The debacle happened on the first night of the conference during a panel moderated by Ted Koppel featuring among others the New Republic’s literary editor Leon Weiseltier and Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua. For years now, Yehoshua has been degrading Diaspora Jewish existence. Still, when he let loose on these shores what Israelis have been saying for years–that Diaspora Jewishness is meaningless–every Jewish person in the room acted as though he had proclaimed that Jesus was the true Messiah. Chief among those who were shocked was Koppel, who was flabbergasted. Not knowing what hit him, he let the discussion spin out of control.
Yehoshua’s comments are nothing new. Everyone who knows anything about Jews, Judaism, and Israel knows that throughout history there have been those who have adopted Yehoshua’s position and throughout history they have been disproven over and over again.
The bottom line always has been and remains that Israel and Diaspora Jewry need each other. The question of which environment produces “better Jews” can have a variety of different answers. Usually, I think it’s Israel, where Jews put their life on the line for the Jewish people everyday. But then there are weeks like this past one, when I had to read about the ethical trade-off Israel made, claiming that security concerns warrant preventing Arab spouses from living in Israel with their partners. I wonder if breaking up families and separating child from parent, husband from wife is what A.B. Yehoshua means when he brags about Israeli Jewish identity being more meaningful.
As my friend Rabbi Uri Goldstein likes point out, Israel needed 2,000 years of living in the Diaspora to prepare itself for being in power. The Galut (Diaspora) taught Jews how to be an ethical people, how to treat gerim (foreigners) with decency and respect. Unfortunately, it seems that Israel still has a great deal to learn. While the greatest feat is, of course, combining the strength of Israel with the ethical sensitivity of the Diaspora, at this point that has not yet happened.
Sure, on some level I agree with those such as Hillel Halkin who have come to Yehoshua’s defense and argued that Israel is the Jewish ideal. Of course, living in Israel is an ideal, but sometimes its just that–an ideal. Reality as it now stands is that Israel is involved in a very messy political situation. American Jews, in contrast, have the ability to economically, socially, politically, and yes, even spiritually prosper and grow in ways never before imagined.
As for A.B. Yehoshua: On behalf of Diaspora Jews, I will make him a deal. When you Israelis get your house in order, we will all come on over. Until then, a little humility would not hurt.