Sunday, May 28, 2023

Many contributors to this newspaper, most recently Rav Judah Mischel in his article “Emancipation” (July 28, 2022), remind us American Jews of “the futility of trying to put down roots in the shifting sands of galus” and the importance of “fulfilling Hashem’s will…in the right place”—namely, in the state of Israel. While the author and content may vary, at its core the message is always the same: “You, Diaspora Jewry, are deceiving yourselves. You think you can live meaningful Jewish lives in chutz l’aretz…you cannot. Whatever reasons you have for remaining in the diaspora are deficient excuses for a flawed life choice. Join us now in the Holy Land, otherwise suffer the inevitable consequences of your poor choices.”

Even if we accept that the aliyah of the vast majority of (observant) Diaspora Jewry should take place as soon as possible, which I and others do not, the messaging employed by these aliyah advocates is fundamentally flawed. First, if the goal is to encourage aliyah, the emphasis should be on the positive features of life in Israel. Don’t denigrate our entire way of life in the Diaspora as “less than” and undesirable. Personally, when the fundamentals of my life and community are so casually dismissed, I find myself unpersuaded by whatever arguments may follow. Second, messaging of this nature is hurtful and insulting. We as Diaspora Jews are building our lives, homes, families and communities here in America and other places around the world. Don’t tell us—implicitly or explicitly—that our lives are fundamentally inferior to yours. We all know that the modern state of Israel is not perfect, but we Diaspora Jews do not constantly remind you of that, and it is wrong to do that to us. Third, your approach is problematic, certainly with respect to the United States, because it is often not even on point. For example, the United States did not need to “emancipate” its Jews because Jews were full fledged citizens of the U.S. from the very founding of the Republic. To implicitly analogize the United States to Europe, as Rav Mischel does and others often do, is a dubious reading of history and of the unique nature and form of government of the United States.

The flawed nature of the aforementioned pro-aliyah approach is all the more obvious when compared with an article that appeared a few pages later in last week’s paper (“Introducing ‘From Here to There’—A Project of the RCA/Barkai”) (July 28, 2022). Instead of casually dismissing the legitimacy of Diaspora Jewry with a simple wave of the hand, the authors of this piece start from the assumption that, while Diaspora Jewry can learn from their Israeli brethren, Israeli Jewry can also learn from Diaspora Jews. In particular, that article describes how in Israel the rabbinate is viewed as a state service, like providing roads and parks. In contrast, in America, rabbis are hired by communities and communities are built by people—in other words, Diaspora Jewish life is a “people-centered” rather than “state-centered” approach. The authors note that “[p]eople have begun to understand that even in the State of Israel people need community”—namely, community in the model of Diaspora Jewry.

The RCA/Barkai approach, to me, is a much healthier foundation to the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry than the shaming, blaming, cajoling and dismissing that American Jewry is regularly subjected to, often by olim from America, and often in these pages. To be sure, the value of living in the land of Israel is a central component of our tradition. But Jewish life is much more complex than the imperative to live in Israel and we should start the conversation with a shared understanding that it is possible to live a full and meaningful Jewish life in the Diaspora. In addition, though aliyah advocates often portray it as a black-and-white choice, the decision to make aliyah is often anything but. Making aliyah can involve painful and challenging questions regarding familial and communal responsibility, livelihood, shalom bayit and other issues. Further, American Jews often have compelling and praiseworthy reasons for continuing to live their lives in America that should not be summarily dismissed.

When Israeli and Diaspora Jewry start a conversation from a place of mutual respect and acceptance, then we can actually have a conversation—a give-and-take between two parties on equal footing, each learning from the other. When, however, we start from a place of judgment—as is all too common, unfortunately—then opportunities for dialogue and partnership are lost, and the relationship between our communities becomes shallow and fractured.

So please, during this time of bein hametzarim, when we are encouraged to emphasize ahavas Yisrael, I ask our American-Israeli friends to meet us in the middle as partners and friends, and not as judges assessing the guilt of offenders.

Steven Starr
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