Saturday, June 6, 2009

I was asked by my daughter, who lives in Israel and is director of a major Jewish outreach organization, to respond to a questionnaire regarding Jewish identity from an Israel government office. The first question involved personal biography, influences on my development as Jew and Zionist. I felt my response to Question #2 covered the final questions.
Israeli Government Initiative on Jewish Identity and Identification with Israel Questionnaire

2. What are the two or three greatest challenges to sustainable Jewish identity in our time?

1. That our people, those of us who live in Israel and we who choose Diaspora, fail to grasp the lesson and meaning of Shoah. We are a people at constant and unalterable risk. The common danger over which we have no control is, of course, that we in Diaspora elect to continue to live in the midst of a dominant religion and social culture fundamentally and unalterably anti-Jewish and antisemitic. This animus is built into Christianity’s most basic theological documents; it permeates the very fabric which gives identity to its inheritor societies and nation-states. Our failure to grasp, understand and accept this reality; our preference to relegate even its most recent expression, Shoah, to an event “unique” or “mysterious,” an aberration attributable to a madman or his social-political party or the nation voluntarily or not which led its nearly successful effort to eliminate Jewry entirely from existence on the planet; this is the single greatest challenge to Jewry. And tragically, we are no closer to appreciating threat today than were our people in the years preceding Shoah itself. American Jewry as blithely today defends our country as “exceptional” as did German Jewry in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

2. Nor is the state of the Jews, Israel, more aware than our Diaspora of the reality of the dangers facing us from the Christian west. Do we need alliance, allies facing the current dangers, of course. But for Israel to identify culturally and socially with that culture and society is, by association, reinforcing the dangerous notion that the west is what it appears, either no longer guilty of its traditional of antisemitism, or that something, perhaps Wiesel’s “mystery” is the real cause of its most recent expression, Shoah. In any case Israel validates the Diaspora myth of present security and thereby contributes to the next, and perhaps final effort to bring Jewish existence physically to our end.

3. Israel is failing in its Zionist responsibility to the Diaspora. Do we need a cultural touchstone for identity, yes. Is this what Zionism is, was born to address, no. Israel’s primary debt to the mostly secular Diaspora that created the state is as refuge, not cultural center. And such expressions of particularistic chauvinism as the current conversion controversy; the efforts of the Knesset Constitution and Law committee to draw up a constitution in which the Grandparent Clause of the Law of Return is removed, the Law itself reduced to a shadow of its original framing; the recurrent appearance on the agenda of the Knesset to define for the state of the Jews one particular sect of Judaism as the threshold for Jewish identity and legal status, these alienate the same majority of world Jewry which this “Questionnaire” purports to bring back to Jewish identity. If Israel were serious about “saving the Jews” it must first consider its own identity. If Israel is the state of the Israelis then its agenda is to continue the present drift, providing a cultural focus to the ever-shrinking Diaspora. Feels good, achieves little to nothing. If Israel is to return to its pre-state reason for being, Zionist refuge and Light unto our Nation then the task is indeed formidable, but not impossible. The choice is as it has been since 1967, state of the Jews, or state of the Israelis. The choice of Israel is the true framework upon which this “questionnaire” will rest and have meaning.

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