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August 30, 2015 | 15th Elul 5775

Israelis Could Assimilate

As published in the May 18 edition of Ha'aretz.  



By Eric H. Yoffie


I offer my congratulations to A.B. Yehoshua on two counts.


First, his appearance at the American Jewish Committee program has managed to attract some attention to a delicate subject that no one really wants to discuss. Yehoshua himself has been promoting this discussion for a very long time. Twenty-six years ago he published a book entitled "B'zechut ha'normaliut" (In Praise of Normalcy), making all the points that he made in Washington. The book attracted virtually no attention, but it appears that finally the Jewish world is prepared to listen.


Second, some of what Yehoshua says makes perfect sense. In some ways, it is possible to lead a fuller Jewish life in Israel than in the Diaspora. In Israel, you can be a Jew in a completely unselfconscious manner, without explaining to a non-Jew who you are. In Israel you are free of the psychological terrors of minority existence, which exist even in affluent and secure democracies. In Israel, Jewish values are not merely a personal resource but are the context that shapes public consciousness and debate. Indeed, Israel is the sole place where Judaism belongs to the public domain, where Hebrew is the language of the everyday, and where Shabbat and the festivals provide the rhythm of the calendar. In Israel you can celebrate a Jewish holiday as a joyous occasion and not as a strategy for survival.


But Yehoshua is far more wrong than he is right.


As a secular Jewish nationalist, he does not understand at all the role of Jewish religion in the history of the Jewish people. He does not recognize that Jewish peoplehood and Jewish religion are intimately related and inextricably intertwined, and it is the interplay between the two - however fraught with tension and hostility - that has maintained Jewish existence for 3,500 years. He refuses to see that the concept of the Jews being one people with a deep connection to the Land of Israel is a religious idea, rooted in Torah and covenant, and not an ethnic or political one. As a result, he does not understand the resilience of Diaspora communities that have built a strong religious life, and neither does he comprehend the vulnerability of an Israel in which religion has been marginalized and where many Israelis follow his example and view religion with ill-conceived contempt.


Some American Jews were apparently profoundly offended when Yehoshua spoke disparagingly of Diaspora Jewry. I did not agree with him, but neither did I take offense. Our community in North America is vibrant and undergoing a religious revival, and I am optimistic about our future. In my view, those who reacted so angrily protested a bit too much. Committed, self-confident Jews, of whom there are many in North America, have no reason to shrie gevalt when the quality of their Jewish life is questioned.


But I was much more concerned about Yehoshua's views of Judaism in Israel. In his May 12 article in Haaretz, he conflated Jewish identity in Israel with Israeli identity and asserted that it is impossible for an Israeli Jew to assimilate. His assumption seems to be that a Jew who lives in the State of Israel will always be Jewish because the very fact of a Jewish majority assures its Jewish character. But this is absurd, and dangerous as well.


As a Reform Jew, I believe in a diverse, pluralistic Judaism, but that is not the same as saying that Judaism can be stripped of its religious character and can become whatever you want it to be. If Israelis lose all connection with Jewish religious practice and belief, and assume that simply living in Israel is enough to make them Jewish, there is every reason to believe that Israelis can and will assimilate, even if it takes them a bit longer to do so. There is no reason logically or historically to think that Israel could not find itself fifty years from now populated by Hebrew speaking, once-Jewish goyim who are perfectly content to separate themselves from the Jewish people around the world.


The hostility to religion that exists in Israel came into being for a variety of reasons: the influence of socialist Zionism that prided itself on its secular principles; the disastrous impact of Israel's monopolistic religious establishment on the religious attitudes of average Israelis; and the failure of Reform and Conservative Judaism to do what is necessary to build a grassroots religious presence in Israel. Yehoshua is a product of these forces, whether he recognizes it or not.


The key for responsible Jewish leadership rests not in calling him names, but in asserting what he denies: that Judaism is rooted in covenant and Torah; that Torah-free civilizations have no staying power and in the absence of religious commitment, Israel will not remain a Jewish state; and that Israel needs not less Judaism but more, including a modern, moderate and pluralistic form of Judaism that will appeal to its well-educated citizenry. If we proclaim these beliefs and work to make them a reality, Israeli and Diaspora Jews will continue to argue and debate, but at least they will do so in the context of shared commitment, understanding and faith.


Rabbi Eric J. Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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