Rabbi David Clayman Lecture : Israel Diaspora Relations
Jerusalem , May 13,2012
Rabbi David Clayman whose memory we honor tonight dedicated his life to the study and understanding of the Jewish tradition, the rich Jewish civilization and its transmission to the next generations of Jews. He belonged to a privileged minority of American Jews for whom the creation of Israel was a unique opportunity to change Jewish history and he seized it with passion,
He loved America and American Jews, he loved Israel and admired its achievements; he undestood the Israeli political scene and psychology, the Americans and American Jewry, and thus grasped the growing gap between both sides of the divide. Hence, in his position as Executive Director of the AJC office in Israel, he encouraged encounters between the two and he established the annual AJC- Israel dialogue.
This is in fact how I came to know, work with and admire David Clayman. It is only fitting, therefore, to dedicate this annual event in his memory to the nature of the Israel-Diaspora relations in a changing world.
Before the Holocaust there were 18 million Jews in the world. Today,
In 2012 we are barely 13.5 million among a population of 6 billion
people in the world. The Jewish population in Israel is around 6 million, and the remaining 7.5 million still live in the Diaspora.
In today's world, Jewishness has become a question of choice, not of birth. We live in a global environment where Jews have enjoyed unparalleled opportunities. Quotas on higher education, professional schools, financial institutions , have long disappeared. A remarkable
85% of American Jewish youngsters attend college, twice the national average. Jews are totally integrated in the American and European societies. We are barely one fifth of one percent of the world population,
And yet we represent 20% of the Nobel prizes.
The bad news, however, is that the Jewish population is diminishing,
both in absolute and in relative numbers. In 1945 there were 5 Jews per 1000, today there are 2 Jews per 1000.
Needless to say, demographic trends shape the historic transformations of our times. They are not the only factor – the challenges facing the Jewish people in the 21rst century are indeed numerous and varied. Jews , whether living in Israel or in the Diaspora, live in a rapidly changing, open world, which can lead either to assimilation or to unprecedented strength .
To-night I will try to briefly point to the changes and challenges facing
both Jews of the diaspora and Israelis – and try to understand how they impact upon our relations.
This is of course no easy endeavor since it entails trying to understand notions such as peoplehood, nation, identity, Zionism and such complex issues as the centrality of the State of Israel.
A few years ago, writer A.B. Yehoshua raised a storm when he spoke at the symposium marking the 100th anniversary of the American Jewish Committee in Washington. Yehoshua's thesis ,and that of other Israeli thinkers, is that only Israel, not Judaism or Diaspora Jews can guarantee the survival of the Jewish people. He argued that being Jewish is not a matter of religion, and that Jewishness is defined by living in Israel. It is the land, the language of Israel, the completeness of the Jewish experience in Israel that defines him. In fact, he has little use for the texts of the past.
Many years before him, David Ben-Gurion too, asserted that one could be a complete Jew only by living in Israel . Only here we have the Jewish field, the Jewish book, the Jewish law and Jewish road , Jewish sovereignty, and the capability to be masters of our destinies. Not a minority, who by definition depends on the will- good or bad, of the majority in a country not our own, but a majority who takes control of its life.
The success of Zionism, asserts Yehoshua, echoing this view, is that the Jew took responsibility for all the components of his life. Speaking of his identity, Yehoshua says :
" I have my skin, the territory, the smell of the territory, the smell of the language – all this is my identity, whatever religion is inside this or is not inside".
And the difference between him, an Israeli, and the Diaspora Jew, as he sees it is : "Being Israeli is my skin, not my jacket. You are changing jackets ...from Argentina you take your jacket to Brazil,..to America, from there to there, and then you are moving. You are changing countries like the Jews have done all the time, changing countries like changing jackets".
This controversy involves, in fact, the most profound issues of identity that impact our Jewish societies here and abroad.
On the one hand, the Israelis who see their experience in the land as one of crucial importance, one that detaches us , distinguishes us from chains of generations.
On the other hand , the Jews of the Diaspora who profoundly consider themselves as full and free citizens of their countries, American, French, Dutch, Argentinian , with equal rights , fully integrated in the economy, culture and even politics of the countries where they live. Many of them, even those who support Israel, feel that at most, Israel is but a wrinkle
in Jewish history, (" the third commonwealth") that the Zionist moment is a comparatively brief one in the sweep of Jewish history, that Israel is a kind of sometimes impressive , sometimes unfortunate experience, but not critical to the fate of the Jewish people. There are, of course, variations on this theme of Rome and Jerusalem, more recently New-York and Jerusalem. A most distinguished San Francisco Rabbi once told me : "We are two different communities and the question now is what kind of relationship we should foster between these two competing entities". And , indeed, he is not alone to feel that way –I have encountered others who consider Israel as one of the communities of the greater Jewish people.
