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Novelist’s Statement That American Jews Belong in Israel Shows Israel-Diaspora Rift

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July - August 2006

At a meeting celebrating the 100th anniversary of the American Jewish Committee, Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua told the audience at the Library of Congress that American Jews belong in Israel.  
According to Washington Jewish Week (May 4, 2006), “A.B. Yehoshua dominated the panel-discussion on ‘The Future of the Past: What Will Become of the Jewish People?” ... insisting that one could fully be a Jew only by living in the Jewish state. ‘This is the success of Zionism — the Jews took responsibility,’ Yehoshua said at one point, arguing that the everyday decisions of Israel — whether to withdraw from territory, ‘are we going to torture?’ — are the important ‘Jewish decisions’ of our time. ‘You are not doing any Jewish decisions,’ he told the crowd ... ‘You are deciding, according to an American framework ... You are playing with Jewishness.’”  
Yehoshua’s chief sparring partner was Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, who declared that “people are not stupid servants of the state.” Nor is it the case, he said, that everything a Jew does is a Jewish act. “What matters is whether (Jews) are actively engaged in one’s Jewishness,” he said. When challenged by Yehoshua to name “an act of Jewishness,” Wieseltier responded with such examples as teaching Hebrew and learning about the history of the Jewish people. “These are not meaningless activities,” Wieseltier said. Without them, “Jews will not survive, even if the state of Israel will.”  
Wieseltier argued that “territory is not what kept Jews alive. The civilization of Jews was formed after the exile, after the destruction of the Temple ... My pride in being Jewish has nothing to do with where I live.”  
Discussing Yehoshua’s declaration that Jewish life in America is “meaningless,” J.J. Goldberg, editor of The Forward (May 12, 2006) noted that, “Yehoshua expresses, in extreme, distilled terms, an essential truth about Israeli Jewish identity. Israelis tend to knew very little about the reality of Jewish life in America. It’s not taught in their schools, rarely appears on their television screens and is seldom discussed in their newspapers. For Israelis, being Jewish consists of living in a Jewish country, speaking a Jewish language, serving in a Jewish army. What, they wonder, can it possibly mean to live as a Jew in Cleveland? ... One of the best explanations for the divergence between the two communities was laid out two decades ago by a young Israeli professor of Holocaust studies, Arye Carmon. The Jewish communities of America and Israel, Carmon taught, both began as recent offshoots of Eastern European Jewry, then the main center of world Jewry. Each inherited one-half of the mother culture. Israelis inherited the facet of Jewish identity as daily life in an all-Jewish environment. Americans got the experience of Judaism as a series of choices and a way of looking at things. Given time, the two young cultures might have matured in dialogue with the mother culture and grown to resemble each other. But the Holocaust robbed them of a mother. Instead, they have grown up like orphans raised in different homes, emotionally linked by barely comprehending each other.”  
In Carmon’s view, too many Israelis, like Yehoshua, continue to preach the old Zionist doctrine of “Negation of Diaspora.” He said: “Jews are a diasporic nation. The distancing of Israel from the Diaspora poses an existential threat to Israel as the sovereign center of the Jewish nation. We are separating. We need each other.”  
Writing in HaAretz (May 7, 2006), correspondent Amiram Barkat, declared: “The heads of American Jewish organizations do almost nothing to alter the perceptions common in the Israeli public ... They come here several times a year and then return to their country brimming with delight, having heard the prime minister, foreign minister and head of the Jewish Agency pay lip service in speaking about Israel’s obligation to the Jewish people.” Instead, he writes, they should be asking why Israel isn‘t teaching its children about the Diaspora and “conducting a genuine dialogue between Israelis and Jews living overseas.”  
J.J. Goldberg concludes: “It ought to be obvious to both sides that Israelis are not wrong in their way of being Jewish, any more than Americans are wrong in their way — joining organizations, attending events, giving to charities and trying to live by what they understand as Jewish values. The two ways are merely different.”

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