The contempt felt by many in Israel towards those leaving the country to settle elsewhere was expressed most starkly earlier this month by Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan. Lapid lambasted Israeli expats for “willing to toss away the only land the Jews have for the sake of a more comfortable life in Berlin,” whereas Dayan wrote on his Facebook page that “those who emigrate from Israel constitute a betrayal of the Zionist idea.”
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A few days later the same Israeli public took pride in the ex-Israeli Nobel Prize laureates residing across the Atlantic Ocean. Local newspaper headlines reported phone calls placed by the nation's leaders to those scientists, and boasted the high proportion of Jews – most of whom have never lived nor thought of living in Israel - among Nobel Prize winners as a source of national pride.
It’s time to reconcile this paradoxical Israeli stance. The roots of the disagreement run deep, as the issue at hand is actually broader. It is not just about the attitude towards Jews living outside of Israel, and the legitimacy of their chosen path, but about what these Jews’ choices mean for the Zionist enterprise itself.
In the wake of the Holocaust, the “negation of the Diaspora” was essential for harnessing the energies and resources of the Jewish people towards the establishment of the State of Israel. A “deal” was struck between the Jews in Zion and those outside: Political and financial support for the Israeli state-building project in return for a safe haven in case anti-Semitism in these countries again reared its ugly head.
Yet notwithstanding its former appeal, that same attitude currently offends many Jews worldwide and undermines the unity of the Jewish people at large. When Prime Minister Netanyahu, while visiting Paris, scolds French Jews for not committing to aliyah, he ignores the fact that Rashi, Yehuda HaLevi and Maimonides were “good Jews” in spite of having authored their masterpieces while living in France, Spain and Egypt.
Furthermore, the “negation of the Diaspora” has ruled out flourishing and well-established strands of Judaism which had developed outside of Israel, labeling them either “diasporic” or “assimilationist.” It follows that both Haredi/Hasidic Judaism on the one hand, and Reform/Conservative Judaism on the other, are disregarded by mainstream Israel. The outcome is the inevitable alienation of the ultra-Orthodox communities, and a growing determination by the American Jewish movements to stand their ground in the Israeli public sphere in Israel and demand respect for their customs.
More than that, in light of the perceived rejection they experience by the State of Israel, many young American Jews no longer see themselves committed to the “deal” signed by their parents. Instead, they distance themselves from Israel and base their Jewish identity either on the former persecution of Jews by others, or on a sense of global mission. And so we witness the proliferation of Holocaust memorial institutions in the United States in the past decade, together with the growing number of young Jews involved in global tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) projects, while showing no interest in the State of Israel's fate.
What should be done to rectify the situation? The claim that the national revival of the Jewish people requires the invalidation of Jewish life outside the state’s borders is outdated. The State of Israel is strong and well-established, no longer threatened by the existence of viable Jewish communities worldwide. It’s time to change course, and relinquish the “negation of the Diaspora” in favor of an equal partnership between Jews living in Israel and those residing outside its perimeters. Experts in the field, such as the Reut Institute’s Gidi Grinstein, refer to this paradigm as “Jewish Peoplehood.”
Israel’s political leadership, including Finance Minister Lapid, need to take into account the changes the state has undergone in the last 65 years. They should enable those who want to immigrate to Israel to do so and be fully integrated, while at the same time respecting the choices of those who choose to live elsewhere, and support in their own way the prosperity of the Jewish people.
They need to offer those Jews and their respective communities a partnership of equals, in which world Jewry acknowledges the historical, cultural and religious significance of Israel, while Jews in Israel recognize the important contribution of Jews worldwide to the flourishing of the Jewish people, culture and religion. In this manner, Jews in Israel and abroad can work together in the development of both the state of Israel and Jewish existence across the globe.
MK Hilik Bar is deputy speaker of the Knesset, secretary general of the Labor Party, and chair of the Knesset Caucus for a Resolution to the Arab-Israeli Conflict.