports that the USSR already had 100 nuclear bombs. Back in the Middle East, hopes for a quick end to the Arab-Israeli conflict had been dashed as border incidents abounded. Gloom also gripped the Diaspora, as the newly raised Iron Curtain trapped behind it millions of Jews. It was only natural in this dark atmosphere that the young Jewish state's leaders felt threatened by their nearby neighbors and dependent on their distant brethren. And so, in a party gathering at Tel Aviv's Habimah Theater that August, Ben-Gurion called on world Jewry to raise within three years $1 billion in order to "save the Jews of the Middle East and Eastern Europe." Israel would pay half the Diaspora's sum. Three days later Ben-Gurion signed in Jerusalem's King David Hotel a landmark deal with American Jewish Committee leader Jacob Blaustein whereby American Jewry agreed to help Israel financially while Israel promised not to interfere in American Jewry's "internal" affairs. As if to altogether make Ben-Gurion kneel, the prime minister stated that American Jews were not living in exile. Fifty-six years on, the tables have turned. Now it is Israeli Jewry that is wealthy, vibrant and arrogant while the Diaspora appears unconfident and on the defensive, and in fact seems at various stages of decline, and even degeneration. BEYOND THE Central Bureau of Statistics' statement this month - that Israeli Jewry is for the first time ever larger than American Jewry - lurks a dramatic transition that is simultaneously promising and dangerous. The most blunt transformation in the Jewish condition lies in Israel's demographic dominance. With Israel emerging as the world's largest Jewish community, it is unthinkable that Diaspora leaders would treat it as patronizingly as Nahum Goldman did in the '70s, Alexander Schindler in the '80s, or Jacob Blaustein in the '50s, when there were nine American Jews for every Israeli. For better or worse, Israel is now universally recognized as the world's most solid, vital and powerful Jewish community. This alone is revolutionary not only when compared with summer 1950, but also with the 19 centuries of statelessness that preceded it, an era when the Jewish settlement in the Holy Land was perpetually forlorn, minuscule and destitute. Moreover, with Israelis marrying younger, divorcing less, having more children and seldom intermarrying, it is very likely that within a generation they will not only constitute the world's largest Jewish community, but in fact will comprise the majority of the Jewish people itself - a reality last recorded not during the Second, but only during the First Temple period, 26 centuries ago. Had Ben-Gurion been here to see this, he probably would have been elated. Who would have thought that the demographic gap between Israel and the Diaspora would narrow so soon and so dramatically? This in fact is where novelist A.B. Yehoshua was coming from - that long-forgotten, innocent and simplistic Zionism of 1950 - when he told American Jews that "complete" Jewishness was only possible here. The only problem is that this is not 1950. ISRAELI JEWRY'S demographic emergence reflects not only its growth, but also the Diaspora's shrinkage. Not only is the Diaspora declining in numbers, it also seems increasingly spiritually depleted and financially distracted. The days when Jews the world over took to the streets and picketed embassies as they rallied for Israel's survival in 1967 and for Soviet Jewry's redemption in the 1970s are long gone. Now many there see our situation as less precarious and more debatable; the Jews of Eastern Europe, Ethiopia and Syria have been freed; and most Diaspora Jews, by now born well after the Holocaust, no longer share a sense of Jewish emergency. Moreover, while Jewish philanthropy has soared in recent decades, Jewish giving to Jewish causes, no matter where, has actually plunged. No less curiously, a rapidly maturing Israeli economy increasingly does not need the Diaspora's donations which, even when combined with US government aid, total hardly 1 percent of the Israeli taxpayers' production. In buying Iscar the other week, Warren Buffett has put here in one minute more money than the entire Diaspora puts here in half a decade. In short, the Diaspora is weak and we are strong, and that alone should be reason enough to refrain from abusing it. Yet the Diaspora should be treated with caution also for positive reasons. First, because with all due respect to our new strength and Yehoshua's old nativism, most Middle Israelis still find Judaism sometimes flawed here and rich abroad. And secondly, because one of our Jewish duties is to ask who will be tomorrow's Jews if, God forbid, the Jewish state is, say, nuked tonight? EVERY FRIDAY night the Jewish state is awash with throngs of wildly dancing "complete Jews" doing drugs, alcohol and very licentious sex in stinking bathrooms in myriad clubs, hangars, forests and beaches from Metulla to Eilat in what reminds some less-complete but more Jewish Jews of their ancestors' blowout around the Golden Calf. I don't know what my friend Buli (A.B. Yehoshua's nickname) would feel had he landed in one of those dens of primeval lust-fests, but most "complete Jews" would feel like complete goyim there. Sometimes when I hear of yet another Friday night brawl, rape, stabbing or drinking-related fatal accident, I recall finding myself in Manhattan one ordinary, midweek winter afternoon in 1992 looking for a place in which to say Kaddish for my father, may he rest in peace. Having just emerged from Columbia University's bookstore, I proceeded to one of the campus halls where the Minha prayer was scheduled to be held. Once there, I was astonished to find an auditorium crowded to its capacity with some 300 students, standing as lean as pillars, some with closed eyes, and all as quiet as a fish tank. I joined them. I don't know what A.B. Yehoshua would have felt, but for my part, when I said 10 minutes later Yitgadal and that audience answered loudly "amen," I felt like a complete Jew, among his complete brethren.