Diaspora Existance: Zionism in a Multiethnic World

– by Arthur Hertzberg

A hundred years ago, Theodor Herzl proposed a radical idea-that the Jewish people would find a “normal” place among the nations if it reor­ganized itself into a nation-state. That would be the solution to “the Jewish Problem.”

The nation-state was a dream, and an invention, of the 19th century” In its name many people won freedom from their oppressors. And it was this dream that provided much of the energy for the Zionist quest for Jewish “normalcy.” But it is now clear that the nation­state is not the permanent, lasting form of political organization” On the contrary, everywhere in the world political structures are under pressure to make room for ever more prominent, and prevalent, minorities.

More after the jump.
In many places in the world the price for the purity of the nation-state is still being paid in blood and terror. There is “ethnic cleansing” in former Yugoslavia, genocide in Rwanda and unending strife in Northern Ireland. Need I add to this list? But this is not the tide of the future. The economies of the most advanced, technologically adept societies are now interlocked in a global market. Those who work in this environment are ever more mobile. Americans and Europeans­ and Israelis are now being sent by business and research institutes for many years of work abroad. It does not matter what polit­ical doctrines of nationalism or xenophobia a society might invoke-they will inevitably be short lived, even if they are enforced with the tough-mindedness of the rulers of Singapore. The new “normalcy” will be the multiethnic, multicultural state or region.

Given its dedication to the nation-state, the modern Zionist movement has never been at peace with the Diaspora. Indeed, the Zionist doctrine of the “denial of the Diaspora” insisted that the Diaspora must come to an end so that Jews could become a “normal people.” Even the cultural Zionists had their troubles with the Diaspora. The most radical, such as Micah Yosef Berdichevski and Yosef Chaim Brenner, wanted the “transvaluation of values” that would discard the many centuries of Jewish religion and culture as defined in the Galut (Diaspora). Ahad Ha ‘am, who wanted to preserve the Jewishness of the Diaspora, thought that its traditional culture was in its last days and that only a vigorous “spiritual center” in the land of Israel could furnish it with the energy to survive. The Zionist doctors may have vehemently disagreed with each other about the future of the new Jews in the land of Israel, but they all agreed that the Diaspora was sick, perhaps dying, and many even thought, with ideological vehemence, that it deserved to die. The judgment that the Diaspora must come to an end was the most incendiary assertion of modem Zionism.

That was not a totally unprecedented judgment, however. It was a replay, in modern rhetoric, of the relationship between the Jewish communities in the land of Israel and the Diaspora that had prevailed for many centuries. By definition, the Jews who dwelt in the land of Israel had always felt that they were living a more authentic Jewish life, albeit a more difficult one. They were entitled to support from the Diaspora because they were doing holy work and living in great danger for the sake of hastening the Messiah. The Diaspora internalized this attitude. It accepted the judgment that its Jewish life was inferior to life in the land of Israel and that the truest Jewish wisdom could be attained only in the Holy Land. The traditional Diaspora accepted, much more universally than the modern Diaspora ever has, the notion that its destiny was to come to an end and be ingathered. On that miraculous day, those who were already in the land of Israel would deserve the honor of being in the front line to welcome the Messiah. Thus, it was not difficult for the early Zionists to persuade themselves that the Diaspora and its culture must be judged negatively.

The question that does not seem to have been posed, at least not by the Zionists, is one that now seems self-evident. How was it that this uncreative and supposedly mori­bund Diaspora of a hundred years ago was the place in which Zionism, in all its forms, was fashioned? The Diaspora was the birthplace of all the movements through which Jews have tried to define themselves in the modern era. It was in this supposedly uncreative Diaspora in Lithuania that Chaim of Volozhin fashioned the modern yeshiva as an answer to the very beginnings of the age of doubt, in the early 1800s. In central Europe, a few years later, neo-Orthodoxy was defined by Samson Raphael Hirsch. Radical religious reform appeared in the middle of the 19th century and was soon followed by secular revolutionary movements within the Jewish community. Modem literature in both Yiddish and Hebrew arose in central and eastern Europe at about the same time. The Jewish Socialist Bund and Simon Dubnov’s dream of Jewish autonomy in multiethnic states were creations of the Diaspora at the end of the 19th century, in the very years when political Zionism was created. It is simply not true that the Diaspora, in a sort of last gasp, imagined Zionism and then prepared to say some kind of secular kaddish for itself. On the contrary, precisely the opposite was true.

