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Bridging the Atlantic: Zionism Without Negation of Diaspora

We have much to learn from the Jewish intellectuals who lead American neo-conservatism who combine liberal excellence with conservatism
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is the Vice President and Director of the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and the David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence, and a lecturer of Talmud and Jewish Thought at Shalem College. At the David Hartman Center, he is responsible for the advanced training of aspiring public intellectuals through the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, the David Hartman postdoctoral fellowship, and the Maskilot fellowship for women pursuing their doctorate. His research in Jewish philosophy

“Why do Israelis hate us?” an American friend visiting Israel asked me accusingly. “This is the question that currently preoccupies American liberal Jewish congregations,” he said, and presented the government’s scuttling of the Kotel compromise and the insults hurled by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely at American Jews and their Jewishness as Exhibits A and B.

I was stunned. What do I do with this? I thought. Do I hate my brothers, the Jews of America? Is it correct to say that Israeli society hates American Judaism?

“What do you mean ‘hate,” I said. “And if there’s hatred, what do you mean ‘we’? Note the paradox: the more open and flexible Israeli society becomes, not only does the level of your expectations rise, but your frustration with government policy increases, too. For the first time in the history of the State of Israel there is a legally recognized egalitarian prayer space, ‘Azarat Yisrael,’ at the Kotel. It is administrated by the Conservative Movement, and egalitarian and liberal prayer services are conducted there using the Masorti Movement’s prayer book, Va-ani Tefilati: Siddur Yisraeli, which has sold very well in Israel. The beautiful prayer space accommodates everyone who wishes to conduct liberal prayer services without causing commotion. But instead of celebrating this achievement, they are angry that the entrance to the space is not through the same tiresome security check as everyone else.”

I took a deep breath and continued.

“It reminds me of the similar paradox of negotiations with Palestinians,” I said. “The more we give them, the greater their appetite, the more international pressure there is, and the more frustration there is. Instead of earning legitimacy, we expose ourselves increasingly to vilification and boycotts. And you – you American Jew – not only do you not stand with us, but you are our leading critics – whether extremist progressive criticism of Israel’s right to exist as a nation-state, as we hear from Jewish Voice for Peace, or liberal criticism of government policy.

“How is it possible that so many young Jews with Jewish identities supported Bernie Sanders? Bernie Sanders is the new role model of American Judaism, and we are the ones who hate you? Sanders—who would rather identify as a Pole than as a Jew, who cites Arab lies about the murder of 10,000 innocents during Operation Protective Edge, when there were less than 2,000 Palestinian deaths, most of whom were combatants, who boycotts (with a few other senators) the Israeli Prime Minister’s speech about existential threats to the State of Israel. He is the man you want as President, and we’re at fault?”

The relationship between Israeli and American Jewish communities has not yet devolved

After we took leave of each, I thought to myself: “How stupid are you! If this is how you talk to a friend, to someone who is engaged in connecting American Jews to Israel, then apparently, he’s right. Apparently, you really do hate your American brothers. That doesn’t mean you don’t see them as brothers—but every Jew grew up on stories of hatred between brothers.”

The poet Hava Pinhas-Cohen once told me that if Freud would have been a real Jew, he would not have written about the Oedipus Complex but about the Cain Complex. The real drama of rivalry, jealousy, and hatred within the Jewish world is between brothers.

The relationship between the Israeli and American Jewish communities has not yet devolved to the level of the bottomless hatred between brothers that led, for example, to the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jews from their land. However, this line of thinking recalled to me a fantastic story from the Talmud.

Resh Lakish, who lived in Eretz Yisrael, was swimming in the Jordan River. When he wished to climb out, he slipped on the (west?) bank. Rabbah bar bar Ḥannah extended his hand to help him out. The Talmud does not say whether Resh Lakish took the outstretched hand, but he availed himself of the opportunity to disparage his friend, saying: “God hates you” (Yoma 9b).

Resh Lakish explained that he was angry at the Jews of Babylonia who did not ascend to Eretz Yisrael in Ezra’s day; had they ascended en masse, literally “as a wall,” the Jewish people would have been in better condition. Once they did not ascend, they were condemned to perdition.

In those days, as now, love, care, and concern cause us to hate one another. Instead of seeing the outstretched hand of a brother, partner, or friend, we feel as though the other is spitting in our face.

