Thursday, March 18, 2021


Weekly column by Vic Rosenthal

Even before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem there were colonies of Jews living outside of Eretz Yisrael. It’s true that they were unable to fulfil the mitzvot that were incumbent upon them, because they couldn’t participate in the three festivals that require a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and they couldn’t offer sacrifices for other purposes. But still many of those who for various reasons found themselves more or less permanently living somewhere else still identified with their homeland and still observed other mitzvot, like circumcision and some form of kashrut. At least for a few generations and in many cases until today, they felt themselves part of the Jewish people.

After the loss of the Temple, rabbinic Judaism codified a way to be fully Jewish wherever you were physically located. Different customs arose in different places, but Jews usually stayed Jews. They knew where they were from and how they were set aside from non-Jews. Of course there was attrition. Some Jews became Christians, and after the advent of Islam much later, some converted to that faith. Others faded into pagan cultures. But – really quite remarkably, I think – the Jewish people persisted as a people. Indeed, I believe that the history of the Jewish people serves as a paradigm for other groups that see themselves as a people, with our unique language and religion, and our common memory of our origins, as we express it in our observation of Pesach.

Starting around the period of the Enlightenment, the late 18th century, the phenomenon of secular Jews appeared, people that still identified as Jews but did not practice Judaism. Some of them were mechanistic rationalists whose cosmology didn’t leave room for a supreme being, and some were reformers who created a new religion based on Judaism, but with enough essential variations to make it conceptually distinct. Some of these Jews assimilated into local cultures, but some maintained their connection to the Jewish people despite their disconnection from Judaism.

Until the period leading up to the founding of the state of Israel, the option of living in Eretz Yisrael was sometimes a possibility and sometimes not, but it was always extremely difficult from a practical point of view. That is no longer the case. Jews can live in Eretz Yisrael if they want to, without starving, getting malaria, or being interned by the British. Any migration is somewhat uncomfortable, but the discomfort today is negligible compared to what it was 100 or even 70 years ago.

I want to argue that for both observant and secular Jews, it is advantageous to live in Eretz Yisrael, both from the point of view of the individual Jew and that of the Jewish people as a whole.
Observant Jews in the diaspora can meet their religious needs if they are prepared to live in very circumscribed locations in a few cities where they can find kosher food, a mikva, and at least a small Jewish community. Even so, several European countries have banned or are considering banning kosher slaughter and circumcision. Antisemitic harassment is growing in Europe along with its Muslim population. In the US, historical (as well as newly-created) Jew hatred among blacks is expressing itself more and more frequently in the large cities where large numbers of Jews live. Identifiably Jewish (i.e., observant) Jews are targeted. In addition, observant Jews are faced with astronomical costs to send their children to Jewish schools.

Even secular Jews face difficulties from antisemitism. Universities everywhere are less comfortable for Jews, where both pro-Palestinian Muslim students and leftists try to push them out of student organizations and generally harass them, and not only if they are outspokenly pro-Israel. In the US in particular, Jews are caught between white supremacist crazies and an anti-Jewish black/left/Muslim alliance (Jewish leadership seems to recognize the danger from the former while ignoring the latter). The Jewish connection of the secular or liberally religious majority becomes more attenuated day by day. What’s left is a few Yiddish expressions and jokes about gefilte fish. The consequences of this include large-scale assimilation, a decline in the number of diaspora Jews, and a growing political divide between Jews in Israel and the diaspora.
Life in the diaspora for Jews will not get better. The deterioration is proceeding differently in North America, Europe, the UK, and in other places, but it will only get worse.

By contrast, in Israel a new, specifically Israeli form of Jewish culture is developing from the interaction of Jews from all parts of the world and all Jewish traditions. There is no other place in the world that this can happen. Because of this, Israel is the guarantor of the spiritual continuity of the Jewish people as well as their physical protector. Jewish education is paid for by the state, and even in the secular schools, there is significant Jewish content. For those who want to develop and expand their Jewish identity, either religiously or culturally, there is no comparison between the diaspora and the Jewish state.

While diaspora Jews played a very important role in supporting the state before and shortly after its creation, they have become progressively less important as the state has grown more powerful and prosperous. As diaspora communities decline, their influence declines as well. And as the political gap between diaspora and Israeli Jews grows, the independence of the state from external support becomes more important. Jews that want to support the Jewish state can do so more effectively by contributing to the Israeli society and economy than by advocating from outside.

The state has been in existence since 1948 and many of its inhabitants have a hard time imagining what it would be like if there were no Jewish state. Someone who has experienced the insecurity and lack of belonging that a Jew experiences in the diaspora brings an appreciation for it that may be lacking in someone that has had it all their life. This is another kind of contribution that an immigrant can make.

Many Jewish people are comfortable in the diaspora. Change is hard. But ask yourself this: what will it be like in five or ten years? What will it be like for my children? Will I still feel at home here? Will I be sorry?


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