Uri Heitner

By Uri Heitner

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Russia’s latest economic and political crisis has created the possibility of a new wave of Russian immigrants to Israel. Such an Aliya, like the one before it, would be an important contribution to the State of Israel, not only in terms of its inherent qualities and its economic and social value, but also because it would signify the fulfillment of the central purpose of the State of Israel as a state of the Jews: The Ingathering of the Exiles.
If this Aliya indeed materializes, it will mark the end of an era of Zionism, an era defined by Israel’s playing the role of refuge for persecuted Jews everywhere. Israel will certainly continue in this role as a kind of insurance policy for the Jews of the world, for every country has the potential for oppression. Realistically, however, the end of the Russian diaspora is the end of oppressed Jewry. Pockets of affliction will remain here and there, but the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people in the diaspora will live comfortably and with real equality in their chosen lands.
This new reality challenges the State of Israel to redefine its essential character as a Zionist state. Unquestionably, definitions of the past have worn thin: The State of Israel is no longer a safe haven for the Jewish people. It has become the place where more Jews are killed because of their Jewishness than in any other place in the world. Given this, can the idea of Israel “negating” the diaspora, in the sense in which this idea undergirded the Zionist worldview, still be meaningful? Unlikely.
Other facts make it even more unlikely. The idea of the Jewish people’s “auto-emancipation” followed from the failure of the Emancipation in Europe to secure equal rights for Jews. Today, however, Jews in Western countries enjoy full equality, both in formal terms, on the civic-political-legal plane, and in the social sphere. Not only do Jews enjoy freedom and equality as individuals, Judaism as a religion and the Jews as an ethnic group have attained cultural autonomy and great influence in their countries, especially in the largest Jewish diaspora community, that of the United States. Through the fifty years of Israel’s existence, immigration to Israel from well-to-do countries has been minimal, and there is no reason to think that this will change. Today, American Jewry is in competition with Israel for the centrality of world Jewry. Every attempt to convince American Jews to make Aliya meets with an impenetrable barrier of alienation and cynicism, and may even distance them from Israel.
What conclusion may be drawn from this? What must Israel do to contend with this new reality? To answer these questions, we must first examine the meaning of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
Israel is not a normal country. The Zionist aspiration for the normalization of the Jewish people was meant to bring an end to the abnormal situation of a people without a land, without a state, and without independence, but it did not necessarily include making Israel into a country like other countries. The goal of a normal state is to provide security and social services to its citizens. The State of Israel, by contrast, is an ideological state, whose central aim is to realize the idea upon which it is based: Zionism.
Zionism, the national movement of the Jewish people, was intended to ensure this people’s continued existence. The supreme goal of the State of Israel was to realize this Zionist aim, but a majority of the people for whom the State of Israel was intended do not even live there, and to some it is completely foreign. Still, almost every other consideration in statehood is to be subordinated to this overarching goal. If the Knesset were actually to pass the Conversion Law, it might well lead to a total break, a writ of divorce, between the State of Israel and diaspora Jewry, the great majority of whom define their religious affiliation as non-Orthodox. In other words, this law would be supremely anti-Zionist, directly contradicting the state’s primary goal; therefore it must not be passed, even if there are political or other considerations in its favor.
What challenge does the current condition of the Jewish people pose to the State of Israel, if it wants to realize its supreme goal in the coming decades?
The historian Yehezkel Dror (in his book Refounding Zionism), Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg (in his book The Covenant of the People: The Zionist Chapter), and others reject the entire notion of negating the diaspora, and call upon the State of Israel to fashion a practical ideology that can be shared by both segments of the Jewish people, those in Israel and those in the diaspora. It is no coincidence that this faction has dropped the use of the loaded term gola, “exile,” and replaced it with the gentler, more neutral t’futzot, “diaspora,” thereby granting the Jewish communities outside Israel a near parity with those in the homeland.
According to their view, the idea of negating the diaspora is obsolete. Given the great danger that Western Jews will assimilate, on the one hand, and the improbability of enticing them to immigrate, on the other, the responsibility of Israel and the Zionist movement to the Jews in the diaspora is to strengthen them through reinforcing Jewish education, the Jewish community, the study of Hebrew, and so forth. Further, this view maintains that we must acknowledge American Jewry’s competition with Israel for centrality of the Jewish people as a healthy rivalry, not unlike the rivalry between Babylon and Jerusalem during the mishnaic and talmudic periods. Moreover, since the need for mass immigration does not itself strengthen the cohesiveness of the American Jewish community, and since strengthening this community is a necessary condition for the struggle against assimilation, American Jewry must take on new challenges. In recent years, for example, the American Jewish community has taken on education for Holocaust awareness as one of its central goals, something to be regarded as a positive development.