Negation of the Exile

Much of the fault lies with “negation of the exile” (“shelilat ha-galut”). From its start, Zionism based itself on the negation of exilic, diasporic Jewish existence. This sentiment still courses in our veins, whether consciously or unconsciously. If we stop to think for a moment, it would be clear to us that there is no simple answer to the question: What is the meaning of the exile that Zionism negated?

Different conceptions of exile impart different meanings to its negation. I would like to explain three different conceptions of exile: the traditional conception, in its religious and secular configurations, the negative historical conception, and the positive ideological conception. I will present them as extreme typologies to sharpen the problem, but we will not ignore the brighter shades of the dark views that will be presented below.

According to the traditional view, exile is punishment. The traditional holiday Musaf prayer states: “Because of our sins, we have been exiled from our land.” Considering this, the moment the State of Israel was established, ending the punishment of exile, remaining in exile is transformed from a punishment to a sin; one who does not move to Israel opposes the Divine plan.

Despite the secularization of the Jewish people, these patterns persisted. Thus, exile is, at least, a severe error. Because redemption and exile—or, in its modern iteration, Zionism and exile—are mutually exclusive, exile begins once Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael is eliminated, and the days of exile are numbered the moment that Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael is reborn.

One who remains in exile and does not move to Eretz Yisrael condemns himself and his descendants to spiritual and, even worse, physical extinction. According to this view, “the negation of exile” has a single religious and secular meaning: There is but one place that Jews—all Jews—ought to be today, and that place is Eretz Yisrael.

This conception is the most common view of “the negation of exile.” It gained momentum especially after the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. However, within the Zionist movement there is another prominent view of “negation of exile.” According to the negative historical view, “exile” is identified with Israel’s inferiority among the nations. For 2,000 years, the Jewish people suffered discrimination for their religion, whether due to theological reasons or other sociological reasons.

According to this view, “exile” is not life outside of Eretz Yisrael per se, but the quality of life outside of Eretz Yisrael. Zionist historiography and literature emphasized this negative trait of life in exile, but it was best articulated by Yudka, the protagonist of Haim Hazaz’s “The Sermon,” who stood before the committee of his kibbutz and said, “I am opposed to Jewish history.” As is rendered in this 1962 translation by Ben Halpern:

We have no history at all. […] Just think…what is there in it? Just give me an answer: What is there in it? Oppression, defamation, persecution, martyrdom. And again oppression, defamation, persecution, martyrdom. And again and again and again, without end [….] Just a collection of wounded, hunted, groaning, and wailing wretches, always begging for mercy [….] Did you ever see a community of Jews that was not suffering? I’ve never seen one. A Jew without suffering is an abnormal creature, hardly a Jew, half a goy…

Yet if this is exile, Zionism was just one of the movements that negated the exile. Ahad Ha’am wrote of all the various Jewish streams in the mid-Nineteenth century: “We all negate the exile.” Ahad Ha’am’s Zionism did not presume that the entire Jewish people would migrate to Eretz Yisrael and did not even presume Jewish statehood. His spiritual Zionism looked to establish a Jewish center in Eretz Yisrael, in which Jewish culture would undergo a renaissance and enable every Jew in the world to feel proud and to integrate into modern life in the nation-states where they lived.

Many thought that the states of Western Europe could provide such meaning for Jews; we know how the project of Jewish emancipation in Europe ended. Considering the failure of emancipation in Europe, some wished to claim that there was no future for Jews in any state, anywhere in the world, except for Israel.

Yet while practical Zionism began to develop in Eretz Yisrael, the amazing project of attaining full emancipation in North America began as well. In the land of endless possibility, Jews realized their dream of 2,000 years of exile: not the dream of return to Zion and sovereignty, but the dream of full integration as citizens with equal rights. America is not just another exile. It’s not even the sheyne golus (the “beautiful exile”). As Sholem Aleichem charmingly described it in Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor’s Son:

Then Pini sang to the country of America and to Columbus, a song of honor and praise:

New York is a strong city for us, in which every immigrant and every greenhorn, Italian and Greek, African and Japanese, Hungarian and Galician, Jew and Lithuanian, Jewish or not; the tailor with his tools; shoemaker and peddler; blind and lame; preacher and stutterer; even those who are left-handed; the circumciser with his knife—how goodly is their lot! How beautiful their fate! They all make a living with their toil!

