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Zionism and the Diaspora

The ad campaign revealed Israel’s view of itself as center of Jewish life

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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.

A Dissenting Opinion on ‘Aba-Gate’ [Forward Thinking]
Related: Mixed Marriage [Tablet Magazine]

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Lansing Reed says:

No, Hazony is spot on. As anyone with eyes or ears will attest, and as anyone who picks up a prayer book or even a dreidel knows for certain, Jewish-Israeli identity is fundamentally different from Jewish-American identity.

That this causes you to blow a fuse demonstrates that your psychological defense mechanisms which you use to justify a soft life in Galut (“Its the same here/Zionism is bad/We are all equal/Israel is flawed/Palestinians are saints/I like my life here”) have overpowered your analytic faculties.

So why did American Jews ‘blow a fuse’ then? Is there no truth to the message? As a fourth-generation American Jew (like how I did that?) I am sometimes surprised at the sense of entitlement people have over this issue. It’s as if Israel is a small, provincial country dependent on American Jewish goodwill–how dare they think Israel has something special to offer that America doesn’t? American Jewry sponsors so much of Israel’s architecture and social programs, so how dare Israel treat them as if they were the pariahs and not the other way around?

So, Hazony “ignores the movement’s extraordinarily diverse heritage and layered history” but you don’t by reducing it to a Camp Ramah singalong for “Marxists and Revisionists, poets and patricians”. According to Chemi Shalev in Haaretz, and, I don’t know, basic Zionist history (Altalena anyone?) this was most definitely not the case.

In the long run Hazony is right. Look around the Jewish community in the US and the fact is that most of them don’t particularly care about being Jewish and most likely their grandchildren won’t be Jewish. I’m not making a judgement here, I’m just stating a fact.

for Zlota says:

As an American Jew in the Diaspora, I know I don’t understand my hyper left-wing “anti-Zionist” “anti-occupation” Israeli cousins who live in Jerusalem.

The supposedly controversial ads, those at least, I understand.

wow, this struck a raw nerve in Liel. so now he speaks on behalf of the galut?.. that transformation didn’t take long… (and how much respect is “much respect”?)

tillkan says:

“Zionism, after all, was powerful and successful precisely because it could unite secular and religious Jews, Marxists and Revisionists, poets and patricians.” It united all these people in colonialism. Sad.

Excellent and well thought piece.

Sorry Liel, I love your book but this article makes no sense.

Was it stupid for Israel to have put those ads on TV and billboards, yes! But the response was so disproportionate it makes you wonder. Where there’s smoke there’s fire kind of thing.

Regardless of issues our two countries have, there is NO doubt that it is easier to live in Israel as a Jew (a for us, by us kind of thing).

There is no real Jewish life in the US outside of the orthodox/chabad communities which as someone who grew up in them, I can attest are VERY flawed. The same critique you give of your home country can just as easily be tweaked and make completely accurate of Jewish communities in the diaspora.

I’ve spent considerable time in both countries. I can write my own book about the flaws of Israeli democracy and governance. But when it comes to Jewish identity, Israel has the US beat by a mile. A very long one!

Carrie says:

Third generation American Jew here and let me throw out some truths (yet anecdotal like your previous article). Over the last few days I have seen no less than 10 Jewish friends on Facebook post pictures of their Christmas trees and kids with Santa at the same time you and Obama supporter, Jeffrey Goldberg have been going bananas over these ads. Furthermore, these are NYers.

Now I don’t have a problem with Santa, but if you are going to claim that their offspring are going to continue the Jewish line then I have a bridge to sell you…


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Zionism and the Diaspora

The ad campaign revealed Israel’s view of itself as center of Jewish life

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