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When I wrote my little essay about the centrality of Israel in Judaism, I anticipated a great barrage of complaints. It was gratifying to get an unusual number of supportive messages instead, but that is probably an indication that we are only "preaching to the converted."

The statement "Israel is central to Judaism" needs amplification. It can be understood in two senses: as a statement about culture, and as a statement about practical administration.

In the first, cultural and historical sense, the centrality of Israel to Judaism means that the Jews have an indissoluble tie to the land of Israel. The Jews are the people of Israel. In that sense, the connection is tautological. The attempts of early reform Jews to sunder that connection had to end in disaster. You can either be Jewish, or you can deny the centrality of Israel in your culture and religious beliefs. Various branches of Christianity could claim that Zion or Israel is wherever they lived. For example, the Mormons believe it is in Utah. Some British people believe or believed that Zion is in Britain, and Ethiopian Christians believed it is in Ethiopia. What makes me and my relatives in the United States closer to Ethiopian Falasha than to Christian neighbors in the United States is in large part the shared belief that our common destiny ultimately lies in this land, at least in theory.

The Jewish Bund represented an attempt to sunder the connection with Hebrew and Jewish culture, based on "internationalism" and "progressive ideas." The paradox is, that in fact the Bund, with its adherence to Yiddish and the ways of Eastern Europe, was provincialist rather than internationalist, and reactionary and bigoted, if not racist, rather than progressive. In their narrow-minded focus on Yiddish and Bialystoker rolls, the Bundists forgot that there were Jews in Iraq and Algeria and Ethiopia who did not speak Yiddish and never saw a bagel or a Bialystoker roll, and never even ate a knish. They were nonetheless good Jews, who kept their faith and their national identity for a very long time, under the most trying conditions. Thus, the empirical outcome of denying the centrality of Israel to Jewish culture and religion is as dismal and fruitless as we would predict from a semantic analysis of what Judaism really is.

Historically, Judaism has always been religious observance plus Israel and Hebrew culture, and religious observance was also bound up with Israel. Therefore, especially for those Jews who want to remain Jewish but are opposed to orthodox religion, it follows that their only path to Judaism is through the centrality of Israel and Hebrew culture. Devoid of all three of those ingredients, "Judaism" is meaningless. Without the centrality of Israel, Judaism in the United States can either be an isolated sect of orthodox Jews or a group indistinguishable from any other American religious or ethnic group except in name. That is true whether there is a physical, contemporary state of Israel, or only a theoretical and historical Jewish homeland.

However, when so many people try to contradict an obvious and logical conclusion, and persist in their resistance to it, then we have to suspect that their opposition is motivated by various equally obvious and extraneous considerations.

Historically, opposition to the centrality of Israel in Judaism arose from several motivations, all of which had little to do with philosophical questions, and everything to do with the usual nemeses of human idealism: money and power. It is the practical administrative aspects that are really motivating this controversy, and not the philosophical question. Each faction has its own reasons, and each person has their own reasons. As we saw, Jack, the plain Jew from America, was worried that contributing money to Israel will detract from worthy projects in America, such as buying himself a new set of golf clubs or a Porsche. The community leaders are worried that centrality of Israel will mean that Israeli officials, and not they, will make decisions about the direction of Judaism, and that money will be spent on youth centers in Acco rather than community centers in Sheboygan.

In fact, however, in the long run, the centrality of one or another community in leading Jewish life is not going to depend on the decisions of this or that committee of learned elders and respected Jewish community leaders. It won't depend on semantic or historical arguments either. If Israeli orthodox rabbis are able to foist their will on unwilling American Jews today, it is not because they can hide behind "centrality of Israel," but because orthodox Jews have been more active in Jewish politics and the Jewish community. The centrality of different communities and interest groups in Jewish life will depend on the vitality and size of those communities and groups, and on their interest in Jewish and Zionist affairs. In a voluntary association, a center can be a center only if is giving much more than it is getting. Israel cannot be a practical center for American Jews unless it is prepared to offer something to American Jews beyond a good, if sometimes tarnished, example. If Israel wants to attract the interest of Jack the American Jew, we have to educate Jews who are interested in something other than money, and we have to be able to offer Jack and all the other American Jacks something more and better than an alternative destination for his spare cash.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 3 Comments

I would advise anyone who wants to read my views, rather than to depend on summaries of those views by readers of Israpundit, which generally run along the lines of "Ami Isseroff is a traitor because he doesn't insist on keeping every millimeter of the West Bank."