America is an amazing paradox: a homeland for immigrants. It could serve as a new homeland for Jews, too. According to this view, the goldene medine in the far west  and the land of milk and honey in the Middle East—America and Israel—are both Jewish dreams come true: the dream of the negation of the exile.

A third view of the exile emerges from the circle of revisionist historians and “progressive” thinkers. Some of them want to illuminate the half-full glass of 2,000 years of exile and, in light of that, recast the exile in pastel colors. Some of them recognize that Jewish history is indeed characterized by suffering and persecution, but they claim that “The Holy One did kindness with Israel by scattering them among the nations” (Pesaḥim 87b).

According to these thinkers, exile had positive aspects, in that it transformed Jewish culture from a material culture to spiritual culture. The meaning of exile is the relinquishing of political power and the need to apply violence. Exile is the willing or unwilling renunciation of political power. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote, at the height of World War I:

We left the world of politics by force of circumstance that contains an inner desire, until a fortunate time will come, when it will be possible to conduct a nation without wickedness and barbarism—this is the time we hope for. (Excerpted from Bezalel Naor’s 1993 translation)

Rabbi Kook believed that the designated time had arrived, and that the Jewish national revival would not need to sully its hands in blood-drenched nationalism. Today we know he was partially correct. Zionism’s opponents, from the ultra-Orthodox camp and the extreme Left, saw the nation-state as a rejection of Jewish tradition. According to them, in lieu of political statehood, the Jewish people developed a portable state, embodied by the Jewish bookshelf. Thus, the terrible exile made the Jews good and refined, as articulated by George Steiner: “The state of the Jew in exile develops in him a tendency toward internationalism, toward heresy against the idols of patriotism, which he was never permitted to approach.”

When Steiner uttered these words, during a visit to Israel after the Six Day War, he acknowledged the immense contribution made by the establishment of the State of Israel and the victory in the Six Day War to the ability to develop proud American Jewish life. Since then, this approach has grown more extreme and has even been imported to Israel. The sense of security enjoyed by American and Israeli Jews is taken for granted. Many of Steiner’s spiritual heirs—including Israelis—regard those two events as being entirely negative, expressions of the corruption of the positive exilic spirit.

We Israelis Take Offense

It is understood that according to this view of exile—which is fashionable among a few, albeit prominent, intellectuals in the US and Israel—the negation of the exile is the cardinal sin. According to the most radical among this group, it is such a severe sin that it negates the value of Zionism and the right of the State of Israel to exist, at least as a nation-state.

Even a superficial glance shows us that the first and third conceptions are diametrically opposed. One negates the exile; the other negates Zionism. One need not posit that we hate one another to deem such views offensive. Each of these views negates the basis of the identity of one of the world’s major Jewish populations.

We Israelis take offense, and justifiably so, when we are told that we ended the advantages of exile by enbracing sovereignty. The extreme version of this perspective, espoused by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, who denounce the State of Israel and justify terrorism against it, makes our blood boil and rightfully so. Our brothers across the Atlantic take offense, and justifiably so, when we say that they have no right to exist as Jews in the US, that they must choose between immigration to Israel and extinction.

I am not, God forbid, equating the accuracy of these two claims (I condemn the first and merely oppose the other), their severity (the first constitutes a real threat to actual, physical Jewish lives in Israel and around the world, whereas the second is merely an insult and a deliberate rejection of fellow Jews), or their prevalence (the first typifies a small cadre of radical intellectuals, whereas the other typifies many Zionists).

As an Israeli Zionist, I do not wish to engage in soul-searching on behalf of US Jewry. All I wish to do is claim that the time has come to articulate a new Zionist position that will grant full recognition to the half of the Jewish people that lives in North America. This conception will help not only to mend the rift between Israel and US Jewry but will create a new structure that can contribute to both centers.

Who will be the Israeli Brandeis? Netanyahu? Bennett?

The new Zionist position must be based on the second sense of “negation of the exile” as presented above. We Israelis must recognize that the establishment and achievements of the State of Israel are a resounding success, and that the traditional view of the negation of the exile is a failure.

And thank God that this type of negation of the exile failed. Its failure has been clear for many years—it is this fortuitous failure that enables Israel to export Jewish-Israeli brawn and brains to the Diaspora, and to import Jewish brawn and brains to Israel.

