There has always been a certain arrogance in the attitude of Zionism towards the rest of the Jewish world. It was clear from the time of the earliest Zionists, even before the decision that a Jewish state could exist only in Eretz Israel, that what was being contemplated was a new community that would be of a different, higher order than any other in the Jewish world. What was being talked about from the time of Herzl was the Jewish state. Once Zionism became established, based on the concept of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Israel, it started to develop a very negative attitude towards the reality of - or even the idea of - Jewish life in the Diaspora.
In fact Zionism denied the validity of the word - or even the very concept - of diaspora. The Zionists, including the most secular thinkers, stated that the Jewish world was not a diaspora but rather a galut, an exile. In this they adopted and continued the traditional religious idea of galut.
The difference between ‘diaspora’ and ‘galut’ is clear and ideological: ‘diaspora’ is a neutral, dispassionate term denoting ‘scattering.’ In speaking of the Jewish Diaspora one recognizes the objective fact that the Jewish world is divided into many sub-communities. ‘Galut’, however, is an emotionally charged term. To talk of a people in exile is to describe them as being in the wrong place, implying ipso facto that there is an opposite, but complementary, concept of ‘home’. Speaking about ‘homeland’ and ‘exile’, it is clear that one is desirable - representing a correct, normal and positive situation - and the other undesirable - denoting an incorrect, abnormal and negative situation. In other words, one is right and the other is wrong.
Thus the idea is built into the very core of Zionism that the rational choice for all Jews will be to try and leave their abnormal position in the galut and to try and come to the Jewish homeland. To move from galut to homeland is not seen as a mere geographical change: it is seen as a qualitative change from an abnormal, ‘sick’ situation to a normal, healthy one. In moving to the Jewish state one moves from a lower state to a higher state. One ascends: this is aliyah.
Zionism suggests that there is another dimension to such a move. A move to Zion is a move from the periphery of the Jewish world to the center. Zion stands at the center of the Jewish world and all other communities are, at best, marginal. According to many traditional or classical Zionist thinkers, the only real value of the Diaspora is to prepare a cadre of people who will come to Zion. In other words, it is only Zion and Zionism that gives value to the existence of the Diaspora. The implication is clear: according to such thinkers, without Zionism, there is little or no value at all in Jewish life in the Diaspora.
We hear this idea very clearly in the statements of the prominent early twentieth-century Zionist philosopher, Jacob Klatzkin:
Perhaps our people can maintain itself in the galut, but it will not exist in its true dimensions - not in the prime of its national character. Galut can only drag out the disgrace of our people and sustain the existence of a people disfigured in both body and soul - in a word, of a horror. At the very most it can maintain us in a state of national impurity and breed some sort of outlandish creature … neither Jew nor gentile - in any case not a true national type.
According to Klatzkin and many others, the galut either would or should ultimately cease to exist. They denied the value of the galut or the Diaspora in and of itself: its only value would be to serve the nation by preparing people to come to Zion. Beyond that, its historic value was over. In the long term, it would cease to exist through a combination of external attack (anti-Semitism) and internal attrition (assimilation). This doctrine in Zionism was called - the negation of the galut. This is the first - and major- model of the Zionist attitude towards the Diaspora. Its belief is that the ultimate, and desirable, way to picture the Jewish world of the future is thus:
According to this model, we see that the expectation and hope of this stream of Zionism is to see the disappearance of the galut and its replacement by the Jewish people’s living totally within the framework of its own state in its own land.
There was another school in Zionism, led by Ahad Ha’am, that saw things differently, however. They were more moderate in their expectations of what Zionism could hope to achieve. They did not believe that the future of the whole of the Jewish people would - or could - be guaranteed within the Land of Israel. They did not see all Jews as able or willing to come to Zion, and refused to accept the idea that the Diaspora should be seen as a place whose only value would be to provide future Zionists for the future Jewish society or state. They wanted the Diaspora or the galut to continue to exist, but deemed it incapable of doing so unless helped and ‘fed’ by the Zionist center in Eretz Israel.
Where is the new rampart that is to secure our existence as a people in dispersion in place of the old rampart [the inward-looking Jewish communities based on religious belief] that is tottering before our eyes?
