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Just before I entered the hall for the symposium in Washington that inaugurated two days of discussions on the future of the Jewish People in light of the century that has passed since the founding of the host organization (the American Jewish Committee), my youngest son phoned from Israel and told me about how moved he was by the memorial ceremony, in which he and his wife and toddler daughter had just taken part, for the fallen of Israel's wars. I made a brief comment to the panel's moderator about the fact that the symposium was taking place on the eve of Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, and I hoped that, amid the many congratulatory speeches at the start of the evening, this would be noted and that we might also all be asked to honor the Israeli Memorial Day, as customary, with a minute of silence. But this didn't happen. And Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, due to be marked the following day, received only faint and brief mention from the speakers.

I do not cite this as a grievance, but rather as a symptomatic example that may also explain my gloomy state of mind at that symposium, given that the deep and natural identification that a large portion of American Jewry once felt with Israeli life has been steadily and seriously weakening in recent years. All of the participants in the subsequent discussions agreed that, for some years now, a slow process of disengagement of American Jewry from Israel has been intensifying. The reasons are numerous and complex, and relate both to the fact that the "Israeli drama" has lost many of its attractive features for American Jews, and to the accelerated processes of assimilation occurring to varying degrees within America itself.

Missed opportunity

Even though the title of the symposium was "The Future of the Past: What Will Become of the Jewish People?" I may have been the only one to begin by talking about the failure of most of the Jewish People to foresee in the 20th century the depth and vehemence of the hostility toward it, which eventually led to an annihilation unprecedented in human history. "The Jewish texts," which many Jews today consider to be the core of their identity, did not help us to understand better the processes of the reality around us. The Jews were too busy with mythology and theology instead of history, and therefore the straightforward warnings voiced by Jabotinsky and his colleagues in the early 20th century - "Eliminate the Diaspora, or the Diaspora will surely eliminate you" - fell on deaf ears.

After Palestine was taken over by the British, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised a national home for the Jews, and if during the 1920s, when the country's gates were open wide, just a half-million Jews had come (less than 5 percent of the Jewish People at that time) instead of the tiny number that actually did come, it certainly would have been possible to establish a Jewish state before the Holocaust on part of the Land of Israel. This state not only would have ended the Israeli-Arab conflict at an earlier stage and with less bloodshed - it also could have provided refuge in the 1930s to hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews who sensed the gathering storm, and thus would have significantly reduced the number of victims in the Holocaust.

The Zionist solution, which was proven as the best solution to the Jewish problem before the Holocaust, was tragically missed by the Jewish People. And if it weren't for those few (less then half of 1 percent of the Jewish People) people who, a hundred years ago, believed and actually sought the fulfillment of the need for the sovereign normalization of the Jewish People in its ancient homeland, the Jewish People could have found itself after the horrors of World War II just wandering among Holocaust museums, without even that piece of sovereign homeland that still offers some solace for the disaster that occurred.

But such a tough and piercing reckoning, coming from such an old-fashioned Zionist premise about our painful and tragic missed opportunity in the past century, is not welcome at the festive opening of a convention of a Jewish organization that, like many other Jewish organizations at the start of the 20th century, shunned, if not actively opposed, the Zionist solution. Better to talk about all the Nobel Prizes and prestige garnered by Jews in the past century, about the intellectual achievements of Freud and Einstein, and about the tremendous contribution that Jews have made to Western culture. Therefore, right from the start, I felt like I was spoiling the nice, pleasant atmosphere with my anger. And instead of joining in the celebration of the wonderful spirituality of the Jewish identity, and of the cultural renaissance in America, and instead of extolling the texts that we must learn and the Jewish values that we must inculcate, I tried nevertheless to outline at least a fundamental boundary between Jewish identity in Israel and Jewish identity in the Diaspora.

This is no easy task nowadays. Many Israelis would disagree with me as well. The basic concepts of Zionism have either been pulverized beyond recognition within the normality of sovereign life, or usurped in a distorted and grotesque way by fascist rightist ideologies or radical post-modernism.

And this is where the conflict between myself and my listeners arose. (Not with all of my listeners, actually. Some, mainly Jews who had some Israeli experience, came up to me after the discussion was over to express deep solidarity with what I'd said.)

I did not talk about "the negation of the Diaspora." The Jewish Diaspora has existed ever since the Babylonian exile, about 2,500 years ago, and it will continue to exist for thousands more years. The Diaspora is the most solid fact in Jewish history; we know its cost, and we are aware of its accomplishments and failures in terms of Jewish continuity. In fact, the most harshly worded statements concerning its theological negation are to be found scattered in the "core" religious texts; there is no need for an Israeli writer to come to Washington to talk about the negation of the Diaspora.

All of the reports suggesting that I said that there can be no Jewishness except in Israel are utterly preposterous. No one would ever think of saying such an absurd thing. It is Israel and not the Diaspora that could be a passing episode in Jewish history, and this is the source of my compulsion to reiterate the old and plain truths that apparently need to be repeated again and again. Not just to Diaspora Jews, but to Israelis, too.

Jewish identity in Israel, which we call Israeli identity (as distinct from Israeli citizenship, which is shared by Arab citizens who also live in the shared homeland, though their national identity is Palestinian) - this Jewish-Israeli identity has to contend with all the elements of life via the binding and sovereign framework of a territorially defined state. And therefore the extent of its reach into life is immeasurably fuller and broader and more meaningful than the Jewishness of an American Jew, whose important and meaningful life decisions are made within the framework of his American nationality or citizenship. His Jewishness is voluntary and deliberate, and he may calibrate its pitch in accordance with his needs.

