Don’t Confuse America With the Promised Land

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Members of the Jewish Foundation School of Staten Island carry a sign that reads 'Praying for Peace' as they march up Fifth avenue during the Celebrate Israel Parade, June 1, 2014, in New York.Credit: AP

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Giving the Diaspora Its Due,” Alan Wolfe (a former colleague of mine at CUNY, now at Boston College) argues on behalf of celebrating the “vibrant, successful, and above all else, secure life [that] has, for the first time, become possible in states in which Jews are, and always will be, in the minority.” He champions it as a positive alternative to life in a Jewish state, whose “very triumphs,” he says “have led to new rounds of criticism of its policies and plans to boycott its products and universities.” In effect he suggests that whatever Jews once saw as essential and valuable in the Zionist project and a sovereign state of Israel is possible at perhaps a higher level, in what was once described as the “Diaspora,” the antithesis of the Jewish state.

For Wolfe, the place where Jewish life “can flourish” and where Jews can truly be ‘a light unto the nations,’ is not in Israel but in the Diaspora. To be sure, the Diaspora he appears to have in mind is North America, or at least those parts of it where Jews are not subject to prejudice and exclusion. Quoting Jacob Neusner, he asserts: “America is a better place to be a Jew than Jerusalem.”

The Jewish life he celebrates as ‘better’ in America than in Jerusalem is one of “universalist values,” and not one that preserves Jewish uniqueness, history, and tradition. Wolfe’s flourishing Jew is one who sees his people to be all people, everyone but no one in particular.

This is not the sort of historically rooted practicing Jew my forbears were, nor one I or my children are, and I hope it does not describe the Jewish future of my grandchildren. As for Israel, the only Jews there of any value to him seem to be those who are universalist and cosmopolitan; he has no patience for the parochial and particularists among them.

Wolfe’s celebration of the Diaspora cannot of course refer to those places in today’s Europe, like France, Italy, or Belgium, for example, where Jews have been attacked and murdered simply because they are Jews. Nor can he be celebrating those places where synagogues and Jewish places of assembly must be guarded by police or security personnel lest they be attacked or remain hidden from view, as they are in for example in Turkey, or where such Jewish practices as kosher meat slaughter are prohibited and Jews dare not call attention to themselves on the street. Nor must he mean places in the Middle East in Arab countries or Iran where Jews were after 1948 expelled or chased away and where those few remaining are subject to persecution and prejudice – or in the case of Iran, essentially held hostage.

Wolfe bemoans a Diaspora that overly often recalls the Holocaust and persecution. Of course our history as a vulnerable minority in the Diaspora, even after long periods of security, is one that somehow has always in the past lead to persecution or expulsion. Wolfe needs to learn more Jewish history. He claims “in the years after World War II, a vibrant, successful, and above all else, secure life has, for the first time [my italics], become possible in states in which Jews are, and always will be, in the minority.” First time? Rubbish. Before 1492 in Spain, this was true for Jews too. This was a “golden age.” But by 1492, the Spanish Inquisition had put an end to all that. Even in Persia – today’s Iran – we had a time of security and vibrancy. In both places, like so many others, things ended badly.

Of course in his paean to American Diasporic life today, Wolfe discounts the benign social environment where Jews are being loved to death, the victims of a cultural assimilation unparalleled in Jewish history that leaves them indistinguishable from the rest of those who make up the majorities around them.

Wolfe assumes all “intermingling” enriches the Jews as they enrich those who swallow them up. This is the Jew as an idea but it ignores the essence of Jewish peoplehood, the very raison d’etre of the Zionist project. For Wolfe, “It is more important what Jews think than where they live,” but of course what they think is the product of their particular history, traditions and peoplehood. Without preserving and nurturing all that in an environment where Jews encounter and interact with other Jews and create a fabric of distinctively Jewish life, what Jews think and are will soon be what the majorities around them think and are: Nothing special.

Wolfe says he is not worried about the disappearance of the Jews: “I believe that Judaism, which has been around so long, is not going away anytime soon.” But the Judaism whose future he believes is assured is one that eschews particularism, does not speak the Hebrew language, knows little if anything about its history, is devoid of the content that generations of Jews tried to preserve and out of which the special values Wolfe so esteems have come. Without all that – which a Jewish nation naturally creates – the assumption that Wolfe makes that Jews will still have something to contribute, regardless of its disconnection to its past and peoplehood, is a fantasy.

Wolfe sees only the negative element of nationalism. He does not see how it can nurture Jewish values, how living in place where the language is Hebrew, the calendar and collective consciousness, the history is Jewish, the land and its cities part of the great chain of Jewish being is precisely what helps the Jewish people make their contribution to life and the world. No Diaspora can guarantee that.

Like so many who has misunderstood the concept of Jewish chosenness, Wolfe concludes that he prefers “a Judaism that is special but not chosen to one that is chosen but not special.” To be chosen is to be selected to be special, to serve as an example, to provide the wisdom and experience of Jewish history and being to the world. That does not come in the blood, nor does it come from the Almighty; it comes from being part of the Jewish people and sharing its destiny. That can happen in the Diaspora, but it must happen in Israel.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.  

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