And let us not forget that there are those who consider that the calling of the Jews is to be citizens of the world, not live in a ghetto. To quote a representative of this school of thought, Tony Karon :
"The idea that Jews should live in a ghetto is one from which Jews were, mercifully, liberated between the 18th and the 19th centuries. A.B.Yehoshua and others want to revive something we are better of without. All of the great Jewish intellectual , philosophical , moral and cultural contributions to humanity I can think of, were products not of Jews living apart, but of our dispersal among the cultures of the world."
(Ha'aretz, May 21, 2006)
There are those who minimize the importance of the State of Israel as a profound and restorative revolution in the chain of our history. There are those, like David Clayman, who understood the greatness of the moment,the unique opportunity.
Judging by the tempestuous reactions, it appears that what was not understood in Yehoshua's remarks is the fact that the debate rages
Between two different schools of thought : those who believe that Israel has afforded the sons and daughters of the Jewish people to re-enter history not just as individuals, but rather as a significant collective
with a common cultural vision; and those who do not at all grasp
this kind of vision and content themselves with passive Jewish continuity, outside of history. The latter believe that in today's world there is no far-reaching existential difference between the Jews who choose to be citizens of France and those who choose to be citizens of the State of Israel, In both cases it is a matter of individuals who have certain preferences, or certain family obligations. In their view, the Diaspora life is a satisfactory solution as long as it also allows freedom of religion..
Indeed, from their point of view it may even be a better solution, since
it allows more freedom of religious choice than in Israel.
The former believe that precisely in an age of liberty and human rights,
there is a point to Jewish continuity only if it entails taking complete responsibility for all aspects of our lives, and for shaping a new reality,
as a moral collective with a common vision aspiring to instill our values
to the coming generations as well.
That divide, these attitudes, have existed all along, whether in organized or non-organized Jewish individuals and groups, whether supporting Israel or not. One should add political action : indeed, there are organizations and groups who, as a result of their close kinship to the State of Israel, feel that they can speak of her behalf , to be involved and have an impact on its policies.
There is a moral question as to whether groups who live outside of Israel and do not share the consequences of their acts, have a right to interfere, , but is not the subject of this talk.
I consider that our discussion cannot be complete without trying to understand the more contemporary scene among diaspora and Israeli young Jews.
At the turn of this Century , Robert Putnam wrote a book entitled "Bowling Alone" in which he argues that Americans nowadays are increasingly detached from social groups and community. They are less prone to join a host of social groups, whether political parties or various organizations. They have fewer close friends and give much less to philanthropy. All in all there is less social solidarity in America.
The same seems to hold true for Jews. Research has been conducted among Jewish groups, especially young students, but the reports have not been widely published. The rate of volunteering has decreased considerably , and so Has the rate of affiliation with Jewish organizations.
Some of the reasons that researchers found have to do with the perception that young people hold of the leaders of the community, whom they often see as self-serving and parochial. Other reasons have to do with their views of the organizations themselves, where they see a lot of duplications and sometimes irrelevance. Some reasons come from the change in lifestyles. I would venture however to point out that the overriding reason might be a change in their perception of identity- both group and personal identity.
Speaking of the age of cyberspace, it has become obvious to many that even children have less and less friends, are becoming less and less social. Today's young generation, in their 20's and 30's feel less the need for communal participation. After all cyberspace affords the possibility to feel part of a community, or of many communities, without leaving the comfort of your armchair, without coming in contact face to face with any of the members of the community.
Moreover, the overriding change in perceptions , within the young generation is that they see themselves "pluralistically", that is with a number of identities, without any particular fixed element. Drawing from the world of cyberspace images, one could say that this could be compared to opening , simultaneously, a number of different windows in your computer. To the extent that Jewishness is part of their identity, it is only one "window", one part of many different selves.
We should also understand that for those who are comfortable with their
Judaism, and indeed most of them are, there are different levels, different dimensions to express one's commitment. Yes indeed, there is still a young generation of synagogue goers, attracted to spirituality and "tikkun olam". And there are those youngsters who come to Israel on different programs. But there are others, and regrettably their numbers are growing, for whom identification with the notion of Jewish peoplehood is nonexistent.