We in Israel live in a binding and inescapable relationship with one another, just as all members of a sovereign nation live together, for better or worse, in a binding relationship. We are governed by Jews. We pay taxes to Jews, are judged in Jewish courts, are called up to serve in the Jewish army and compelled by Jews to defend settlements we didn't want or, alternatively, are forcibly expelled from settlements by Jews. Our economy is determined by Jews. Our social conditions are determined by Jews. And all the political, economic, cultural and social decisions craft and shape our identity, which although it contains some primary elements, is always in a dynamic process of changes and corrections. While this entails pain and frustration, there is also the pleasure of the freedom of being in your own home.

Homeland and national language and a binding framework are fundamental components of any person's national identity. Thus, I cannot point to a single Israeli who is assimilated, just as there is no Frenchman in France who is an assimilated Frenchman - even if he has never heard of Moliere and has never been to the Louvre, and prefers soccer matches and horse races.

Identity as a garment

What I sought to explain to my American hosts, in overly blunt and harsh language perhaps, is that, for me, Jewish values are not located in a fancy spice box that is only opened to release its pleasing fragrance on Shabbat and holidays, but in the daily reality of dozens of problems through which Jewish values are shaped and defined, for better or worse. A religious Israeli Jew also deals with a depth and breadth of life issues that is incomparably larger and more substantial than those with which his religious counterpart in New York or Antwerp must contend.

Am I denouncing their incomplete identity? I am neither denouncing nor praising. It's just a fact that requires no legitimating from me, just as my identity requires no legitimating from them. But since we see ourselves as belonging to one people, and since the two identities are interconnected, and flow into one another, the relation between them must be well clarified.

As long as it is clear to all of us that Israeli Jewish identity deals, for better or worse, with the full spectrum of the reality and that Diaspora Jewry deals only with parts of it, then at least the difference between whole and part is acknowledged. But the moment that Jews insist that involvement in the study and interpretation of texts, or in the organized activity of Jewish institutions, are equal to the totality of the social and political and economic reality that we in Israel are contending with - not only does the moral significance of the historic Jewish grappling with a total reality lose its validity, there is also the easy and convenient option of a constant flow from the whole to the partial.

Not by chance do more than half a million Israelis now live outside of Israel. If Jewish identity can feed itself on the study of texts and the mining of memories, and some occasional communal involvement - and as long as all those capable Chabad emissaries are supplying instant Jewish and religious services everywhere on the planet - what's the problem, in the global age, with taking the Israeli kids and exiling the whole family to some foreign high-tech mecca? After all, the core of the identity is eternal and accessible anywhere.

This is how Israeliness in the homeland will also become a garment that is removed and replaced with another garment in times of trouble, just as Romanian-ness and Polishness were replaced by Englishness and American-ness, and Tunisian-ness and Moroccan-ness were replaced by Frenchness and Canadian-ness. And in the future, in another century or two, when China is the leading superpower, why shouldn't some Jews exchange their American-ness or Canadian-ness for Chinese-ness or Singaporean-ness? Just think about it: Who would have believed in the 16th century that within 200 or 300 years, the Jews would be concentrated in an unknown land called America?

The Jews have proven their ability to live anywhere for thousands of years without losing their identity. And as long as the goyim don't cause too many problems, Jewish perseverance will not falter. If Israeliness is just a garment, and not a daily test of moral responsibility, for better or worse, of Jewish values, then it's no wonder that poverty is spreading, that the social gaps are widening and that cruelty toward an occupied people is perpetrated easily and without pangs of conscience. Since it will always be possible to escape from the reality to the old texts, and to interpret them in such a way that will imbue us with greatness, hope and consolation.

The national minority among us of the Palestinian Israelis, who share Israeli citizenship with us, could also make a contribution to this identity, just as American Jews contribute to the general American identity, and the Basques to the Spanish identity and so on. The more Israeli we are, the better the partnership we have with them. The more we concentrate solely on Jewish spirituality and texts, believing this to be of chief importance, the more the alienation between us grows.

The simple truth

I keep bringing up the matter of texts, because in liberal Jewish circles this has recently become the most important anchor of identity, as evidenced by the return of manifestly secular people to the synagogue - not in order to find God, but to clutch onto identity. As someone who has spent his whole life dealing with texts - writing, reading and analyzing - I am incensed by the increasingly dangerous and irresponsible disconnection between the glorification of the texts and the mundane matters of daily life. Instead, I propose that we continue to nurture the concrete and living value of "the homeland," rather than the dull and worn-out value of Jewish spirituality.

In all the Bible, the word moledet (homeland) is mentioned just 22 times, and many of these times in reference to other nations. The first sentence spoken to the first Jew is, "Go for yourself from your land, from your moledet, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you." And throughout their long history, the Jews obeyed the first part of this imperative with great devotion, moving from one moledet to another with surprising ease. And the terrible end to these wanderings needs no further mention.

If we don't want this kind of Jewish mindset (with the help of our Palestinian rivals for the homeland) to pull the rug out from under our feet, we ought to reiterate the basic, old concepts to Israelis just as much as to American Jews who, though they were offended by me, treated me with exemplary courtesy, perhaps because deep down, they felt that I was speaking the simple truth.

Translated from the Hebrew by Anne Pace