I did not write what Bill Narvey claims I wrote in the first article, nor did I quite write that in the second one either. Jack's reasons certainly have everything to do with expediency and nothing to do with moral principles. Jack is afraid of "what the goyim will think" as well as looking out for his pocketbook.

Israel, as I have written elsewhere, should not be dependent on charity from American Jews or the United States government. I have made that clear elsewhere. When I wrote that Jack should keep his money, I meant it. The real issue is that Jack and his friends don't want to have anything to do with Israel, because their Judaism is embarrassing to them. That sort of "Jew" has been trying to figure out how to be Jewish and not Jewish at the same time for nearly 200 years.

Of course, there is not just Jack to contend with, but a host of luminaries, some of whom were mentioned in the first article.

Support for Israel doesn't preclude helping Jews in the Diaspora. I also made it clear what is meant by "center." For a nation, there cannot be two centers of the first sort - the anchor of national culture. America might be a national anchor for American Jews, but it should not be a center for Russian or French Jews.

Ami Isseroff

Ami Isseroff, Saturday, July 21st

I second what Bill Narvey said.

It is certainly in the interest of Jews living in the US who are interested in protecting a Jewish identity there, to focus much of their energy in educating their own community.

They are also unlikely to be convinced that all the energy has to be focused in Israel as the only center of Judaism. Nor am I sure I agree with this assumption. They shouldn't turn a blind eye to the increasing problems on life in the diaspora while looking down on Israel, but we shouldn't commit the same mistake and look down on Jewish existence in the diaspora as a complete waste of time.

Under the circumstances the effort should focus on convincing them that we must engage in a joint effort of all the Jewish communities to protect and to continue Jewish life and culture, and that both Israel and tey have a part to play and are necessary for this to succeed. We must show them that the modern state of Israel plays an important role in helping them maintain their Jewish identity even if they do not choose to come here, and at the same time we must offer them an opportunity to take an active part in continuing Jewish identity other than coming to Israel and sending money to Israel (or holocaust and antisemitism).

As Israeli Jewish we should be concerned about the fate of the Jews in the diaspora and offer the help we can to protect it from erosion other than telling them they should come here. We might fail, but we still should do it. Just as they should care about us and do more than treat us as the fools he reject the wonders and comforts of American Jewish life.

There is nothing wrong with Judaism having more than one center. It has always been so. Our objective should be that heconnection between the two centers is protected is a good one.

Micha, Saturday, July 21st

In his first article, Ami Isseroff seizes upon views expressed by a Jew by the name of Jack and uses him as his foil to highlight and elevate his own views over that of Jack’s whom Isseroff denigrates as he leads up to the conclusion that Jack’s advocating against Israel’s centrality to the American Jewish community, comes down to money.

In his second article he concludes:

"If Israel wants to attract the interest of Jack the American Jew, we have to educate Jews who are interested in something other than money, and we have to be able to offer Jack and all the other American Jacks something more and better than an alternative destination for his spare cash."

I agree with Isseroff’s views on the centrality of Israel to Judaism and the world Jewish community in diaspora.

I strongly disagree with his facile reasoning that seeks to distill Jack’s thinking down to an issue of money and **** all American Jews who would deny the centrality of Israel to Judaism and K’lal Yisra’el as coming from a mind to which money is central to their thinking.

Jack’s reference to money was but one reason given in his effort to support his views that it is not in Jewish American interests to support Israel and why for American Jews to thrive, it is unnecessary to have Israel as being central to their Judaism.

There are a number of reasons standing on their own or taken in combination that cause some American Jews to deny the centrality of Israel to Judaism and diaspora Jewish community and those reasons rarely are as simplistic and crass as being a matter of money.

Setting American Jack up as his straw man, twisting what American Jack is saying and where he is coming from to make his point does Isseroff no credit.

Though I disagree with Jack’s conclusion and reasoning, if Isseroff and those who applaud him for his views on this matter and want to join him in trying to educate the American Jacks as Isseroff proposes, they are going to find they will have failed to educate the American Jacks, but succeeded in turning them off and sending them running in the other direction.

Isseroff is capable of a much better and a much more fair analysis as to root causes why some diaspora Jews do not see the importance of Israel to Judaism and diaspora Jewry.

Isseroff is also quite capable of providing cogent views on what it will take, including educational efforts to reach those who deny the importance of the centrality of Israel to Judaism and diaspora Jewish communities and through such process induce them to see things differently. I hope Ami Isseroff makes a further and better effort to do just that.

Cross Posted - Israpundit

Bill Narvey, Wednesday, July 18th

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