Every single Jewish movement, both religious and secular, that exists to this day in both the Diaspora and in Israel was created by Jews in the Galut in Odessa and Pinsk, in Warsaw, Berlin, and Vienna. This Diaspora was seething, but not dying. True, it was under vast pressure from the anti-Semites. Millions of Jews, especially the poor, were moving westward. But its culture was by no means sterile. All the Jewish modernities that we possess, including the very modernities that are vehemently critical of the Diaspora, were fashioned in the Galut.

The most direct source for Zionism’s bad temper with the Galut was the major Jewish response to the Enlightenment from its very beginnings in the French Revolution. Those elements in the Jewish community who were most eager to be integrated into wider society wanted a radical change in the eco­nomic and cultural life of the ghetto. They wanted to make the Jewish poor more pro­ductive by teaching them to be farmers or artisans. They wanted to wrench them from the supposedly narrow and sick culture of the Jewish ghetto and bring them from its “darkness” into the “light” of Western culture. The Zionists were thus heirs to a century of Jewish response to the Enlightenment when they imagined that the new Jewish culture in the homeland should be radically other than the culture of the ghetto.

What has been less noticed is that the mass migration of Jews to the West, primarily to the United States, equally represented a revolt against the culture of the Galut. The early kibbutznicks in Palestine who proudly excluded all traces of religious piety from their lives had their parallel in turn of the century New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia where social dances were given by anarchists and the godless on Kol Nidre night in defiance of the solemn fast. More fundamentally, many of the immigrant generation in America consciously cast off their links with the European Jewish community and culture from which they came. Even most of the religious immigrants fought bitterly against recreating the kehillah, the overarching Jewish com­munity structure, which could coerce individual Jews. They preferred the new American freedom of independent congregations controlled by their laities. In short, both the new American Jews and the secular Jews of the Second Aliyah in Palestine were fueled by large amounts of rejection, and even defiance, of the European Galut in which they had been born.

This attitude toward the European Galut was part of a larger vision that the new modern age was really the “end of history.” In the middle of the 19th century, those Jews who were “reforming” their religion were cer­tain that the new age of equal rights was the messianic era, and therefore anything that the Jews might do to change themselves, even if it involved their eventual disappearance into society, was worthwhile because it would help bring about the final redemption of mankind. The revolutionary socialists, in all of their varieties, had no doubt that the Jewish community would take its noble contribution, to itself and to the world, by disbanding into the classless society that the revolution was going to create. In turn, Theodor Herzl imagined that the Jews would make their peace with the world by becoming normal: They would create a high-minded secular democracy, and they would erase the remaining, and troubling, Jewish minorities in the world through total assimilation.

All of these solutions to “the Jewish problem” were very radical. They required the Jews to make profound, even cataclysmic, changes, but they were prepared for such thinking by many centuries of hearing the tales of how radical and shattering the days of the coming Messiah would be. Now that the Messiah was making his appearance in the very processes of human history, radicalism was in vogue. Was not the new name of the Messiah the idea of progress?

Although some few resisted this hopeful mood and denied that the dawn of the world’s redemption had come, the dominant viewpoint of the century was one of optimism. In all of the 19th-century literature I have read, I have not found anyone among the optimists who for a single minute believed that the modem era would have any successors. This was not another phase in human history. This was its climax. The basic doctrine of Israeli historiography as enunciated by Ben Zion Dinur, the founder of Jewish historical studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was that Jewish history was to be simply explained in three phases: (1) The people Israel set­tles in its land; (2) it is exiled and keeps waiting to return; (3) it achieves the climax and resolution of its history by returning to its land. A seal would finally beset on the history of the Jews, who would live for all ages to come in quiet perfection in their own land, within their own culture.

