aliyah, Conservative, conversion, diaspora, divorce, haskalah, immigration, Israel, Jewish Theological Seminary, Judaism, Kotel, marriage, Naftali Bennett, Orthodox, Palestine, Rabbinate, Reconstructionist, Reform, Sabra, Soviet Union, Tzipi Hotovely, United States, Western Wall, yerida, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Zionism
The Reform Jewish movement’s response to US president Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city may only be the first incontrovertible sign that the ideology of Zionism has come to an end. To be certain, the diaspora has never in concurrence with the policies of the Israeli state but for decades now, the gap between them and the Jews in Israel has been widening. This latest manifestation from J Street, the Union for Reform Judaism, and their fellow travellers is an unpleasant yet not wholly unexpected wake-up call for the community as a whole.
An end to Zionism does not imply the politics of post-Zionism which questions the very foundations of the Jewish state. Rather, it recognises that most of the Diaspora who wish to immigrate to Israel have already done so and the different environments in which sabra and diaspora find themselves has, over decades, altered their perspectives on some of the core issues that concern the Jewish community. An end of Zionism, for our purpose, does not question the existence of Israel or even comment on the ethics of central issues of identity and existence such as the drafting of a constitution, Judea and Samaria, the Orthodox Rabbinate, counter-terrorism, or foreign relations within the region.
There are several indications that Zionism may be on its last legs, if not over. One benchmark is Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. It is no secret that the numbers of Jews making aliyah to Israel have been dwindling over the past several years. The first couple of years of the Jewish state understandably saw a high number of olim arrive from Europe and the Middle East, while another spike in numbers occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The highest immigration has been from the Soviet Union and its successor states, with approximately 1.3 million immigrants over the years. Less than a tenth of that number made aliyah from the United States in the same period. To be fair, American Jews have historically been opposed to Zionism, initially seeing it as a wrinkle in their efforts to assimilate into mainstream American society. The ideology was only made palatable by Louis Brandeis when he refashioned it as a cultural project of rebuilding Palestine as a Jewish home towards which American Jews need only make financial contributions.
Jewish immigration to Israel last year fell to 27,000 new arrivals of which 70 percent were from Russia, Ukraine, and France – whose combined Jewish diaspora population is barely 10 percent of the total. These numbers are even more depressing when considered in context of yerida – Israelis leaving the country to settle abroad. Since 1948, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that over 720,000 Israelis have emigrated; US Department of Homeland Security figures reveal that some 250,000 of those have settled in America. This means that the net flow of people has been from Israel to the United States rather than the other way around. Of course, emigration does not necessitate a rejection of Zionism and may well be in most cases for the usual reasons of employment and education. Nonetheless, the primary call of Zionism seems to have weakened on not only the diaspora but even a small number of Israelis who left in search of material prosperity. As the Jews of the Anglosphere generally indicate, prosperity cools the fervour of Zionism.
The unspoken truth about aliyah is that American emigration has been viewed as most important. After all, it is not just the most populous Jewish diaspora but also the most prosperous one as well. The American attitude of “buying into” Zionism with their wealth irked several of the early Zionist leaders and many saw the refusal to move to Israel as a deep betrayal. Yet the same attitude was common even among European Jews before World War II and the Shoah – 19th century Zionists found it difficult to convince European Jews to move to Palestine or even to financially aid the few pioneers who made the first aliyah at the end of the century.
The tension between aid and ideology can be seen even today. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotovely’s statement at Princeton deriding American Jewry for not serving in the military was denounced by her own prime minister while everyone else studiously ignored the real meaning of Hotovely’s words – service in the Israeli Defence Forces – and loudly proclaimed that US Jews have proudly served in the US armed forces. Regardless of the differences between American Jews and Israelis, it was poor politics to insult the most useful if irritating of diasporas.
Besides prosperity, another factor that has spelled the demise of Zionism is the relative safety in which Jews around the world live today. Anti-semitism is indeed still present and at times lurking just below the superficial calm, even in the new Zion of the United States, but the dangers are nowhere near as severe or mainstream as a century earlier. The irony of history is that the greatest physical threat to Jews in the world today is exactly where was supposed to be their place of refuge – Israel. The security in the diaspora has led many of them to come to different conclusions about the internal and external challenges that face Israel.
