“We, the students, are committed to…”
by Mendel I. Kaplan
In July 1973 during a gathering of the World Jewish Congress, a debate took place between Rabbi Joachim Prinz – a leading rabbi and important figure in the civil rights movement in the United States – and Louis Pincus – who immigrated to Israel from South Africa in 1948 and later served as the Chairman of the World Zionist and Jewish Agency Executive. The question under debate: What was the central institution of the Jewish people – the synagogue or Israel?
In the course of this debate, an 18-year-old from Argentina asked “Why should I be Jewish? I am Argentinian, why should I be involved in issues of the Jewish people, why not just Argentinian issues?” One of the older delegates answered “You are Jewish because you were born Jewish.” But this was not the answer that the young man was seeking.
Twenty-five years later, his question on Jewish identity and this debate on the central institution of the Jewish people still encapsulate many of the issues concerning Jews in Israel and the Diaspora as we celebrate Israel’s fiftieth anniversary.
One of the first conflicts regarding the centrality of a Jewish homeland was the question of dual loyalty. The early proponents of the Zionist movement in Western Europe were confronted with this question, formulated by emancipated Jews who feared that their newly won gains towards equal citizenship would be destroyed by the establishment of a Jewish homeland to which they were expected to owe loyalty. To forestall this, the Balfour Declaration states: “…it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
Philip M. Klutznik, who served five American presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, was my mentor regarding American Jewish life. Once, in a debate, I said to him, “Phil, do you know what the difference between us is? You are an American, first, second and third, and only afterwards a Jew and a Zionist. I am first a Jew and then a Zionist and then a citizen of South Africa. Why? It is because of the uniqueness of the Diaspora experience in America that American Jews feel themselves so closely allied to their country. Thus their priorities are different from those of most Diaspora Jews in other parts of the world.”
Still, Senator Rudy Boshwitz – a Jewish Republican senator – explained, in the 1980s, why he opposed the sale of AWACs to Jordan, proposed by President Reagan. “I oppose it, because I believe my opposition is good for me as an American, as a Jew and as a Zionist.” In other words, the issue of dual loyalty is today unimportant, despite the fact that it was overplayed by the Jewish establishment itself. On the contrary; the existence of the State of Israel has created a different level of status, honor and respect for Diaspora Jews.
One example is Max Fisher, a Jewish businessman who has had access to all Republican presidents since the 1960s, because each president realized that he could play an important role in the relationship between America and Israel. This involvement gave Max Fisher a status he would not have enjoyed if he had not been an active Zionist.
So, while the issue of dual loyalty may still raise its head, both among Jews and as an anti-Semitic point of view, the impact of the creation of the State of Israel has had an enormously positive effect on the dignity and status of Jews – more than was envisaged at the first Zionist Congress.
Zionism and the Legitimacy of the Diaspora
The second issue is the dispute over what is central – the synagogue or Israel – as raised by Pincus and Prinz. This debate has continued for fifty years, and, as recently as 1994, became the central theme at the “Gathering of the Tribes” held in the residence of President Weizman. The very reason for the existence of Diaspora communities – especially those in countries where the Holocaust took place – was questioned.
From an ideological standpoint, the concept of Zionism was the eventual disappearance of the need for a Diaspora. Ideologically, Zionism could not conceive of a “return home” concurrent with the maintenance of a Diaspora home.
Pragmatically, things did not work out quite as foreseen. The vast majority of Jews who have settled in Israel – whether they came from displaced persons camps in Europe, were ejected from Arab countries after the creation of the State, recently migrated from Eastern Europe, or were airlifted from Ethiopia – arrived in Israel because they were forced to leave the country of their origin and no other state would take them in. In fact, there are comparatively few immigrants to Israel who have come voluntarily, choosing Israel over other options. Today there are more Israelis living in the West than immigrants from the West living in Israel.
As a consequence, a vibrant, dynamic Diaspora Jewish community is maintained parallel to the tremendous growth of the population and economy of the State of Israel.
