Since Israel’s establishment, during the transition between Memorial Day and Independence Day, 12 – sometimes more – thrilled Israelis have each lit a torch in a ceremony held on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem that opens the holiday festivities. Other Israelis (me, let’s say) watch the ceremony enthusiastically at home. The ultra-pious (me again) also repeat the mantra that concludes each brief text uttered by the torch lighters – “for the glory of the State of Israel!” – and shed a tear.
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Though the torch has a fancy name in Hebrew – masua, or “beacon” – it bears a suspicious resemblance to the skimpy lapid (the more common word for torch) of the Israel Scouts movement, its flame flickering frantically in Jerusalem’s spring breeze. The emotional viewer at home is always concerned that the flame will be blown out, or, alternately, that it will set fire to the hair of the bearer of the torch – sorry, beacon. Israel is a young country, and the concept of glory hasn’t achieved the levels of North Korea, but it’s still real and genuine. And Israeli.
This year, Culture Minister Miri Regev decided to allocate one torch to representatives of the Jewish people in general. It will be lit by two American Jews. One is Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, who gained attention this past January when he offered a blessing, which included a verse from Psalms, for Donald Trump as part of his inauguration ceremony. The other torch-lighter is Michael Steinhardt, a businessman who has donated $100 million to the Taglit-Birthright project, the biggest sponsor of trips to Israel.
Having the two participate in the ceremony may seem like an almost natural development. Natural, that is, for anyone who views the Diaspora as a logical option for the existence of the Jewish people and as a partner in the Zionist project. As such, the Diaspora can be given a place in a national ceremony marking renewed Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, where, as our Declaration of Independence tells us, the Jewish people was born and its spiritual identity was shaped.
It’s not surprising that the first Diaspora representatives ever to receive this honor are American Jews. Besides Israel, the United States is the last place in the world that still has a significant Jewish population. The Jewish story in Europe has been over since the Germans, with little interference from their neighbors, liquidated almost all of that continent’s Jews. Today there are slightly more than one million Jews scattered across Europe. But there are between five and six million Jews in America. They are educated, successful and prominent in a way that is totally disproportionate to their representation among the total population (just two percent), and no one foresees a danger to their existence.
That’s good, and the Law of Return is good, too. But the story of Israel’s Independence Day, with all respect, is not the success of the Diaspora but the success of the state. And Israel was not intended to be just one more country in the world, though that too is a worthy and just goal. Its existence is essential not only by virtue of historical right, but also owing to lack of choice, for the exile of the people of Israel from their land was an ongoing humiliation that culminated in extermination.
The State of Israel posited a glorious alternative to the tragic Jewish fate: sovereignty, together with a full, unabashed, unapologetic everyday Jewish life. In his iconic poem “The Silver Platter,” Natan Alterman described the state’s establishment as “the one miracle, there is no second,” and he wasn’t exaggerating. But concurrent with that miracle, a miracle of a different kind was fomented in North America: that of a relatively tolerant and nonviolent Diaspora, thanks to which the Jews live in tranquil prosperity. The second miracle, however, came with a price – that of losing their Jewish identity in a process of assimilation, so that, as Israel matured and evolved, the affinity with the Jewish state was eroded. Possibly that affinity is stored in the attic, a Law of Return umbrella for a rainy day, although maybe not even that is the case. Perhaps many Israelis see the Jewish communities in the Diaspora as an insurance policy, to be redeemed in the face of a catastrophe in the Jewish state. That is not a healthy relationship.
Evolution seems to have distanced Israelis from American Jewry, and whether one welcomes or regrets this, the distance needs to be acknowledged, together with its implications. It’s what happens when neither homeland, language or vested interests are shared. Seventy years of statehood have spawned very different types of Jews. The exile – or “diaspora,” for those who are turned off by the negative connotations of “exile” – creates a type that's different from what we find in a country that grants its citizens the right to be part of a majority. So self-evident does this right seem in Israel that it’s easy to belittle its importance, but being a majority is meaningful.
For example, assimilation is almost not an option in Israel, whereas about half of American Jews are married to non-Jews. In Israel, not only is it easier to be religiously observant (and, in fact Israel’s Jews are more religious than America’s Jews), it’s also easier to be secular and still not worry about your grandchildren’s Jewishness. The proportion of secular individuals among American Jewry is far higher than among Americans in general, and more than half of them view their Jewishness as a combination (a New Age-y one, to my taste) of origin and culture dressed up with a few kneidlach. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 22 percent of them don’t even define themselves as Jews.
American Jews are multiplying the way secular liberals are multiplying throughout the Western world – namely, not very much. At the beginning of the past century, four million Jews lived in the United States, and today there are fewer than six million. In contrast, the Jewish people in Israel are doing the be-fruitful-and-multiply thing on a biblical scale. When the state was established we were 650,000, whereas today, knock on wood, we’ve grown tenfold. True, we were joined by many new immigrants over the years, but it would be incorrect to say that we didn’t do fine work by ourselves. The birthrate in Israel is among the highest in the Western world. The number of American Jews is declining.
American Jews, if they maintain ties with a religious community at all, created, adopted and abandoned the Conservative stream. Today they tend toward the Reform stream, an invention of German Jews who found it difficult to bear the shame of their Jewishness, and accordingly developed a form of Judaism with a very weak commitment to observance of the commandments, and which at its best might only postpone assimilation for a generation or two. Here in this country, we have three synagogues on every street, which one can attend or not. We put up wedding canopies at the same rate at which Americans buy bad coffee at Starbucks.
Most of us are Jews without even paying attention to it, because in the Jewish state there are no cars on the road on Yom Kippur, and in December we don’t search for that lone Hanukkah menorah in a shop window amid a forest of Christmas trees. Here, when people say “Happy holiday,” everyone knows exactly which holiday is meant.
Politically, the great majority of American Jews (around 70 percent) lean leftward and traditionally vote Democrat; nor did they switch camps even in the Obama years, when relations with Israel went sour. Israelis, overall, are more right-leaning. And our interest in Israel is not one of principle, nor is it academic or theoretical: We are invested in Israel up to our ears.
The commitment of Diaspora Jewry is first and foremost to the country they live in. Their commitment to Israel, if it exists at all, is expressed practically in lobbying and donations; in terms of the Israeli interest, it’s not always the most desirable lobbying or the preferred donation. When Jews establish or donate to political organizations that oppose Israel’s official policies or subvert its sovereignty, such as OneVoice International, which intervened actively in the 2015 elections, or finance NGOs that are against the policy of the government and society in Israel regarding infiltrators, settlements, natural-gas agreements or Women of the Wall – the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewry sometimes looks like the communications between a mother spaceship and mission control in Houston. But it’s the spaceship that has to get to Mars safely, when all is said and done, whereas the folks in Houston will head home at the end of the day whether the spaceship lands or crashes. And we don’t really need mission control, and it isn’t really a shared partnership.
Both Hier and Steinhardt were chosen with great care. I assume that both love Israel and wish it success. That’s gladdening, but they are American citizens. True, the right to choose one’s place of residence is an important privilege, even if you’re a Jew, but in the torch-lighting ceremony on the day of the celebration of the one miracle of which there is no second, the proper place for anyone who’s not an Israeli is in the visitors’ gallery.
Irit Linur is an Israeli journalist, author and radio host.