Another front has been opened in the Jewish wars. This new front must not be confused with the ongoing campaigns. It is not Zionists vs Anti-Zionists, Secular vs Religious vs Assimilationist, Right wingnuts vs Left wingnuts, Reform vs Conservative vs Orthodox or Sepharadi vs Ashkenasi. American Zionist Jews are taking on Israeli Jews and vv. This is a whole new battleground that opens new vistas for polemics and alliances. Norman Finkelstein can be there in the trenches side by side with Mort Klein and the Satmar Rabbi, fighting against a new found alliance between Uri Avneri and Moshe Feiglin.
Surely there are antecedents, but the first skirmish recorded in these pages was the fight over identity that began following remarks of A.B. Yehoshua (see A.B Yehoshua, Sharansky and Jewish identity
and A.B Yehoshua and Jewish identity again
. Yehoshua angered Americans and Natan Sharansky by insisting that Israelis have solved the Jewish identity problem in a way that Diaspora Jews cannot do. A new set of battles erupted during the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities
. The claim of American Jews was that Israelis are not interested in the Diaspora. The not very wise or gracious response of too many Israelis was something like, "That's true, and moreover, all you Jews ever think about is money." Anshel Pfeffer asserts that the Battle of the General Assembly is really a battle over the identity issue
, the same issue raised by A.B. Yehoshua. He was reacting to Edgar Bronfman's pontifications about the deficiencies of Israeli Jews. Bronfman said:
"Many Israelis who describe themselves as secular are effectively cut off from their people's tradition."
Like the elders who excommunicated Spinoza, Bronfman has issued his edict. As happened at the GA of the Jewish Communities, Jews are engaged in the juvenile sport of declaiming, "My Judaism is better than your Judaism." Indeed, at first glance, the problem of Jewish identity is rooted in the conditions of the Diaspora and should be solved by the ingathering of the exiles. But the matter is not quite so simple.
Following World War II, the American Jewish community found itself the largest Diaspora community. It soon achieved a success that rivals or surpasses the golden ages of the Jews in Spain and Germany. Out of proportion to their meager numbers, American Jews occupy leading positions in government, science, business and the arts. No less than 13 Senators and 45 Congresspersons are Jewish, and this proportion seems to increase at every election. About 20% of the Fortune 500 list of richest Americans are Jewish. To be sure, this success evokes envy. In 1999, the anti-Semitic Web site Jewwatch lamented that there are 23 Jews in the House of representatives (see jewwatch.com/jew-occupiedgovernments-usa-jews-in-usa-house.html). The "problem" gets "worse" all the time. On the other hand, the rise in status has been accompanied by stagnation in numbers due to low birthrates and high rates of intermarriage.
When Israel began its life as a state, American Zionists could look upon us with the same mixture of love and contempt generally directed at Ellis Island immigrants - poor relatives in need of help, a tiny beleaguered community living in a desert state, the deserving object of infusions of charity money and old clothing and the subject of schmaltzy speeches. That is changing. Today, the Israeli and American Jewish communities rival each other in size. Israeli Jews are certainly not as wealthy as Americans, but not long ago the Israeli balance of payments turned the corner for the first time since the foundation of the state.
The rivalry is accentuated by the fact that those on each side of the divide really need the others, and the fact that both sides have some guilty secrets and doubts they may never voice out loud. The more they doubt themselves, the louder they argue to the world. Israel has lost between 300,000 and 800,000 Jews to the Diaspora. Many of those very successful American Jewish leaders, like newly appointed White House Czar Rahm Emanuel, are transplanted Israelis or sons of Israelis. Every Israeli is aware of this failure, but a large percentage of us, too large, also have their eyes focused on the "Golden Country" rather than on Zion. To be sure, many of those Israelis who went to America seeking the gold paved streets are now frantically calling the Israeli consulate and asking for food or tickets back to Israel, but that is a very new, and probably temporary, phenomenon.
Israelis have also gotten used to those nice infusions of charity money from abroad. Charity is addictive. Israelis are reluctant to even think about standing on their own two feet even in the era when the Shekel floated upwards about 10-15% against the US dollar. Money is always useful. And we have have another dirty little secret. We have not really succeeded in creating a deep, original and uniquely Israeli Hebrew culture to replace the Diaspora culture and provide the basis for a Jewish cultural revival such as that envisioned by Ahad Ha'am. The beginning of the Zionist movement looked promising. A tiny intellectual circle produced writers, philosophers, statesmen, moral leaders, popular art and popular artists in seemingly endless profusion. Bialik, Tchernichovsky, Alterman, Buber, Agnon, Ben-Gurion, Weizmann... Of late all this has dried up. We haven't even had an Efraim Kishon or an Arik Einstein lately, and we know it. We hardly even have anyone to rival Jerry Seinfeld and Barbara Silverman. If the Torah is to come out of Jerusalem, it can't be diffused by Yaakov Alperon and his friends nor even by Ehud Olmert and Moshe Katsav. Israeli Jews, all of us, are also conscious of the constant threats to the existence of our state - a part of the scenery here since the beginning.
