Homelands of the heart

The very notion of Diaspora implies a center from which one is dispersed.

july 4 (photo credit: )
july 4
(photo credit: )
Every time July 4 comes around, I remember being in Jewish summer camp, missing out on the fireworks. We had someone come in, every year, to lead us in the Square Dance, but it didn't feel like entirely our holiday. It was like one of our favorite camp games, the game of alternatives. You know, where you have too choose whether you'd rather have a million dollars or live to be 100. Would you choose to be beautiful or powerful? And then: If America and Israel went to war, which side would you choose? To argue that the hypothetical was unfair - well, that was against the rules. To say that it would depend on the circumstances was a cop-out. The point was to choose - between our homeland and "the country of our birth," or, to phrase it more favorably to America, between the place we lived and the place we'd visited, the place where all our friends were and the place where - so we were taught - we could reclaim our heritage. Whatever that was. Jewish peoplehood in the West has been constituted, since European emancipation at least, by a sense of dual, if not divided, loyalty. The phrase itself is contentious. A few months ago, when I asked Congressman Gary Ackerman, who heads the international council of Jewish parliamentarians, if he ever felt conflicted between loyalty to Israel and to the United States, he replied quickly, "There are no dual loyalties. You can love your daughter, and love your wife - you don't choose between them. I see no conflict." Ackerman added that those who impugn the loyalties of the Jews are "racists." FAIR ENOUGH, but only a moment later Ackerman praised the Jewish "family" for "taking care of one another," and noting how the ties of peoplehood bind Jews from all over the world, even if we don't agree on what we're supposed to have in common: religion, nationality, culture or tribe. Today, one of the debates within the "peoplehood" centers on the shape those ties are meant to have. "Ties" implies no particular shape - just connection. I am connected to you and you to me, and we are equals. But what about when I am American and you are Israeli? For the past half century, the dominant thinking in the Jewish world has been not one of mere ties but of Israel as the center of the Jewish world. I am the spoke and you are the hub; I am the outpost and you are the home. The very notion of Diaspora implies a center from which one is dispersed. And with that conception naturally arises the question of loyalty. I remember, again as a child, a stark contrast between American holidays such as Memorial Day and July 4 and Israeli ones such as Remembrance Day and Yom Ha'atzma'ut. The holidays were exact opposites of one another. The American ones were prominent but insignificant, and the Israeli ones were invisible but powerful. I was probably a teenager before I even knew what Memorial Day was meant to memorialize, and while the Fourth of July was obviously a celebration of America, it paled in emotional significance to the moving, stirring narrative of a 2,000 year exile coming to an end in 1948. Of course, I was taught about freedom and liberty, George Washington and Paul Revere. But these were other people's heroes. My people, and my peoplehood, was tied to a place of myth. HENCE THE peculiar affections of American Jews, in love with Israel's myths, but often comically out of touch with its realities: The Western Wall not the Malha Mall; Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv. We have our own malls. What we want from Israel is what we often lack from America: a myth that is ours, a narrative that includes us and symbols that resonate as much with our souls as, presumably, the stars and stripes do with our compatriots'. Congressman Ackerman's protestations notwithstanding, this is dual loyalty, and an unequal loyalty at that. In my childhood synagogue there were two flags flanking the Torah ark, American and Israeli. To me the American one meant gratitude for freedom - in part, the freedom to love Israel more. MOST YOUNG Jews today do not commit seriously to Jewish cultural or religious life. Only a handful see Jewishness as a nationality. So we educate to love felafel along with apple pie. We fly them to Israel itself, for a week of immersion, encounter and sex. Like our ancestor Jacob, we have to act in order to claim our birthright. And of course, politics. In pre-intifada days, Israel's moral standing was unimpeachable. It was a democratic David against a bloc of autocratic Goliaths. Today, while Israel's political stature has changed almost 180 degrees, the situation among American Jews remains remarkably static. There are only a handful of committed American Jews who vocally support Israel, but vocally criticize its policies in the West Bank. Mostly, the more committed a Jew you are, especially religiously, the more you support Israel, period. In fact, the lines of religion and politics are so blurry as to be nonexistent. If you're Orthodox, you support the "occupation" - and you don't even call it that, of course. If you're Reform, you generally oppose it, to the extent you know about it at all. And if you're Conservative, you're where you always are: somewhere in the middle. TODAY THERE are those who argue that Jewish peoplehood need not have a geographical-emotional center: Israel is a node, America is a node and places around the world are nodes as well. Perhaps that makes sense descriptively, in terms of how most Diaspora Jews understand themselves today. But normatively, if peoplehood is to have any power to keep those Jews interested in Jewishness, it has to be tied to historical, religious, cultural, communal or personal significance - and there is no place in America with the resonance of Israel. Certainly not Valley Forge or Philadelphia. Yet we American Jews have unpacked our bags. We don't think of ourselves as guests. Still, America may be our physical home - especially for those of us raised within the community - but Israel is our emotional one. These are very different kinds of loyalty. Those of us who have been reached by the community's educational outreach feel we have an external homeland as well as internal one of the heart, where - as Hatikva tells us - the Jewish soul stirs and looks to Zion. The writer is chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. He's also a member of KolDor, a network debating and promoting Jewish peoplehood. www.zeek.net