The time has come to be thankful that in a rapidly globalizing world, international skills are an important asset—not just an international asset, but a national asset. I am not referring only to immigrants to Israel from the Diaspora, although some of Israel’s vigor is certainly due to them—whether the elites of a dying power who came to Israel from the Soviet Union or Americans who arrive in Israel with world-class expertise.

Even temporary immigrants make decisive contributions to the state. Take, for example, a Diaspora Jew like Stanley Fischer. Most of his studies and dealings took place across the ocean, but the State of Israel benefited from a governor of the Bank of Israel with international stature, who filled this role at the right time. Fischer immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return only after being appointed as governor, and lived in Israel only temporarily, though that detracts nothing from his Zionism.

This example is a good representative of the thousands of immigrants who were born and raised in the US and of Israeli citizens who spent a brief time or many years abroad. Take the Prime Minister, for instance. The years spent by the Netanyahu family in the US did not affect its Zionism. It was not one of the “fallen among the weaklings” as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called Israeli emigres.

Their emigration served the goal of immigration in the end. The State of Israel gained a Prime Minister whose reputation in the US is sometimes better than his reputation in Israel. Likewise, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, whose Israeliness and Zionism cannot be questioned, saw no problem with a prolonged sojourn in the US. He lost nothing, and the State of Israel gained.

These two personages were involved in Jewish and Zionist activities when they lived in North America. They are examples of Israelis who completed their educations in the US—not through continuing education programs run by foundations for strengthening the connection between Israel and the Diaspora, but through life education.

It’s difficult to give up Zionist presumptions

What is true of these leaders is also true of every Israeli who lives abroad and then returns. Most Israelis who spend a significant amount of time in North America come back not only with a better command of English and greater expertise in their fields, but also with a greater commitment to liberal values, stronger ties to Diaspora Jewry, and more esteem for their Judaism and for the way Diaspora Jews successfully negate the exile.

The truth is that we have thought differently for a long time. Israeli society takes pride in high-achieving Jews, whether they live in Israel or in the Diaspora. We are even proud of emigres who have success abroad. We embrace permanent and temporary immigrants who contribute to Israel, even if they then move on to the next stop.

Nevertheless, it is difficult for us to give up the Zionist presumptions that Eretz Yisrael is the only place where Jews should live, and that exile is negative. This comes from our insecurities. I remember that about 30 years ago, during the annual climactic Shabbat (“Shabbat Irgun”) of the Bnei Akiva youth group, our peer group sang: “Return to our land, dear brothers; help us mend the rifts; we are a small, weak people, and without you we cannot.” Some of it stems from the belief that we are obligated to have absolute, unequivocal loyalty to Israel, and that anything short of that is a betrayal of our destiny.

Such belief even characterized a large portion of American Jews during the early years of Zionism. Jacob Blaustein, President of the American Jewish Committee, asked David Ben-Gurion that he not presume to represent the entire Jewish people, and especially not American Jewry, out of concern for being accused of dual loyalty. Ben-Gurion acceded to those wishes.

It was only due to US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis that a sharp and principled synthesis was articulated. Brandeis claimed that as Jews become American, they would also become more Zionist, and, vice versa: the more Zionist they become, the more American they would be:

As a nation may develop though composed of many nationalities, so a nationality may develop though forming parts of several nations. The essential in either case is recognition of the equal rights of each nationality.

Indeed, loyalty to America demands rather that each American Jew become a Zionist. For only through the ennobling effect of its strivings can we develop the best that is in us and give to this country the full benefit of our great inheritance. The Jewish spirit, so long preserved, the character developed by so many centuries of sacrifice, should be preserved and developed further, so that in America as elsewhere the sons of the race may in future live lives and do deeds worthy of their ancestors.

According to Brandeis, America does not purport to create a new national identity. America’s great innovation is its pluralism, in which it accepts members of all the different nations that constitute it. America is a nation of many nations. For America to realize its purpose as an open home for those with different national identities, it is important that Jews, too, preserve their unique national identity.

Most American Jews, and especially AIPAC, the lobby that acts openly, publicly, and energetically on behalf of Israel, predicate their actions on this synthesis. Even the dubious books of scholars such as Walt and Mearsheimer—who accuse the Israel lobby of harming US national interests—have not managed to erode the overwhelming support of the lobby and of Israel; they have been relegated to the dustbin of anti-Semitic history.

