Zionism and the Diaspora
The ad campaign revealed Israel’s view of itself as center of Jewish life
By this point, there seems little more to say about the affair my friend Gal Beckerman so poignantly called Aba-Gate, especially now that the Israeli government has issued a weak apology and pulled back its offensive U.S. ad campaign, which attempted to persuade Israeli expatriates (like me) that we were failing to be true to our country as well as to ourselves in choosing to live in the United States and marry non-Israelis, even non-Israeli Jews (like my wife).
But like every good scandal, this one is really about something much bigger: the meaning of Zionism. In a blog post titled “A Dissenting Opinion on ‘Aba-Gate,’ ” David Hazony, whom I consider a friend and for whom I have much respect, revealed the ad campaign’s intellectual foundations. In doing so, he was very useful, and he couldn’t have been more wrong. The ads infuriated American Jews because they hit too close to home, he argued. Long accustomed to being world’s Jewry top dog, American Jews, Hazony said, are angry at Israel for standing up and criticizing its obvious deficiencies. To support this argument, Hazony offers more than a few unbacked assertions: for example, that “the richest experiences of Jewish life today” are happening in Israel.
Even if Hazony could prove such spurious claims, his polemic would still betray a regrettable way of thinking. His logic was summed up in the following paragraph: “Many American Jews,” Hazony wrote, “cannot imagine that there’s something really special in Israeli identity, and that Israelis are right to try and protect it by discouraging this new form of intermarriage. The very idea sends a shiver down the American Jewish spine—but isn’t it based on the very same cultural protectiveness that causes American Jewish leaders to discourage the old kind of intermarriage, with non-Jews?”
No, it’s not. Unless, that is, you believe that Jewish-Israeli identity is somehow fundamentally different from Jewish-American identity. It’s not hard to understand. Like so many on both the left and the right in Israel, Hazony appears to interpret the last century of Jewish history thusly: The Diaspora proved to be plagued by disasters (from death camps to intermarriage); Israel proved strong and self-sufficient (from army to high-tech); and therefore Israel must become increasingly central to Jewish identity worldwide and the Diaspora must take the back seat.
To seriously suggest that American Jews “blow a fuse at the thought of losing the leading role” suggests a radically narrow interpretation of Zionism, one that ignores the movement’s extraordinarily diverse heritage and layered history. Zionism, after all, was powerful and successful precisely because it could unite secular and religious Jews, Marxists and Revisionists, poets and patricians. And it succeeded in appealing to Jews worldwide even after the establishment of Israel in 1948 because many Jews, true to the movement’s historical nature, saw Zionism not as a demand to make aliyah but as an invitation to engage in building an extraordinary nation, based on Jewish values, in parts of the biblical promised land. It was a mission that could unite all Jews, and it is sad to see that very same nation doing whatever it can to turn on its partners, flex its muscles, and declare its superiority. The ads may be gone, but the bad attitude, it is evident, is here to stay.