The first group may feel kinship with Israel and the Jewish people, especially those who have visited or lived in Israel for a while, and
more and more youngsters in this group are familiar, to some degree, with the Hebrew language. As to the second group, precisely because of their
preoccupation with "tikkun olam" and human rights, they feel no affinity to Israel. Even though members in this group feel comfortable with their Judaism , this does not necessarily lead them to identification with Jews in other communities .
It should be emphasized that this is mainly a trend among Jewish youngsters, in America and in Europe. But, wherever there are manifestations of anti-semitism or of perceived danger( as has happened lately in France), the picture changes. And obviously, there remain everywhere other parts of the community - the affiliated, traditional
members. They may not include masses, but among them there is are increasing levels of Jewish education, from primary schools to Universities, culture, the publication of books, etc. In this presentation tonight, I have not chosen to ignore them. My main purpose is to bring
out new trends, new problems that deserve our thinking.
Years ago, when I served in the United States, and I would be called to speak on the subject of Israel-Diaspora relations, my main focus was
the growing enstrangement, the growing distance between us and American Jews, as a result of changing generations and of living in two very different types of circumstances. Whereas one hundred years ago
Jews living in America or in Palestine came from the same background, often the same "shtetl", spoke the same language – Yiddish, I felt that we do not communicate anymore the way we used to, that at times we do not speak the same language, even when it is English.
Nowadays, if I would represent the State of Israel in the US or the UK,
I would most probably not be allowed to address young students on campuses. Most Jewish students these days, define themselves as liberals. They have imbibed some of the defining values of the American Jewish culture : a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights. The only Zionism they find attractive is a Zionism that recognizes Palestinians as deserving of dignity
and capable of peace. They are quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that does not share these beliefs. In fact, and here is the problem, they believe in values which the American Jewish establishment is not willing to promote.
As mentioned before, among American or British Jews, there are many
Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people devoted to the existence of the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world , people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. Particularly among the younger generation , fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionist; and regrettably, fewer and fewer Zionists are liberal. One reason for that situation may be that the established Jewish community has been loathe to discuss Israel's occupation policies. But the younger generation asks questions, has no taboos or inhibitions, and the Jewish leadership shuns away from engaging in an open and frank dialogue with them.
Within a few years, some of these University students will become leaders – in politics, in the financial world, in business, in culture.
In their case, the gap is becoming wider. Can the Jewish community loose then to apathy or indifference, can we afford to loose them ?
Yes, the gaps exist, and over the years they have become wider.
Coming back to Yehoshua, to his notions of Israelisness and Judaism, let us not forget for one moment that the essence of Zionism was not only
to give back a land to the people, to aspire to" normalcy". There has always been the dream of being better, more moral than other people, "a light unto the nations". We may have achieved part of the vision – and Yehoshua may be right – Israel is the only place in the world where one can live a Jewish life that is total, in which there is no compartmentalization between the inner and the outer. But - , the constant conflict between state and religion, between the secular and the religious, flattens the Jewish discourse to polar positions and does not allow for the pluralism within which the typical Diaspora Jew lives. In addition, the political conditions and the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians are often perceived as a collision between Jewish values and the values of democracy and equality, this also with respect to the Arab minority .
Despite that gloomy picture, there are many circles in the Israeli society
with an interest in changing the situation and retrieving ownership of Jewish culture and tradition. During the last decade we have seen a host of initiatives which have in common the desire to create a Jewish revival in Israel. Among them are a multitude of places of pluralistic Batei Midrash where youngsters and adults study the Jewish heritage in a pluralistic spirit. The establishment of educational networks such as Tali, the Morasha and others; our own Schechter institute and Beit Midrash
the influx of organizations dealing with the development of study programs of Jewish, Zionist and Israeli civilian identity, the establishment of frameworks for youngsters such as the pre-military preparatory programs, the Hillel houses in various universities, the scores of books published on issues of Israeli and Jewish identity – all these are developments that David Clayman would have watched with great
satisfaction. They are necessary steps not only for making our own Jewish identity complete, but also in order to create better bridges of
understanding with our peers abroad.
As I see it, it is of paramount importance to act now before it is too late.
We must engage in a significant dialogue with and between the young generations on both sides. We must call upon our imagination and our vision – so as to recreate the bonds that united our people in the past.
In John Sculley's words : "The best way to foresee the future is by