One area of disagreement has been Israel’s Palestine conundrum and the plethora of issues that it contains – the international boundary, civil rights for Palestinians, counter-terrorism. As Israelis – even on the Left – are quick to point out, life is substantially different in Morningside as compared to, say, Pisgat Ze’ev, in terms of rocket attacks, shootings, stabbings, vehicular attacks, and suicide bombings. Yet more and more of the diaspora seem to see Israel as the aggressor whose occupation of Arab lands after the Six-Day War is the immediate cause of violence. The same thinking is evident in how American and Israeli Jews think about the Iranian nuclear threat.
Sabra and diaspora are also at odds over the soul of Judaism, so to speak. A large and vocal minority of the Jewish diaspora in the United States are Reform or Conservative Jews who resent the monopoly the Orthodox have acquired over important rituals of faith such as marriage, divorce, prayer, and the rare conversion. The latest crossing of swords occurred in June 2017 when the Israeli government reneged on an agreement from January 2016 that promised to set up a plaza for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel. However, the sects have long been at war over the refusal of the Rabbinate to recognise non-Orthodox marriages and conversions and in 1997, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York even called on American Jews to stop sending money to organisations with Orthodox leanings in Israel. He even called for the dismemberment of the Rabbinate and its network of courts. The theological debate has transformed into a political one largely because of the association of the Israeli state with Orthodox Judaism, a great irony given the strong haskalah influence on Zionism and the beliefs of its early activists.
It is also perhaps not a wise idea for Israelis to emphasise Zionism and a strong Jewish identity, especially as Jews remain a minuscule minority in every country they are present. First, it is clear that these bonds are not as strong as depicted from either side, sabra or diaspora. Second, if the majority communities do begin to believe that their Jewish fellow citizens have a second loyalty, it could create unnecessary fault lines where there are none. It is psychologically understandable that constant additional proofs of loyalty are always required of suspect minorities, be they Catholics in Tudor England or Muslims in the 21st century. Professions of Zionism could well hurt assimilation and though that is what Israel wants, immigration has sharply been ruled out by a diaspora that measures almost as much as the population of Israel itself.
What Israel must also understand is that if it keeps claiming a moral authority on the diaspora, it will open itself to diaspora claims on Israeli accountability to them. Jerusalem cannot continue to speak on behalf of all Jews, even implicitly, if it is not willing to listen to half of them and treats them as a lost cause. The attachment of many Israelis to the diaspora is understandable, not only from a sense of religious community but also a cultural perspective – a full quarter of Israelis today are not sabra and these immigrants retain an emotional bonding with their country of origin. Yet even these immigrants cannot deny that the different kind of “nurture” in Israel plays an important role in shaping opinions.
The dissociation with the diaspora is not its rejection; it is a recognition of the limits of the Israeli state. As Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett admitted after the neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville, Israel cannot protect all Jews at all times. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the sovereign state to defend its own citizens; situations like Entebbe are few and far between. This does not mean that Israel cease to be a place of last refuge for the Jewish people – we do not have to go as far as Ze’ev Jabotinsky when he famously warned in his Tisha B’Av column from Warsaw to eliminate the diaspora before it eliminates you. While not actively seeking immigration, Israel can still allow a priority status for those making aliyah and provide resettlement assistance. The reality is that anti-semitism is still very much prevalent in the world and it would be irresponsible for the only Jewish state in the world to become like all other countries that restrict immigration.
To the pernickety reader: categories are not absolute – the entire diaspora is not locked in a Kulturkampf with the Jewish state. Personal politics also plays a role and there are plenty of people in Israel who support some of the diaspora’s positions while there is a sizable portion of the diaspora that does support Israeli policies. Nonetheless, the most common denominator in the divide on security and identity remains domicile.
If this is truly the beginning of the end of Zionism, there is nothing to despair. An ideology that was once useful and has served its purpose has been cast away. In its place, Israelis may feel a better-defined sense of nationalism for their state and its achievements over the past seven decades. In the parlance of contemporary political campaigning, this would be a position of “Israel First.” The diaspora are still family but more like distant cousins…from out of town.