Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Supporting Israel from the Diaspora — What does it mean?

Israel is one of the greatest human adventures of all time. A people absent from its land for 1500 years, whatever, driven from one corner of the earth to the other. Standing up for its beliefs. Suddenly comes back and reconstitutes itself as a full functioning society. Where else do you have such a story in the annals of the human race? Such tenacity! Such identity! To be able to come back to the original source and reconstitute itself. We have stood up for the rights of small people as no other has. We stand up for others — we want to save the whales, the whooping cranes. The struggle of the Jews is the struggle of small cultures everywhere — of the Indians in the Amazon, of the Inuits in Alaska, the Tibetans in China. We are one of the few people that has survived as a culture. The story of Israel is the story of survival of the small culture.
- Hillel Halkin, author and translator, from a meeting we had on Thursday, 12 Nov. in Zikhron Yaakov, Israel.

On Thursday we journeyed north to Hod HaSharon, Kfar Sababa and Zikhron Yaakov to visit Masorti Congregations and speak about Conservative Judaism in Israel.

Hillel Halkin, who writes for Commentary, has written a few books of his own and translated some of the Israeli classics, concluded the day. He got us all thinking. (for a few articles, see here and here).

It’s not that he doesn’t care about American Judaism. It’s that he wants us to care more about Israel than he does about America. And he realizes that this is hypocritical.

He voiced particular displeasure toward the recent actions of the organized American left (read JStreet) voicing opinions in moral absolutes, as voyeurs on a situation which they interact with from afar.

He voiced frustration with the very formulation of moral absolutes, particularly in terms of defense. American liberals really can attempt to explore the moral ramifications of checkpoints?

Why support the government of Israel? Because they are the democratically elected representatives of the state. After one takes part in that democratic process, protest away — but be a part of it first.

The issue transcends the particularist political view, though. For right-wingers, as well, supporting the settler movement from the Diaspora was encouraging an oppressive state. If people had such ideologies, they should get up and find their favorite hill in the Shomron (Samaria).

What does all this practically mean? He compares the ethics of the Diaspora toward to those of his youth, when he and other like-minded Jews headed down to Alabama during the Civil Rights movement. They did good work for a year. But in the end, they left after a year. And Black Alabamans stayed living in Alabama.

“The ethics of the Diaspora are like the ethics of Jews like me in Alabama — doing a little here and a little there,” he said. “Here everything is our problem. This is the test of Jewish ethnicity. If we can’t make it work here, then it’s not worth anything.”

It isn’t that there is not a role for Diaspora Jews in Israel. But that there should not be an illusion of what that service is.

I picked up Halkin’s book, Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist's Polemic, Sunday at the library. It still has me thinking, frustrated and confused. What is my place here as a continual visitor in Israel? Is there a place for support from the outside? Am I really “on trial” during my visit to Israel, as he stresses repeatedly during the book? Should I be?

In many ways, I felt that Halkin was speaking directly to me on Thursday. I’m about a third of the way through his book — same story.

He presents the metaphor of a person who enters a synagogue and wants people to come up and welcome him:

“There is still a third possibility. This time our visitor has no wish to evade the ambiguous nature of his relationship, it s in the hope of resolving it that he has so eagerly looked to his visit, although at the same time he is apprehensive of being questioned by the congregants and unsure of what to reply. Inside he is disappointed to find that the building is not terribly attractive and that he service is noisy and indecorous; yet he is nevertheless drawn to its dramatic location and to the stark but haunting view with its powerful associations by feelings he cannot deny. In fact, when he rises to leave in the end, he lingers for a moment by the door in the hope that he will be approached after all, since there’s a thought he needs to get off his chest— and this doesn’t happen he lapses into dialogue with himself. “Will you join our congregations?” he asks, taking the part of an imaginary congregant. And he answers: “Your question doesn’t surprise me, and I’m even glad that you asked. Yet, if I may speak frankly, your building is too unattractive to me and your service too foreign for this to be possible. I could never feel ant home with them, and I would be untrue to myself if I allowed myself to think that I could. But I will continue to take and interest in your fortunes, which I know are related to mine, and to remember you fondly when I leave; and I will certainly make every attempt to visit you here again soon.” And with that he drops a modest sum, though it’s perhaps all he has in his pockets, into the donation box, makes a humorous remark to keep the moment from becoming too solemn and walks pensively out the door” (30).