Why? The increasing strength of the State of Israel has been one of the reasons enabling many Diaspora communities to continue a Jewish existence. Israel has acted as a resource center for the spiritual, educational, cultural and intellectual needs of the smaller Diaspora communities. There are programs for rabbis, teachers, and cultural and youth leaders coming from Israel to serve in the Diaspora as well as Diaspora Jews visiting Israel or studying in Israel. Thus, the existence of a strong Israel has led to the strengthening of Diaspora Jewry. In return, a strong Diaspora has strengthened Israel: in the early years of the state by providing material needs and foreign currency; and today through the ability to politically lobby foreign governments for Israel’s interests.
In Israel today, which has a per capita income nearly on par with the European Union average, the country’s financial requirements are no longer an important element in Diaspora support. What is important is the fact that Diaspora Jewry has itself reached a stage of financial, professional and educational advancement which enables them to play a prominent role in society. Furthermore, their knowledge – in the political, business, academic, professional and cultural fields – can be transmitted to Israel. And politically, whether in Britain, with a large number of Jewish cabinet ministers, or in the United States, where the government relies on Jewish support, or to a smaller extent in other countries, world Jewry continues to garner support for Israel.
The continuing debate on the legitimacy of the Diaspora should not be allowed to cloud the reality of a strong Diaspora being good for Israel, while Israel continues to be the center of the Jewish world in terms of its cultural, spiritual, educational and other needs.
Theocracy and Pluralism
The third issue that has created tension between Israel and the Diaspora is encapsulated in the question “Who is a Jew?” In recent years, some political parties have tried to push, during coalition negotiations, for certain changes in the definition of who is a Jew for the purpose of the Law of Return, which guarantees Israeli citizenship to any Jew who immigrates to Israel. The suggested change was to define conversion to Judaism only as conversion according to halacha – Jewish law.
For many American Jews, this was perceived as a challenge to the legitimacy of their practice of Judaism, as a denial of themselves as Jews by the State of Israel.
It was extraordinary that the leaders of Israel had no concept of the furor that has developed among millions of American Jews at the mere suggestion of a change. As chairman of the Jewish Agency when the issue arose in 1988, I participated in negotiations which would remove the issue from the coalition discussions.
Similarly there has been, during the last year, a debate over the Conversion Law, which would put into statute the present situation that only Orthodox conversions are recognized by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. While the suggested law does not deal with conversions outside Israel, it has again aroused tremendous resentment abroad, especially in North America, where 90% of the Jewish community does not belong to an Orthodox synagogue.
In January 1998, I visited a Masorati (Conservative) congregation in Israel for a bar mitzvah. I was horrified to discover that their new building had been vandalized seven times during the last year – the last time during the week of the bar mitzvah when a rock had been thrown through a window and the mezuzahs had been destroyed. It is this lack of tolerance in Israel’s society that is of concern to all its citizens. It is the fear of the imposition, by statute or by force, against the wishes of the majority, of a way of life or standard of behavior that they find intolerable. It is this issue which dominates Israel. The religious feel that their standards of observance will be harmed by an imposition of open roads on the Sabbath or open places of public entertainment in their neighborhoods; the secular feel that their way of life is being interfered with by the forced closure of entertainment areas, public transport and roads on the Sabbath.
Thus the issues are different in Israel and in the Diaspora; and Israelis do not realize that Diaspora Jews feel that their legitimacy is being called into question by the suggestion to change the laws of conversion in Israel. This debate is presently reducing the centrality of Israel in the lives of Diaspora Jewry.
An effort is presently underway to reach a compromise on conversions and marriage. This compromise would incorporate all streams of Judaism in a mutually accepted conversion procedure with a halachic (Jewish law) conclusion. If this should happen it would be the most important unifying event since the establishment of the various streams of Judaism. If this does not happen, it is important that Israel realize that it cannot continue to enforce a single mode of behavior in the religious field.
A compromise must not only allow the full expression of Jewish religious views in terms of attendance at synagogues and prayer – as is the current practice – but find a method that allows for the conversion and marriage within Israel of various religious streams. This should be done in a public manner which does not allow for any confusions between halachic and non-halachic practice or membership in the various streams. While the Orthodox should not impose their requirements on others, it is equally valid that other religious streams should not be allowed to avoid public knowledge of their conversion or marriage practices.