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.