We should celebrate Jewish diversity, not let it divide us

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I set foot in Israel for the first time in June 1965. I had just turned 21 and was to spend most of my summer volunteering at K’far Menachem, a Mapam (seriously socialist) kibbutz located roughly in the center of the triangle formed by Tel Aviv, Beer Sheba and Jerusalem, before entering my senior year at Columbia College.

 Not long after landing at the rather shabby Lud International Airport (now Ben Gurion International Airport), a couple of members of K’far Menachem met me and the two American teenage girls with whom I had been traveling.

Before we climbed into the back of their truck for the ride to the kibbutz, one of the kibbutzniks told me in slow, comprehensible Hebrew, “Im atah rotseh l’hiyot Yehudi, atah tsarikh lagur po u’l’daber Ivrit” –  if you really want to be a Jew, you must live here and speak Hebrew. 

The fact that I was planning to apply to rabbinical school and eventually become a rabbi in the Reform Movement did not seem to impress him.  The root, the very essence of Jewish identity, from this young man’s perspective, was land and language – the land of Israel and the language of Hebrew.

It is no accident that these Hebrew words have stuck with me for more than 50 years, for it was at that moment that I realized that the Jewish identity of an American cannot be that of an Israeli Jew. 

To state the obvious: we American Jews do not live in Israel and do not speak Hebrew as our language of daily discourse. We call America our land and speak English as we go about our lives.  We are citizens of the United States. Because we live in the diaspora – that is, outside Israel – our Jewish identity is ethnic and/or religious, but not national. By way of contrast, many Israelis experience their identity within nationalist parameters as Israeli citizens. 

Some Israelis view those of us in the diaspora as second-class Jews, deprived of the benefits and responsibilities of living in the world’s only Jewish state.  Such Israelis see the diaspora not as the t’futzah, a neutral Hebrew term derived from the root meaning “to be scattered,” but as galut, exile.  Since most of us American Jews reject the notion that we are in exile, we are miffed when certain Israelis continue to insist that we are living in galut.

If we want to understand why American Jews and Israelis sometimes disappoint each other when we get up close and personal, we might reflect on a painful dynamic of intimate human relationships: More often than we might care to admit, our so-called love for another is nothing more than a projection of our own fantasies upon the loved one.

As we mature in our relationships, we come to understand that we cannot change each other; we realize that we cannot make each other over to fit our preconceived fantasies. 

Similarly, we American and Israeli Jews need to stop projecting our fantasies upon each other; we need to stop blaming each other for failing to meet our impossible dreams for each other. 

It is naïve and crippling for American Jews to attempt to live vicarious Jewish lives through proxy heroes in Israel; likewise, Israeli Jews do not need to conform to our illusions of how they ought to be Jews. 

By the same token, it is equally fatuous for Israelis to condemn the majority of the world’s Jews for refusing to “get real” by living a Hebrew-speaking life in Eretz Yisrael.

One of the greatest early Zionist thinkers, Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927), had a vision of how the Jews of Eretz Yisrael and the Jews of the diaspora might live with each other in a healthy, creative and mutually supportive way.  Ahad Ha’am saw the Jewish community in the land of Israel as a potential merkaz ruchani, a cultural center that would enrich and nourish Jewish life throughout the world.  At the same time, Jews in the diaspora would contribute culturally, politically and economically to life in the cultural center. This would work beautifully since a wheel cannot be a wheel without a hub and a rim.   

As Jews throughout the world look forward to Israel’s 70th birthday in April, let us all draw inspiration from Ahad Ha’am’s vision of Israel as a cultural center and the diaspora as a responsive rim.  If we are to survive as a united but pluralistic people, we need to acknowledge that we do need each other.  We need to celebrate who we really are: Jews – in all our diversity – trying to make some sense out of our complex lives as we march together into our shared but multifaceted future.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.