Consider what we have lost in the denial of the Galut and what illusions we have created for ourselves by the notion that the messianic age is upon us. The clock of history has not stopped. In fact, we are living with the gray, unheroic realities of keeping the life of our people going in various forms in Israel and in the Galut. We must learn to live without the dangerous and often fatal illusion that the messianic era is almost upon us.

In the course of history our peo­ple has had a serious encounter with all the major civilizations and powers of Europe and the Middle East In age after age, two main motifs have repeated. A large part of our people has been attracted to the glit­ter and power of the majority. In midrash this truth is reflected in a folk memory that only a minority of Israelites left Egypt; the majority pre­ferred to remain. Later, after 721 B.C.E., when the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria, the ten tribes were sent into exile, they quickly disappeared into the native culture. Eight centuries later, so did the bulk of Greek-speaking Jews, who found Hellenistic culture too interesting and attractive to resist. We do not know how many Jews chose to become Muslim or Christian in the Middle Ages, but enough did so that we are aware of converts who made their mark in their new faith and new communities.

The loss of large numbers to assimilation is not a new phe­nomenon among Jews. Those who seek to make of it an unparalleled and unprecedented disaster are simply wrong. Modern-day society, in which Jews are more nearly equal worldwide than they have ever been and in which they can enjoy McDonald’s, Coca Cola, and, if they are successful, Bentley cars and chalets in the Alps, is merely the contemporary expression of the splendor in which some Jews lived in Hellenistic Rome or in “golden age” Spain. Such losses are the recurrent price we pay for being a minority, a small people, both in the Diaspora and in our own land, surrounded by the influences of other cultures.

The repeated answer that Jews have devised from the time of the prophets is to urge their fellow Jews to choose to remain with their otherness and uniqueness. Always and everywhere, a saving remnant has chosen to be loyal. So it will be in the next century. despite all the losses that Jews are suffering to contemporary consumer society, with its denial of any ultimate moral values.

Contrary to the prevailing cliche, however, those Jews who remain will not consist primarily of Lubavitcher Hasidim waiting for the rebbe to reappear as the Messiah. Our future will not be situated in B’nei Brak or Borough Park. In age after age, the lasting energy of that saving remnant has expressed itself in a variety of forms and beliefs. Those who survived the expulsion from Spain in 1492 did not lock themselves up in some new ghetto. On the contrary, they were a varied and creative group of people who made signal contributions to mercantilism, to philosophy, to literature, to poetry, indeed, to all the fields of human endeavor. So it will be in the future.

Let me take my courage in both my hands and deny another cliche, almost a sacred mantra, of contemporary dis­cussion: the uniqueness of the Holocaust. I need to raise this painful theme because the Holocaust is often invoked to prove that we have indeed been living in a unprecedented age, an age in which a horror without parallel was inflicted on the Jews. It therefore follows (so it is argued) that Jewish history in this century, especially the creation of the State of Israel, repre­sents a unique climax in Jewish experience. I insist that even the Holocaust belongs within, and not outside, the recurring pattern of the history of the Jews. The Holocaust was indeed unique in one respect, and in only one-that the Germans used the most modern technological means with which to murder the Jews. What was not unique was the total attack on Jewish religion and culture. That has happened over and over again.

Jews have faced totally destructive anti-Semitism many times before. My teacher Salo Baron maintained that after the Crusades no more than ten thousand Jews were left in Europe north of the Pyrenees. They and their descendants rebuilt Jewish life. We have proved time and again that we have the capacity as a people to rise from the ashes. In this century, we have proved it as never before, for the greatest achievement of the Jewish people since the days of the Maccabees the reconstitution of Jewish independence in the State of Israel.

The visionary Herzl launched that modern Zionist movement because he knew in the 1891 that the life of mankind would be different in the next century. He was right. Now, one hundred years later the world is again changing. We must devise new ways of surviving as a people amidst the complexities of today’s world. The responses to modernity devised by Herzl, and others, will have to be recast.

