Zionism and the West

Dynamics of Tension

In Zionism's formative years, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the western diasporas were still in the process of formation. The English-speaking countries gained the bulk of their Jews at precisely the same time that the Zionist Jewish community in the Yishuv was developing, and for similar reasons - the desire of millions of Eastern European Jews to leave their lands of birth. The majority of western Jews were themselves immigrants or children of immigrants in their new host countries and were hardly confident of their position in their new lands. They were still in exile to a large extent; they hardly felt themselves to be at home.

By the seventies and eighties, however - two generations later - the position had substantially changed. The Jewries of the West - and especially North American Jews - had become socially confident, elite groups, proud of their many achievements and with a feeling of power and acceptance in the countries where they lived. Most of them felt a strong sense of belonging, and did not feel like outcasts or parasites, nor did they feel powerless. To a very large degree they felt themselves to be home: for many of them, the Promised Land was where they were, not where they were not - in Eretz Yisrael. They considered themselves very strongly to be in diaspora: Zionism still treated them as if they were in Galut.

Moreover, many of the new generation of active Jews felt that they were prepared to help Israel, and had done so, in important ways: either financially - in the tradition of their parents - or politically, using their skills and their knowlege of their country's govermental process to lobby on Israel's behalf. People like these, who believed that they were contributing through their financial power and their skills to Israel, were not prepared to accept the rather patronizing attitudes of classical Zionism as voiced by the leaders and spokespeople of the Jewish state.

More than that: many felt that, in certain crucial ways, they could do a better job than the Israelis in managing and administrating the funds raised by diaspora Jewry on Israel's behalf. Their money was accepted; their political help was accepted, but their attempts to offer advice to Israel were generally rejected or at best heard out only reluctantly.

Even as this process was still in the formative stage, the spokespeople for Zionism were increasingly confident of their position. Originally mapped out by classic Zionist ideologists, it had been strengthened by two major events - the Holocaust on the one hand and the existence of the sovereign State of Israel on the other.

For many Zionists, the Holocaust proved the correctness of their world view which perceived life in Galut as the prelude to a tragedy. Zionists were of course mortified by the size of the Holocaust - but they had been predicting tragedy for Galut Jews for years. Moreover, the presence of the State of Israel, which could act unopposed to save the troubled Jewries of the world, proved that there were now alternatives to the Galut fate predicted by many Zionists. Jews should - and could - come to Zion and save themselves.

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The Diaspora Hits Back

A clash between the two different groups moving in different ideological directions was inevitable: at a certain point, diaspora Jews were bound to speak out with new voices - voices of belonging, that would deny that they were second-class Jews just because they did not live in Israel.

This process started a decade or so ago, when some of the leaders of American Jewry began to answer back. They rejected the right of Zionist spokesmen to relegate them to a second-class position. Israel was indeed central to the Jewish world. But so were they.

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The Retrun of the Two Center Model?

They rejected the idea of being inherently inferior in any way to the Jews of the State of Israel, by virtue of their geographical location. The suggestion started to be voiced that - just as there had been two Jewish centres co-existing side by side in Babylon and Eretz Yisrael in the Talmudic period (third to fifth or sixth century CE) - the same situation could be said to exist today with the United States taking the place of Babylon in the two-centers model.

This claim was strengthened by another perception - a growing feeling among large sections of that part of diaspora Jewry actively involved in Jewish life - that there was a widening gap between Zionist vision and reality. Although Israel and Zionism were in theory important indeed, the reality of life in Israel fell somewhat short of the dream that the purveyors of Zionism had sold to the public.

Problems in Israel - political, social and religious - seemed to suggest that Israel was another Jewish community, albeit clearly major and clearly different, that was in trouble: enthusiasm dwindled.

Political arguments developed in Israel spilled over into the diaspora arena. There was dissension about the advisability of openly criticising Israel in an open international forum, such as that of the diaspora countries, but it could not be denied that there were, indeed, problems in Zion.

Moreover, the new generation of young American Jewish leaders differed from their parents in another important way: they had not witnessed a world without a Jewish state and had not felt for themselves the price that the Jews had paid in the 1930's for the lack of a state. Nor had they known the early days of struggle in the new Jewish state when Israel seemed to be facing an endless uphill struggle against heroic odds to survive and put herself on the permanent map of nation states. Many did not even remember the threat against Israel's existence that preceded the 1967 Six Day War: they had not thrilled with pride - as had many of their parents - in the aftermath of that war, as the myth of the Superjew - the new Jewish fighter - had caused much of diaspora Jewry to walk with a new pride in their native lands.

This was a Jewry whose knowledge of Israel's war was more likely to be the Lebanese war which caused intense controversy within Israel itself and was a source of pride for very few. This was a Jewry who knew the reality of the intifada, portrayed by most of the international media as a David and Goliath scenario - with Israel in the role of Goliath. This was a generation which tended to see Israel without illusions: indeed, for many of them, there was a feeeling that their own Jewish life was, if anything, superior to the life of the Jews in the Jewish state.

In addition, there were growing reservations about the sort of Judaism developing in Israel - a strictly orthodox Judaism that did not recognise the validity of other non-orthodox streams: non- orthodox conversions were coming under increasing fire in Israel; pronouncements from mainstream, orthodox circles in Israel were increasingly militant in their denunciation of other forms of Judaism. It was a Jewish climate with which many leading diaspora Jews felt increasingly uncomfortable.

Zionism had been saying for years that western Jewry could live a more fulfilling life as Jews in Israel, but when many western Jews looked towards Israel they were increasingly confronted with a reality in which they felt disenfranchised: if this was the Jewish life that Zion had to offer them, they saw no reason to be at all envious.

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New Model - Israel as a Panacea for Diaspora Ills

That was the story of the involved part of world Jewry, but there was another important part of Jewry, uninvolved, assimilating, increasingly unaware of, and indifferent to, organised Jewish life. For many of these people, Israel was simply another place in the news. Many felt little - if anything - for the Jewish state.

A number of years ago, something strange and interesting began to happen. As the leaderships and elite groups of many western Jewries looked around themselves, they started to notice the uninvolved and the assimilating Jew. Suddenly, their voices could be heard proclaiming - like prophets of doom - that Jewish life in the lands of diaspora was standing on the edge of a chasm. A new watchword was coined throughout the lands of the western diaspora - Jewish continuity: this was the priority of the day. The outcome of this process was a new, hard look at the possibilities of "saving" the Jewish future in the diaspora began to be taken.

All kinds of panaceas were proposed - including Israel. The opinion was voiced that a visit to Israel, the so-called Israel Experience, was a very good tool for strengthening the marginal Jewish identity in much of diaspora youth. A new model of Israel diaspora relations - Israel as a cure for identity problems, came to the fore.


 

 

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31 May 2005 / 22 Iyar 5765 0