Underlying this paragraph is that one needs to have more than a “shrug and nervous laugh” in relationship to why not live in Israel — particularly after spending a significant amount of time here.

It assumes, in Heschelian language, that Israel is the “ontological presupposition” of Jewish peoplehood, that the experience of Israel and engaging with the fullness of the Jewish nation in Israel presupposes any knowledge of the reality as such.

And while I rarely hear things framed thusly, perhaps there’s something to it — Why aren’t you living in Israel?

Maybe that should be the formulation of the question. Are we afraid of it?

I have several reasons why living in America is best for me individually, and communally, too. A few for why living in Israel isn’t the right fit, as well — some of which are selfish in orientation, some which have more solid backing.

But through this all, what then does it mean to “support” Israel from the Diaspora. Political support? Louis Brandeis’ monetary Zionism of the second decade of last century? Education about Zionism as a fundamental component of Jewish identity?

Halkin comments:

“It all very kind of Jews in New York or Los Angeles to wish to express their solidarity with us in the face of such a scandal and to find no better way to do so than to wear “I am a Zionist” buttons like carnations in their lapels, but since a Zionist is precisely what none of them is — for what Zionism happens to involve is the Jewish decision not to live in Los Angeles or New York — they are doing no one any service by confusing the issue even further” (19).

This is an oversimplification, to be sure.

But castigating it just for the reason that you disagree with it is also silly. What is wrong about the statement? Formulate an alternative in positive terms.

In my mind there is a combination of factors which contribute to answer this central question, chief among them education about Israel’s place in the history of the Jewish people. Putting on a button, waving a flag, very well might be a part of the emotional outpouring of the relationship with Israel, in fact it probably has to be. But that is not the relationship at its core.

Halkin cites a series of statistics about the downfall of Judaism in the Diaspora, of ignorance, of assimilation. While it is not “assimilation,” as such, I could just as easily cite the similar religious ignorance in Israel, even in an enveloping Jewish state, a lack of Zionist ideology, as well.

Halkin himself stated on Thursday that "The age of ideology is dead — now the hard work begins." That is not unique to Zionism, but indeed a primal factor of life in the post-modern world, a term which I dislike, but recognizes this paradigm shift most readily.

Such is the polemical approach, one which I wish Halkin didn’t take. He didn’t needed it, and it is counterproductive.

The underlying question in my mind is there such thing as Jewish nationhood outside of Israel. Is there such thing as it in general, quite frankly?

On Thursday, Halkin suggested that Israel represents Jewish ideology and ethics in action, the activation of a living tradition, the test of the fabric of the religion itself.

Indeed, Israel Friedlaender (my favorite Zionist, if you’re keeping track at home) voiced this sentiment 100 years ago, while the state was but a dream:

We Jews love Palestine, not because it tickles our political ambitions, or allures us with material prospects, but because we fervently hope that those great ideals which were proclaimed in ancient Palestine thousands of years ago may once more be realized in modern Palestine, not only for the benefit of the Jews, but as an object-lesson for the whole of humanity. “For out of Zion shall come forth the Law, and the word of the Lord out of Jerusalem."1

Goosebumps, really. Beautiful stuff. Friedlaender was killed by a gang in 1920, in his forties, while on a relief mission to Russia. It is amazing to think what he would have accomplished with more years.

Yet where Halkin differs from Friedlaender is his polemic against the Diaspora. These pillars of Jewish peoplehood, of nationhood, are not irreconcilable poles, but necessary compliments to the other. I understand that, again, I cite from a document a century old. But the contemporary relevance is uncanny2 (this is a long source, but is gold, Jerry, GOLD. Read to the end, please. I also guarantee that you haven’t read it — unless you hang out in the JTS archives):

As one who follows carefully your public utterances, I may be forgiven for saying that your remarks about Nationalism and Zionism do not seem to me to be wholly justified. I would not say a word if Nationalism and Zionism would actually be guilty of what you attribute to them. We would simply have to respect your convictions, though they be unfriendly to us. But, it seems to me that neither Nationalism nor Zionism, as generally understood and advocated by their representatives, deserve your strictures. When Jewish nationalists speak of the Jews as a Nation, this does not at all imply that they have, or should have, a political government. The word is merely used in the meaning, which it has all over Europe, i.e., in that of a community bound together, not only by the ties of religion, but also by the bonds of common birth (from the Latin natio), in the same way as they speak in Europe of a Polish nation…. It is true, the term “nation” has assumed a somewhat different connotation in America, but I am sure that few, if any, Jewish nationalists use the word in the sense which you attribute to them. The best proof for this is the fact that there are thousands of Jews, right here in this city, who call themselves Jewish nationalists, but are not Zionists and are, in many cases, even anti-Zionists.