It is now clear that the nation-state is not the “end of history.” We, the Zionists of this day will have to do what Theodor Herzl did a hundred years ago. He redefined the Jewish people in an age of nationalism. We must redefine it for an age that has already dawned, an age of multiethnic states. Both in Israel and in the Diaspora, the Jewish people will have to face the deepest question of the next century: What does it mean to be a Jew within the context of the new multiethnic world? What values does this creative and passionate small people, the Jews, represent?

We are beginning to understand that what unites us are our religion and our culture. What we have most deeply in common are our learning and our history. We still disagree on what to make of this tradition. Every element of the Jewish people worldwide is offering its own ideo­logical answers. Although we no longer share the same religious com­mitments, all kinds and conditions of Jews must study and know the same texts so that our debates and even our disagreements will be conducted in Jewish terms and in Jewish rhetoric.

In the past, Jewish unity has been sustained by religion and culture, but that happened in believing times. We do not know if it can be made to work in a more secular age, but we must try. We have no other choice. Israel and the Diaspora will not willingly let go of each other, and most Jews everywhere want to continue, somehow, to be Jewish. Perhaps we can even learn to be more tolerant of each other.

There is, of course, an obvious alternative to integrating into a new, pluralistic world order. It is to dig in our heels and become isolationists. This is being tried before our eyes by some religious elements in Israel and the Galut, who are creating high walls around themselves. It is not an accident that the ultra-Orthodox, who were vehemently anti-Zionist until very recently, are now mostly partisans of right-wing Zionist nationalism. The basic emotion is the same: We have a right, even a divine right, to our nation-state on our own terms. The trouble with this isolationist vision is that it cannot last, if only because it leads to the terrible prospect of unending terrorism by Arabs. This war will not be limited to conventional explosives, for much more deadly weapons are becoming available in forms that can be used by suicide bombers. The politics of defiance can lead only to horrors not yet imagined.

Zionism as we know it was the necessary response to an age of human history that is ending. We must now redefine it for an age that has already dawned-the time of the multiethnic society.

Originally published in the February 1998 issue of Moment.

Conversion Bill Should Not Diminish Support For Israel


— Rabbi Mark S. Golub

The campaign of the Conservative and Reform Movements to generate American opposition to the Rotem Conversion Bill in Israel was remarkably successful. The bill has been tabled for six months and may never see the light of day again. Unfortunately, however, the campaign overstated the threat the bill posed to non-Orthodox American Jewry and unnecessarily angered large numbers of uninformed Jews over a bill which actually does not address them at all.

Photo: MK David Rotem, author of the controversial conversion bill.
The campaign of the Conservative and Reform Movements to generate American opposition to the Rotem Conversion Bill in Israel was remarkably successful. The bill has been tabled for six months and may never see the light of day again. Unfortunately, however, the campaign overstated the threat the bill posed to non-Orthodox American Jewry and unnecessarily angered large numbers of uninformed Jews over a bill which actually does not address them at all.

The Anglo Jewish media joined in the chorus warning of dire consequences were the bill to become law, while failing to separate fact from hysteria for their readers. Jewish headlines in newspapers and blogs echoed the erroneous notion that the bill resurrected the “Who is a Jew?” question and was an assault by the ultra-Orthodox establishment in Israel on Israel’s Law of Return, on non-Orthodox conversions in America, and on the legitimacy of Conservative and Reform Judaism.

The most disturbing aspect of the campaign, however, was the subtle suggestion that the bill would jeopardize the bond between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel and would therefore threaten the security and future of the Jewish State.

The Union of Reform Congregations ran a headline in its weekly briefing, “Take Action Now! Attack on Pluralism Threatens Israeli-Diaspora Relations.” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movements Rabbinical Assembly, and one of the most articulate and passionate proponents of Jewish pluralism in Israel, also described the bill as a blow to Israel-Diaspora relations that would be “damaging to Israel’s security” because “the great majority of American Jews” will consider themselves “second-class citizens officially in the eyes of the Jewish State.”

