The Israel-Diaspora paradigm misses out on what it means to be a Jew

Ha’aretz 14/11/11

As a religious Jew I live in amazingly good times. Unlike those who came before me I have true freedom of worship in every country that I would wish to live in. There are thousands of Yeshivot I could study at and hundreds of different communities that I could live in.

Were I a non-religious Jew this would also be an amazingly good time to live in. Every part of my cultural Jewish identity can find nourishment as Jewish communities fund programs and events to appeal to every aspect of Jewish culture and ideology.

As a people we have been focusing on celebrating our diversity finding and funding a Judaism for every Jew. Though the outside world has attempted to define us as merely a religion, we have not allowed that to affect how we see ourselves. For every person who defines himself or herself as a Jew, some part of the global community welcomes them with open arms.

Yet this diffuse identity while celebrated now needs to be intergraded together in a Jewish narrative that can look forward as well as back. As a people we have always been bound together by the story of us as a people, a narrative is what created us and a narrative is needed to sustain us through the challenges we now face.

Though it has never been an easier time to be a Jew, it has never been harder to define ourselves as part of a cohesive Jewish people.

The most fervent Zionist amongst us will define our story located in the modern State of Israel, a Jewish identity supplemented or even replaced with that of an Israeli one. In this story those outside the land have a supporting role to play in the current chapter of the Jewish people, they will never be an equal player and their lives must be lived with the knowledge that their Jewish identity is never truly complete.

To the die-hard anti-Zionists amongst us the modern state of Israel imperils us as a people and constitutes a greater threat to the Jewish people then the homeland it claims to be. Ironically they also define their Jewish identities visa vie Israel, only this time as a place that cannot and must not represent them.

The conversation on the crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations often focuses somewhere between these polls. At times the support that those outside Israel must give is defined as that of a sagely older cousin, saving Israel from itself. Others see a fundamental drift between those who choose to be governed by Jews and those who not, the dividing of the Jewish people into two fundamentally different parts.

Yet I would argue that the Israel-Diaspora paradigm misses out fundamentally on what it means to be a Jew today. The challenges for each part of us as a people fundamentally changes depending on which part of the world we live in, yet as a people together we are far larger than the sum of the whole.

For many secular Israelis it is very hard to understand what a modern day appreciation of Jewish peoplehood is. This part of their identity is submerged under the weight of the challenges of what it means to be an Israeli today. Yet when they have the opportunity to be with a Jewish community outside of Israel it can often lead to a rebirth and an appreciation of their home in a global community.

For the Jew who chooses not to live in Israel the ability to see themselves as more than just a religious minority in their own country is established by seeing their connection to the Jewish state.

We, as a people, face real challenges ahead. The creative nature of Jewish life in the Diaspora needs to help heal Israel’s internal divisions, which have occurred due to the stress in its society generated from the tremendous existential threats the state faces on a regular basis. Israel needs to galvanize its support outside its borders and needs the Jewish people to be the vanguard of this effort. This support to be clear is not to any government policy of Israel, but to the permanent place of the Jewish state on the world stage.

Yet neither of these things can happen so long as the Jewish people sees itself as two separate parts that owe each other something due to geography. If we are to unite as a people we need to do so based on our mutual respect and value of each other. The Jewish people’s story of this generation is truly a global story if it is to be a story at all.

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