As for Zionism, you [sic] contention would be justified if Zionism were to teach that all Jews must leave the lands of their abode and settle in Palestine. Such exaggerated notions may have found isolated expression in the first beginnings of the Movement, when the wonderful personality of Dr. Herzl made the impossible appear possible. But, I can assure you that no responsible advocate of Zionism upholds this idea. All that Zionism, as generally understood, hopes and works for, is that of the twelve million Jews, who are scattered all over the world and are, or should become, part and parcel of the commonwealth in which they live, a fraction, let us say, one or two millions, shall settle in the land of their Ancestors where, undisturbed by any non-Jewish or anti-Jewish influences, they may develop a genuine Jewish culture and may give full and unrestricted expression to our great Jewish ideals. If I may speak for myself, I am a strong believer in the future of American Jewry, which, I hope, will grow in numbers and in powers and will be equally American and Jewish, and I dream of the time when American Judaism will be as great and as glorious as was Judaism in Spain. But I cannot possibly see any contradiction in believeing [sic], at the same time, that there will be a Jewish settlement in Palestine, which, under the suzerainty of Turkey, will live the life of a free people, will build up our historic home, will speak our historic message, will cherish our great religion with its historic institutions and will foster our lofty historic ideals, so that, far from interfering with the Jews in other countries, the Jewish centre in Palestine may be a source of inspiration and instruction for them and that the law may once more, come forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.3

Thus, education about Judaism fundamentally is also teaching about Jewish nationhood. Jewish nationalism fundamentally is not restricted to Israel, though Israel is an, even the, essential part of this discussion in 2009. Is Jewish peoplehood really dead, as Halkin suggests here?

I have more faith in Judaism than that.

The above thoughts didn’t emerge from Halkin alone. Such feelings don’t exist in a vacuum.

After a long talk with a good friend, I no longer feel the painful discomfort that I had over the past week. My autonomy really does matter, as do the contributions which I hope to contribute to Jewish nationhood, to Jewish civilization, in the Diaspora. The discomfort will undoubtedly reappear. Israel has had that affect on people for centuries.

Halkin’s views certainly have merit. To dismiss them is easy to do because of simple discomfort. But that precisely is the “nervous laugh” which he pins right back on the individual. Encountering this view is an essential component of being honest to the very fabric of her being.

Israel perhaps should be the ontological presupposition of modern Jewish nationhood— we should at least think to frame it in those terms.

And some do.

In Hebrew the letter “Vav” (ו) can be both conjunctive and disjunctive. Two years ago, we studied an example in Talmud where Rashi and the Ritba read the course of a sugya in completely opposite ways, depending on whether that vav meant “but” or “and.” I’ll leave it ambiguous here, too.

Vav there’s good stuff happening in America. I’ve seen it. There’s a need for hard work across the Jewish nation.


1. Friedlaender, “Palestine and the Diaspora,” in Past and Present, (Burning Bush Press: New York, 1961), 333

2. Chancellor Arnie Eisen also noted the startling parallels:

It is positively eerie to read Israel Friedlaender’s essay of a century ago and consider how utterly contemporary its formulations remain. The awesome events we call the Holocaust and Israel still lay far in the future. The successes of the present-day Jewish community in this country were unimagined and unimaginable. Yet the quandaries Friedlaender posed are still our quandaries for the most part, his commonplaces and assumptions closely resemble ours, his evasions are the ones to which we too resort. Even the conception of the American Jewish situation as ‘problem’ remains in full force despite achievements and opportunities which should have made us, long since, far more confident of our present as well as our future.

See: Eisen, “The Problem is still very much with us,” Conservative Judaism, Volume 56, Special Supplement, 2004, 20

3. Letter from Friedlaender to Jacob Schiff, April 10, 1911, Archives of the Jewish Theological Seminary

1 comment:

  1. You have a typo in the long Halkin quote 4 lines from the bottom. Great post. Incredibly thoughtful and thought provoking.