A newspaper headline warned of a “conversion crisis” that could “threaten pro-Israel efforts” in America (Jewish Week, July 23, 2010), and described how the Rotem Bill is “alienating Israel’s friends” (Forward, July 23, 2010). Articles declared that the bill threatens to contribute to “a seismic shift in the base of the pro-Israel movement in America.”

Perhaps the most pernicious diatribe against the bill was Alana Newhouse’s op ed piece in the New York Times (July 15, 2010). Her article misstated the real issue; inaccurately described the actions of the Talmudic sage Hillel (he “accepted” rather than “converted” a person for conversion on the spot); and, in an aside worthy of a supermarket rag, slandered the entire ultra-Orthodox rabbinate by citing the sins of one lone rabbi (I do assume Ms. Newhouse knows there are sinners within the Conservative and Reform rabbinates as well.)

Still, the Newhouse piece, however flawed, ran dead center on the New York Times op ed page and brought the issue to the attention of a legion of American Jews who normally are uninterested in such details of Israeli life but who, as a result of the Times piece, suddenly felt personally insulted and threatened. Ms. Newhouse announced to all of America that in the Rotem Conversion Bill Israel is telling “85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews.”

In point of fact, the Rotem Conversion Bill says nothing of the kind. Despite what American Jews might believe after reading Ms. Newhouse’s editorial and receiving emergency e-mails, the Rotem Conversion Bill does not address any aspect of American Judaism at all.

The bill never mentions the Law of Return and would have no impact on the way it would apply to any Diaspora Jew. If the bill were to become law, it would do nothing to change the current process by which Conservative and Reform conversions in America are accepted as valid for Jews seeking Israeli citizenship.

The Rotem Conversion Bill does indeed propose changes on the Israeli scene. To facilitate more opportunities for conversion in Israel, especially for thousands of Russian immigrants who now serve in the Israeli army and who wish to become part of the Jewish people, the Rotem bill would give local city rabbis the right to perform conversions. Most people approve of this goal of the bill.

The bill’s author, K’nesset Member and Law Committee Chair David Rotem (Yisrael Bieteinu Party), added that the bill would formalize Orthodox control of conversions in Israel by placing them under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate and by stipulating that converts would have to commit to living a life of Halakhah (traditional Jewish Law).

For Israelis, there is nothing really new or dramatic in the Rotem bill. In contrast to what many American Jews might assume from the outcry among their leadership, the bill would do very little to change the current de facto ultra-Orthodox control of the conversion process.

The real issue, then, is not “who is a Jew” or the Law of Return. The real issue is the way the Rotem Conversion Bill might obstruct the future of Jewish pluralism in Israel.

It is perfectly understandable for the leaders of non-Orthodox institutions to be angered by the Rotem Conversion Bill. The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements have been working tirelessly to bring Jewish pluralism to Israel, and their leaders describe with justifiable pride their significant progress. Were the Rotem Bill to become Israeli law, it would be a setback in their struggle.

Speaking on Shalom TV, Jerry Silverman, the brilliant and charismatic new leader of the federation movement of North America, put his finger on the only real danger posed by the Rotem Conversion Bill: it paves the way toward a “slippery slope.” While there is nothing in the bill either critical of or relevant to American Jewry today, passage of the bill could embolden the Chief Rabbinate to try, at a future time, to extend their power in Israel and even seek to delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions in the Diaspora for the Law of Return.

This warrants opposition to the bill, but not with the sense of calamity that characterized the American response. Moreover, it is virtually inconceivable to believe the Israeli K’nesset would ever enact a law that would truly alienate the vast majority of Diaspora Jewry. It may be fun for media pundits to suggest that Israelis are that “stupid;” but they are not suicidal. They well understand, and have just been given an object lesson in, how powerful and effective the Diaspora lobby can be when it wants to mobilize American Jewish support.

