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A Complex Relationship

The Jewish press in America and Israel is abuzz about the recent comments of Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua to the effect that Jewish life in the Disapora (outside of Israel) is incomplete and irrelevant.

The substance of the charges is nothing new–for 150 years, Zionist theoreticians have been espousing a concept called shelilat ha-galut, the negation of the Diaspora, which says in effect that 2,000 years of Jewish existence outside Israel was a mistake of history that must be corrected by gathering all Jews back to an autonomous Jewish state. Diaspora life is viewed as inferior in every way, for only in an independent country could Jews have security and cultural self-determination.


This approach, born out of 19th-century German Romantic nationalism, has its appeals–certainly Diaspora life was often a wretched existence, with Jews persecuted, driven out, or even murdered at the whims of local rulers. The Holocaust, whose horror is inextricably linked with the founding of the State of Israel, is only the latest and most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon. Clearly there is no question, as the early Zionists argued, that Israel can be a uniquely Jewish place where geography, history, language, religion, culture, and power come together unlike any other place on Earth.

And yet. What the proponents of shelilat ha-galut, Yehoshua among them, fail to recognize is that while Judaism is a civilization whose origins most definitely are in Israel, its development and maturity are the product of precisely those 2,000 years of Diaspora existence. From the Talmud compiled in Babylonia in the 6th century; to the philosophy and legal codes of Spain in the 10th century; to the ethical writings of Germany in the 13th century; to the infusion of Enlightenment principles of Western Europe in the 18th century; to Hasidic mysticism of 19th-century Eastern Europe; to the focus on political and spiritual engagement in America in the 21st century, Jewish history has developed, been nurtured, and been deepened in a series of Diaspora centers for these 2,000 years, as the famed Jewish historian Simon Dubnow vividly cataloged in his ten-volume History of the Jewish People.


While Israel was always at the ideational and aspirational center of these Diaspora communities, Judaism was far more rooted in law, covenant, and sacred story than it was in any geographic place, Israel included. For 2,000 years, Diaspora has been the reality of the Jewish experience, and Judaism as it exists today is a Diaspora civilization. Put more plainly, the Diaspora is Judaism and, for the time being, at least, the Diaspora is here to stay.

Some Israelis will say this is precisely the problem–why stay in the Diaspora when Israel awaits? Nu, pack already!

Supercessionism, in any of its varieties, is never a pretty thing, and the concept of shelilat ha-galut is no exception. In addition to denying the validity of 2,000 years of Jewish history and experience, this form of thinking effectively denies that Diaspora Judaism has anything worth teaching. And anyone familiar with the current state of affairs in Israel knows that a measure of the Diaspora traditions of ethics, humility, and intellectual and moral reasoning would go a long way.


The truth is, both centers–Israel and Diaspora–have a great deal to teach and to learn from each other. The sooner we can stop with name-calling and polemics, the sooner we can try to integrate the best of both worlds–to forge a Judaism that is proud, ethical, deeply rooted in history and culture, thoughtful, powerful, and concerned with the wellbeing of all people.

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Ellen Slaughter

posted May 20, 2006 at 11:48 pm

My husband and I have lived a Jewish life for more than 30 years, so has 3 of my 4 children. We converted together, but we cannot go to Israel and claim any right to be there because we chose Reform Judaism. We would always be outsiders, but we can go to most synagogues in the rest of the world and be accepted. How does that make Israel better? I support the right of Israel to exist fervently, but I resent the narrow view of Judaism that permeates Israel.

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Jeffrey Jacobson

posted May 21, 2006 at 5:28 pm

The article was well written and I agree with the authors viewpoint of what A.B. Yehoshua said – however, on Chanukka we light Chanukkiyot, not Menorahs. The Menorah is the symbol of the State of Israel and it is NOT a Chanukkiya!

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Esther Nash

posted May 22, 2006 at 11:04 pm

My mother has said that both the anti-semites, and the very religious Jews, want ALL Jews to move to Israel. (She has it a bit wrong there….it’s the evangelical Christians, whether they are anti-semitic or not, who want all Jews to go to Israel. One CAN be an evangelical and NOT be an anti-semite, of course. Hating Jews and wanting New Testament prophesy(?) to come to pass CAN, believe it or not, be mutually exclusive. Of course, they also need not be…. But, anyway, with both (most) Orthodox and Zionist Jews wanting to tell ALL Jews to live in Israel, and Evangelical Christians doing the same thing, (for very different reasons, of course), most normal, patriotic American Jews can go crazy if they think about this too much. I say, LET EVERYONE BELIEVE IN, AND LIVE WHERE, THEY WISH! N O….O N E… has any right to tell anyone else how to live their lives or what to believe! As the saying goes, “My freedom to swing my arm ends where your nose begins.” And Vice-versa! Please STOP making people crazy with guilt, (Zionist Jews), or fear, (Evangelical Christians!) MY LIFE BELONGS TO ME, ONLY!!!!!

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Esther Nash

posted May 22, 2006 at 11:25 pm

I have read that Israel needs more immigrants. But Israel will not get them until it realizes that immigrants, (and everyone else!), want freedom — to think, believe, and act as they wish, to make them feel happy and secure. People should not only make Alyiah to flee tyranny and oppression. In Israel, they find another type of tyranny and oppression: State Socialism, administered with guilt and just a touch of fear, rather than the other way around, the way it is in most other monolithic states. But State Socialism, however benignly administered, is still not freedom! (Recently, the internet itself was criticised by some rabbis as being a threat to Jewish life! Years ago, it was radio they criticised! Curtailing freedom of thought is NOT a hallmark of a free state!) Yes, Israel comes closer to democracy than any other state in the Middle East. But it still wants everyone to think one certain way. (A famous New York radio commentator, in fact, wanted to make Alyiah. But he made the mistake of being nice to some Arabs. And he was told: “Every Jew is welcome here…except for Meyer Lansky…and YOU!” My father was going to move to Israel at one point…until he was told that, if you are successful there, Israeli taxes will make you a beggar! Look into pluralism, freedom of thought and action, and allowing personal financial success, Israel. People MAY want to live in your country more, if you do. It works for the US! People WANT to move to the US! And, to a greater or lesser extent, to freedom-[loving western Europe, as well. It MIGHT work for Israel, too. Try it, please!

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posted June 21, 2006 at 1:37 pm

BS”D Likewise, there are those who believe that life without Torah is devoid of meaning and irrelevant to Judaism. Both positions are extremist and incomplete. The correct perspective is that life apart from JEWISH PEOPLE is meaningless and irrelevant with regard to Judaism.

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