American Jews have their own guilty secrets to hide. Every American Zionist seems to have a creepy reaction when someone mentions the "Aa" word (the one that has to do with coming to Israel). Guilt always breeds aggressiveness and defensiveness. Anyone with a sense of history knows that this period in the career of American Jews rivals that of the most successful eras of Jews in Spain and Germany. They also know what happened to the Jews of Spain and Germany. It is nice to hope that history will not repeat itself, and that at some future date, the Jewwatch people and their allies won't succeed in poisoning American society and expelling America's Jews from paradise. It is nice to hope, but it is foolish to count it. History didn't stop. Those American Jews who are interested in the future of American Jews are concerned about intermarriage. Secular American Jews are especially concerned about identity. What does it mean to be a Jew outside of Israel. Is it worth it for non-religious Jews to maintain an identity that is usually a dangerous, sometimes lethal, liability?
Israeli Jews certainly have an advantage regarding identity. As Pfeffer explains, Israel was created (in part) to solve the identity problem. We don't have to be different to be Jewish. Our children speak Hebrew and know they are Jewish, just as French children speak French and know they are French. Until the existence of the state of Israel, every people in the world had something that was denied to Jews - roots and collective memories in a land that belongs to them. Family albums and portraits showing ancestors in costumes of bygone days, in the very same country, dressed in the apparel of 1900 or 1800 or 1700. Memories of ancestors who founded towns and fought in wars that are part of national history. Grandpa who put on Tefillin and studied the Talmud is replaced by great grandpa who helped found the Hebrew University or grandpa who opened the road to Jerusalem in 1948. Grandma who made gefilte fish or Hamin ("Cholent") is replaced by grandma who carried messages on horseback for the Haganah or the NILI or sang in the Nachal troop or defended Gesher or created the first Hebrew kindergarten in Palestine or grew the first tomatoes in Merhavia.
Given the circumstances, Edgar Bronfman's pronouncement that Israelis have lost touch with tradition is a bit bizarre, as Pfeffer hints. American Jews do not have a much firmer connection with tradition. I do not remember that the learned rabbis approved of Hannuka bushes for example. I am not sure that the Jewish traditions of Ashkenaz or Sepharad, of Poland or Lithuania, would have a place for the gay US congressmen with their female reform rabbis. I don't think that is according to the Talmud, Rashi, Rambam or the sages of the Torah. It is OK by me, but don't call it tradition. Bronfman himself pleads for more Jewish toleration of intermarriage, but that is not a Jewish tradition either. You can't have your tradition and eat it too.
However, Israeli Jews have also lost something, which Edgar Bronfman touches upon, and which Anschel Pfeffer seems to miss. The Jewish people had no physical homeland, so they developed a homeland that existed in the hearts of Jews wherever they were. Secular Israeli Jews feel they no longer need the culture that supports that homeland of the heart, and they cannot relate to it. It is quite true that a Frenchman needs no effort to remain a Frenchman. He does not not need to study the works of Voltaire or Montaigne or Richelieu or to appreciate Monet or visit the Louvre.
But if the Frenchman goes to live in Germany, he will probably become German, and in a few generations his offspring may have only the vaguest memories of being French. America is full of such people. They are hyphenated Americans for a generation or two. After that, they must resort to genealogy tables to determine their previous "identity" or identities. Their ancestors were German, French, Scandinavian, Irish or perhaps Jewish. They are "American."
Israeli Jews who evolve in Israel are probably going to lose a lot of the "Israel of the heart" that exists for Diaspora Jews, and that is true whether they are religious or not. For Diaspora Jews, Jerusalem that is "on high" (Yerushalayim shel Ma'alah, the heavenly city) has more reality than the Jerusalem "of below", the earthly city (Yerushalayim shel matah). For Israelis, Jerusalem is much more an actual city with traffic jams and urban blight problems and social problems and defense needs. The dream cannot coexist untouched alongside the reality. That is the bargain that we made in coming back to our own land. Pfeffer is right that Bronfman doesn't "get it." Bronfman is right that something is lost. They are all right. But they are all wrong.
Who is right? Those who will stop the bickering and ego wars, and focus in the very real problems.
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Replies: 2 Comments
Zionism-Israel, Saturday, November 29th
I just wanted to say that I read all your writings (well, almost all) by RSS and they are excellent. I found this one superb. Don't stop writing.
Fabian from Israel, Friday, November 28th
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