Isolated groups of Jews wandering about the world here, there and everywhere can be nothing more than a sort of formless raw material until they are provided with a single permanent center, which can exert a pull on all of them, and so transform the scattered atoms into a single entity with a definite and self-subsistent character of its own.
The model that Ahad Ha’am and his school of Zionists would picture as ultimately desirable, is as follows:
Here we see that Zion is in the center of the Jewish world but the Diaspora continues to exist, ‘fed’” by the help and support it receives from the center. It should be pointed out that Ahad Ha’am’s school of Zionism was called ‘Cultural Zionism’; it saw that the help and support that the Diaspora would receive from the Jewish state would be cultural and spiritual rather than material. The cultural work done in Zion would help fortify the identity of the Jew in galut, providing a strong educational inspiration for Jewish communities around the world.
Thus we see two main models in Zionism towards the galut. Both look down on the Diaspora, believing that it needs to be seen as an exile, with all the implications that the word suggests. Both also believe that the community of Zionists in Eretz Israel must be seen as the center of the Jewish world and that the Diaspora is incapable of ultimately providing for its own continuation. Where they differ is in their ideas vis-a-vis the viability and desirability of galut life in the long term.
Such attitudes toward Diaspora communities were certain to provoke opposition among the leaders of those communities. Opposition to these ideas in the Eastern European communities was basically eliminated with the Holocaust. With the virtual destruction of those communities, it seemed impossible to argue with the general conclusions of Zionism in a post-Holocaust world. Moreover, as we have seen, those communities in Eastern Europe that survived complete disintegration at the hands of the Nazis, emerged into the Communist era; in that situation, there was no point in or possibility of rejecting the claims of Zionism, which denied the independent validity of Diaspora communities.
Predictably then, the main post-Holocaust attack on ‘Zionist arrogance’ towards the Diaspora would come from another direction: the free communities of the West. It would not emerge totally until a full generation after the Holocaust when, at least in the largest community of all - the United States – confident, strong voices would start to loudly protest the perceived disdain with which Zionism had related to the galut.
One of the most interesting responses was published on the pages of the Washington Post, a prominent (non-Jewish) American newspaper in 1987. The author was the important Jewish historian and Conservative Rabbi, Jacob Neusner. He completely rejected the Zionists’ claims of superiority as well as the key Zionist claim that the Diaspora communities were fated to disappear through a mixture of anti-Semitism and assimilation. His article “Is America the Promised Land for Jews?” seemed to conclude that, at least in comparison with the limited achievements of the Jewish State of Israel, America did indeed represent a Promised Land where the dream of a rich, full and free Jewish life was being realized. Admitting that there was no guarantee of future situations, he nevertheless looked optimistically to a continuation of the current situation into the foreseeable future:
It is time to say that America is a better place to be a Jew than Jerusalem. If ever there was a Promised Land, we Jewish Americans are living in it. Here Jews have flourished, not alone in politics and the economy, but in matters of art, culture and learning. Jews feel safe and secure here in ways that they do not and cannot in the State of Israel. And they have found an authentically Jewish voice - their own voice - for their vision of themselves.
That is not to say the long centuries of wandering have ended. God alone knows the future. But for here, now and for whatever future anyone can foresee, America has turned out to be our Promised Land.
So when Israelis tell us we have to emigrate and ‘make Aliyah’ - meaning, ascent to live in the Holy Land, lest we assimilate and die (or both) - they appeal to an evil nightmare, one that gives little sign of coming true.
The immigrant generations of Jews built good lives in America, and their great grandchildren are still Jewish. True enough, they are Jewish in ways different from what their great grandparents understood. For example, they speak unaccented American, not Yiddish; they ordinarily do not observe dietary taboos, and they live pretty much within the calendar that governs everyone else. But they also maintain the marks of a highly distinctive community. Every social study has turned up strong evidence of Jews’ communal cohesiveness…
Here in the Diaspora we can be what we want, when we want - from nothing to everything, all the time or once in a while. Freedom is nice, too. And this really has become a free country for us Jews. It wasn’t always that way. It may not always be that way. But let’s stop denying what - at least now - it is.
For American Jews - now Jewish Americans - the American dream has come true. I wonder how many Israelis think the Zionist one has come true, too.
Let us now examine some of these issues pertaining to the relationship between Zion and the Diaspora communities in the eyes of the students.