I, like the vast majority of American and Diaspora Jews, would love to see Israel adopt a pluralistic view of Judaism so that Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis would have equal legal standing with Orthodox rabbis to preside at marriages, divorces, burials, and conversions. There is something sadly ironic that the only place on earth where a Jew cannot be married with a rabbi of choice is the State of Israel.

But it is crucial for American Jews to understand that the overwhelming number of Israelis do not share this perspective. The notion does not interest them. For most Israelis, simply living “ba-Aretz” (in the Land of Israel) is all the Jewish identity or Jewish “observance” they need.

Even the most secular of Israelis feel that their entire existence is immersed in Jewishness. Hebrew is their native language; Jewish holidays are celebrated nationally; the Israeli flag is patterned on the tallit; the IDF is a Jewish army; and the soil they walk upon is the very soil that gave the birth of the Jewish people and links them to their Jewish ancestors. While there are those in Israel who are seriously concerned that Israelis take their Jewishness for granted, have self-identities as “Israelis” rather than as “Jews,” and know far too little about their Jewish heritage, most Israelis feel they are more Jewish than Diaspora Jews even if they rarely engage in Jewish observance.

The typical Israeli response to American styles of Jewish pluralism, then, is to dismiss it out of hand. The Israeli attitude is: “I don’t want to be Orthodox; but if I ever were to be ‘religious,’ I would be Orthodox because Orthodoxy is the only authentic expression of Judaism.”

Israelis may resent the fact that the ultra-Orthodox do not serve in the Israeli army, are often supported by the State, and have taken more than their share of the national education dollar (weakening Israel’s public school system); but when it comes to matters of religious observance, Israelis by and large do not get worked up over the fact that the ultra Orthodox are in sole control of marriage, divorce, burial, conversion, and the Jewish holy places in Israel.

That is why most Israelis are oblivious to the general struggle for Jewish pluralism in their country or to specific issues such as women’s fight for rights at the Western Wall. This is also why the enormous uproar within American Jewry over the Rotem Conversion Bill has not been duplicated in Israel. Conservative Rabbi Josh Hammerman, writing his blog from Israel, bemoans that he has seen “disturbingly little coverage on this matter in the Hebrew media here.”

For American Jewish leaders, their real problem is with the Israeli people, not with the ultra-Orthodox establishment.

I once asked Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat (formerly the rabbi of Lincoln Square synagogue in Manhattan), whether he wanted Israel to be “a Torah state.” Riskin’s reply articulates the quintessential Jewish answer: “I would love nothing more than for Israel to be a Torah state; but only when the overwhelming majority of Israelis would like it to be.”

One could easily apply Shlomo Riskin’s answer to those who are working fervently to implement Jewish pluralism in Israel: “There would be nothing better than for Israel to be a pluralistic state; but only when the overwhelming majority of Israelis would like it to be.”

The challenge facing the Reform and Conservative movements is to create pluralistic models of Jewish life in Israel that will, one day, be so attractive to Israelis that the implementation of Jewish pluralism becomes the will of the Israeli people. There are Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders who believe they are well on the way towards this goal and are correct in saying that passage of the Rotem Conversion Bill would be a bump in the road.

But the reality is that the Orthodox control of family law touches on a very small slice of Israeli life. Most American Jews who visit Israel rarely confront a problem as a result of Orthodox control of marriage and conversion. Non-Orthodox Jews travel throughout Israel and never feel like second class citizens. I have yet to hear an American Jew return from Israel and complain about their not being able to practice Judaism. They often attend Reform or Masorti (Conservative) synagogues with their friends and have a lovely time.

That is why American Jews can indeed be mobilized to protest a perceived attempt by the Orthodox establishment in Israel to delegitimize them; it is much more difficult to arouse their passions over threats to Jewish pluralism in Israel. This may explain the exaggerated way in which the Rotem Conversion Bill was portrayed as an assault on non-Orthodox American Jewry.

But as wonderful as it would be for Jewish pluralism to flourish in Israel, it is irresponsible for anyone to imply that Israel might, or should, receive less support from American Jewry because of the Rotem Conversion Bill.

Rabbi Mark S. Golub is the President of Shalom TV.