In a recent speech at a Washington, D.C. celebration of the American Jewish Committee's centennial, prominent Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua provoked and angered his audience when he told them that their lives were, more or less, pointless.
What he said was that the only place where Jews could keep their identity was in the State of Israel – and that Diaspora Jewish life was, almost by definition, a counterfeit.
The confrontation between Yehoshua and his hosts has already generated a great deal of attention in Israel, as well as in the United States. And for good reason. Yehoshua's diatribe – taken and meant as a deliberate insult to his hosts – hit a sore spot. Some 58 years after the creation of the modern Jewish state, it seems that Jews in both countries are still struggling with an old puzzle: Has the creation of Israel rendered Diaspora Judaism meaningless?
Indeed, Yehoshua has made the point before. In his 1981 book, Between Right and Right, the author spoke of exile as a Jewish "psychosis" that produces endless excuses for staying away from Israel. In a humorous riff on the topic, he wrote that in the future, Jews would join colonists in space and Israel would then send emissaries to promote aliyah from places such as Mars. The Martian Jews would, Yehoshua predicted, send their children back to Earth to spend summers in Israel, but would refrain from aliyah themselves because "of the difficulty of adjusting to the pull of gravity on earth."
Satire aside, classical Zionist theorists often wrote of the putative Jewish state "negating" the Diaspora. They said the damage felt living in exile from the Jewish homeland – coupled with persecution and anti-Semitism – would be alleviated only by aliyah.
Such commentary about pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Eastern Europe wasn't far off the mark. But after the Shoah, debate about the viability of a Jewish future there was rendered moot; there was no question that Israel represented the promise of the Jewish future, with Europe only reminiscent of a tragic past.
But such theoretical arguments have lost some of their cogency in recent decades. The fact is that the leading Diaspora community today is not an embattled European ghetto, but an America where Jews are free to assimilate or to proudly assert their identity.
The crucial role of American Jews in providing both political and financial support for Israel should have tempered some criticism of Diaspora life. And for all of the justified worries about our demographic decline, no one can deny the scope of Jewish religious, literary and scholarly achievements on these shores. That – coupled with the struggles for Jewish continuity in Israel – should have made the author rethink his the scope of his critique. It seems that Yehoshua understands little about America, other than the fact that he's made a good living as a guest speaker here.
Yet for all of the man's impertinence, his words should provoke us to ask ourselves some serious questions. Israel does remain a unique environment that we cannot top here. While that doesn't mean American Jews have to pick up and move to Israel, it does mean that we do need this tiny Middle Eastern nation as an inspiration and a model for the Jewish future.
The thousands who will gather this weekend at the annual "Israel in Our Hearts" festival in Philadelphia should do so with the thought that they are affirming the cogency of Zionism and the Jewish state in our lives. Rather than letting insults drive us apart, Yehoshua's remarks should serve to prompt both sides of this divide to accept their need for each other and the centrality of this vital Jewish connection. u