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel articulated this in a hard-hitting, but largely forgotten article:

In my view, it is self-evident that a Jew today can love both Israel and Diaspora Jews; he need not choose one camp over the other. Just as a Jew, by definition and according to tradition, is connected to more than one era, so too can he bind himself to more than one geographic community. One who sets Israel in opposition to the Diaspora, or the Diaspora in opposition to Israel, will ultimately demolish both. Neither of these two centers can replace the other or be a substitute for the other. Despite my unconditional love for Israel, I am not prepared to sacrifice the Diaspora on its behalf. And if any Israelis demand such sacrifice, they are mistaken….

The synthesis of Brandeis and Wiesel is alive and well in the US. The time has come to articulate a corresponding synthesis in Israel, based on the same premise—that the nation can and must develop on local, Israeli foundations as well as on an international foundation.

The two Jewish centers must fully recognize one another. Just as American Jews become more loyal to their Americanness when they are also Zionist, so too, Israelis must espouse the notion that they can be more Jewish and more Zionist if they grant full recognition to American Judaism.

What is the meaning of “full recognition of American Judaism”? First, it means a return to full identification with the entire Jewish people, as it is. The next step is to celebrate the diverse ways in which the Jewish people are developing and flourishing. The majority of Diaspora Jewry lives in the United States, where it is developing a liberal Jewish view. The relative distribution of Jewish identities in the US has an Orthodox minority and a majority that affiliates with the liberal streams—and in Israel, the opposite is the case. Some Israelis would identify with the liberal majority, and some would hesitate to do so, even if their lifestyles are not too different.

However, even if we do not identify with the liberal majority, we have much to learn from how North American Jewry shapes its Jewishness, from the moral emphasis on a humanist Judaism, from the creativity exhibited by the American Jewish majority in its effort to attract more Jews to Judaism voluntarily, from rabbinical seminaries, from the solidarity generated by Jewish organizations, from American Jewish enlistment on behalf of international human rights causes, Jewish causes (like the immigration of Jews from Ethiopia and the Former Soviet Union to Israel), and the State of Israel.

We have much to learn from the Jewish intellectuals who lead American neo-conservatism—who combine liberal excellence with conservatism. Today, this cadre of intellectuals constitutes the basis for America’s staunch support of Israel. There is even what to learn from American Orthodoxy—from the openness and high-achievement of Modern Orthodoxy, and from the sustaining of a network of yeshivot without government support and the integration into the workplace of American Haredim. There are negative aspects of many of these movements as well; it is possible, and necessary, to be critical, but out of empathy—not out of opposition and negation.

The next stage is to learn how to host invited guests. If the call by many Israeli leaders for American Jews to move to Israel—as Deputy Minister Hotovely declared—is sincere, then it is necessary to create a welcoming environment. Immigrant absorption means creating a space in Israel where liberal Jews can feel comfortable. If we believe in this, and more—that the State of Israel is really the Jewish State and not just a state for Israelis—then the Kotel compromise must be adopted once again, the issue of conversion must be considered, equal status must be granted to the liberal streams, and more.

Even in the case of piercing and occasionally vitriolic criticism of Israel, we need to differentiate between someone who criticizes Israel and one who negates it. It is easy to break off contact and retaliate, but even if this approach is justified, it is unwise. We must create a barrier between the two—engaging in dialogue and trying to persuade our critics, while isolating those who negate us.

Natan Sharansky’s “Three D” test must remain in the forefront of our consciousness: one who engages in delegitimization, demonization, and double standards—as well as one who campaigns for BDS—is an anti-Semite, but one who criticizes us and declares himself a supporter of Israel should be pushed away by the left hand but brought closer by the right. Specifically the right.

Resh Lakish, the mighty sage, found himself in a moment of bewilderment on the banks of the Jordan. The momentary weakness he was caught in as he was sinking into the river, when Rabbah bar Ḥannah extended his hand and a pitying or condescending smile, led Resh Lakish to be aggressive, in an attempt to even the hierarchy.

In moments of weakness, it is difficult for us to open our hearts and act sympathetically and generously. If the situation had been different, had both sages been standing on terra firma, their dialogue would have been different, too. The ability to develop an open, inclusive, ungrudging approach does not constitute a relinquishment of the belief in the justice of Zionism; rather, it is another sign of our self-confidence as Israelis and another wonderful example of Zionism’s success.

Translation from Hebrew by Elli Fischer. View this paper on

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