This approach to the diaspora cannot be rejected out of hand, but in the final analysis it is a dangerous one, since it runs contrary to the realization of Israel’s supreme goal, namely, ensuring the continued existence of the Jewish people. I do not reject efforts to bolster the Jewish communities in the diaspora, Jewish education through the study of Hebrew, and similar activities. These efforts also fulfill a lofty Zionist mission. But whoever thinks this approach can be of long-term strategic value for the continuity of the Jewish people is fooling himself.
In the long term, I see no chance of survival for the Jewish people in the diaspora. The assimilation of the Jews in the United States and other Western countries is a natural development, arising from their objective situation. The majority of the world’s Jews are not observant, and in my estimation the percentage who are will decrease as the years pass. For the young Jew whose life is not guided by Tora and the ritual commandments, and who lives in a non-Jewish environment that gives him a sense of belonging and of true partnership, it is unlikely that his choice of a spouse will have anything to do with whether the candidate is Jewish. More than half of American Jews intermarry, and this percentage is increasing. Fewer and fewer mixed families define themselves as Jewish, fewer and fewer children of mixed marriages regard themselves as Jews. This catastrophic trend poses a terrible existential danger to the Jewish people, and it demands our attention.
A number of factors can hinder assimilation. First, the non-Orthodox religious movements attract millions of American Jews, continuing to link them with the community. Second, the State of Israel is crucial as a focus of identification and pride for Jews. Because these elements which slow the tide of assimilation must be reinforced, I favor any activity that supports and strengthens Jewish communities abroad in these areas. We must understand, however, that these are only maintenance operations, which will at best delay the inevitable end of a people taking its own life by assimilation.
Only in the Jewish state, in the Land of Israel, is the continued existence of the Jewish people possible. At a time when the entire world was religious, the Jewish religion enabled this people to survive. But in today’s world, which is secular and only becoming more so over time, religion will not save the world’s Jews. In times past, persecution and anti-Semitism were additional factors binding Jews together by force of circumstance, but these, too, are vanishing in the West. We must come to terms with the fact that outside the borders of Israel, the Jewish people will cease to exist.
The unavoidable conclusion is that the State of Israel and the Zionist movement must grant top priority to dramatically increasing the immigration of Jews now living in prosperous countries. Strengthening their Jewish communities is an important step in retarding assimilation and maintaining a larger target audience for Aliya efforts, but we must not mislead ourselves: The ultimate goal is massive immigration.
The “Babylon and Jerusalem” idea has no place here, because there is no hope for the modern Babylon: It will only wane as the Jews assimilate. In the long run, Jerusalem provides the only potential for Jewish continuity. Consequently, negating the diaspora is more relevant today than ever before.
The new approach to negating the diaspora must differ from those of the past. Catastrophic Zionism is meaningless today: Any attempt to tell Jews in the West about the threat of a physical holocaust which will engulf them if they do not emigrate to Israel will meet with ridicule and incredulity. Nor is there room for overweening Israeli denigration of the “exilic mindset.” The concept of the social “inverted pyramid” and normalization of the Jewish people likewise is no longer relevant. In the post-industrial information age, it is specifically those intellect-based “Jewish” professions that are the foundation for developing the world economy. And, unfortunately, in many respects the State of Israel is far from being the exemplary society that would make it a lodestone for world Jewry.
The State of Israel must deal with this new reality in two ways. First, massive resources and creative, high-quality manpower must be dedicated to reinforcing Western Jewry’s bond to Judaism and the State of Israel, in order to strengthen these Jews’ sense of affiliation and national pride, and to arouse the consciousness that their existence as Jews, and certainly their children’s existence as Jews, depends upon their immigration to Israel.
Second, the State of Israel must undergo a powerful revolution, that it may become a light unto the Jews. A country with ten-percent unemployment, a high percentage of its people living in poverty and a huge inequality of incomes separating the various segments of the population will not attract new immigrants. A country marching toward a rift between the secular and the religious, in which non-Zionist Haredi political parties attempt to legislate religion and foist it upon the citizenry, will not attract world Jewry. A country that rules over two million Palestinians by force will not be a place with which the Jewish people worldwide can identify, or to which they will want to immigrate; television images of Jewish children from Hebron engaged in cruelty to their Palestinian neighbors blacken the State of Israel in the eyes of the Jews of the world. These are only a few examples of the social degeneration that is leading to the dezionization of the state. And this is a vicious circle, because only a model country will be able to attract substantial immigration from the West.
The State of Israel can offer a challenge to world Jewry, in the areas of settlement, education, science and Jewish culture. I believe that inner change, alongside these challenges, would likely bring about the mass immigration that would save the Jewish people from spiritual death and, ultimately, annihilation. This vision seems distant, but I believe it is realistic. In Israel’s coming fifty years we must, first and foremost, acknowledge the problem and decide, on the national level, that realizing this vision is the overriding goal of the state, to which every other aim must be subordinated.

Uri Heitner is head of Kibbutz Ortal in the Golan Heights.

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