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Volume 1, Issue 2 (April 2007 / Iyar 5767)
Article 5/9

'Difference' in the Jewish World and in the Jewish State:
Two Recent Views

By Allan Arkush

Abstract: In New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora, Caryn Aviv and David Shneer welcome the growing tendency of diverse Jewish communities around the world to deny the centrality of the Jewish state and to pursue their own course without giving ample consideration to the potential impact of this trend. In Bezkhut Hahevdel, Yossi Yonah calls for a maximal effort to enable the diverse groups living in Israel today to co-exist on the basis of equality. He does so without calling for the replacement of the Jewish state by a "state of all its citizens" but also without sufficient reflection on all of the possible consequences of such an effort. The authors of both of these books pose challenges that Zionists ought not to ignore.

Not too long ago, in an adult education class at a suburban Boston synagogue, I had everybody read Jack Wertheimer's A People Divided, a book written in the 1990s that expressed a great deal of foreboding about the ways in which religious differences threatened to tear the Jewish people apart. While most of the people in the class were very much troubled by such a prospect, one of them surprised me by remaining completely unperturbed. "So what?" he muttered. "Who cares? Why do we have to be united?"

My instinctive response was to treat this as some kind of klutz question. Wasn't it obvious--to all committed Jews, at any rate--that the unity of the Jewish people had to be preserved? Nevertheless, I answered the man as politely and calmly as I could. I do not know whether what I proceeded to say on the spur of the moment convinced him that his question was out of place, but I very much doubt that it would have had much of an impact on Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, who forthrightly celebrate the demise of Jewish unity in their recently published book New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (New York University Press, 2005).

Bearing a title that is reminiscent of Bernard Wasserstein's Vanishing Diaspora (Harvard University Press, 1996), this new book could not be more different from it in content. For Aviv and Shneer regard the disappearance of the diaspora not as the consequence of the Jews' very low birth rate and assimilation but as a result of their abandonment of an outmoded ideology, one that divides the Jewish world into people who reside in their homeland and those who do not.  It is the concept of "diaspora," not the reality of dispersion that is coming to what is, in their eyes, a welcome end.

What has been called the diaspora is more and more coming to consist, they say, of Jewish communities that see themselves as entities securely rooted in their disparate non-Jewish environments and in no sense as satellites of the State of Israel. Jews are happily ridding themselves of the idea of a center and they are just as happily replacing the idea of "the Jewish people" with the realization "that all Jews share one thing and one thing alone--they identify as Jews, whatever that may mean." After all, what does "an upper-middle-class professional, secular Jew in Los Angeles have in common with a working-class Israeli Sephardic religious Jew in Bnei Brak except the fact that each one calls herself a Jew?" One should not waste any time lamenting this state of affairs, which is really "good for the Jews." Indeed,

It is the very slipperiness of Jewish identity that provides so much fertile potential for creativity, innovation, and adaptation in all the places Jews call home. By abandoning the confines of nationalistic and diasporic constraints for a more nuanced, flexible understanding of Jewish identity that embraces difference and differences as core virtues, we as Jews can become better global citizens.    

Most of New Jews is devoted to detailed descriptions of new trends in Jewish communities around the world that are designed to impart to the reader the authors' enthusiasm for the vibrant, decentralized, and anarchic Jewish future that is now coming into view. They take us on a fascinating tour that extends from Russia to Poland to New York, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, focusing on such highlights as new Chabad synagogues in Moscow, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and the Open House for "queer Jews" in Jerusalem. Fully aware that their assessment of the overall Jewish situation contrasts starkly with that of pessimistic observers like Wasserstein, they quickly dispose of him as someone who wrongly "dismisses the statistics about Jewish revival." They themselves, however, provide very little in the way of such statistics to justify their optimism concerning the durability of Jewish life outside of Israel. And they give very short shrift to the statistical evidence that fosters the fears they cheerfully mock, "fears that Jewish life is dying around the world." They seem to think that their case studies ought to suffice to set such well-justified apprehensions aside.

This is, of course, an issue with regard to which opinions differ, but it is not one that I wish to debate with Aviv and Shneer. My interest in their book has to do not with their assessment of the current state of affairs in the Jewish world but with their attitude toward it. On what basis have they arrived at the conclusion that the abandonment of Israel-centrism and the demise of Jewish unity are both good for the Jews and good for the world? And are they correct?

Clearly, when they speak of something as being "good for the Jews" they do not mean what people used to mean when they employed this phrase, i.e. something that redounded to the benefit of the Jews as a whole. What they seem to have in mind is something that is good for individual Jews as individuals. Every one of them ought to be able to do his or her own Jewish thing without being subjected to any higher authority and without having to conceive of the particular community in which he or she lives as being subordinate to some other Jewish community elsewhere in the world. Jews lacking any such encumbrances will be free of the parochial concerns that stand in the way of their being good "global citizens."

On purely liberal grounds it is difficult to argue with any of this (however easy it may be to argue on the basis of a more traditional or nationalist understanding of Jewishness). Nor can one dispute Aviv and Shneer's evidence that Jews around the world, especially younger people, now identify much less closely with Israel than did members of previous generations. But it is one thing to identify this situation and another to welcome it. Especially, but not only, if one lives in Israel.   

Aviv and Shneer themselves do care about Israel. They derive certain insights from anti-Zionists like the Boyarin brothers, but they are not anti-Zionists themselves. Nothing in their book casts doubt on the advisability of the Zionist enterprise or the legitimacy of the Jewish state. But they do speak derisively of what they label "the diaspora business" dedicated to transmitting to Jewish young people from around the world "a Zionist narrative of history that moves from European death in the past to Israeli life in the future." And they highlight the ironic aspects of such an effort in the light of "the reality of a wealthy, relatively peaceful Europe and an embattled Israel." They speak dismissively of Israeli campaigns appealing to "global Jews' sense of collective responsibility to support the beleaguered Jewish state" during the second intifada. Again and again they demonstrate their impatience with what they apparently regard as the nuisance of Israeli special pleading.

What Aviv and Shneer do not do, however, is evaluate in a politically responsible way the utility of all these maneuvers. While they are not unfriendly to the State of Israel, they do not seem at all inclined to reflect on the requirements for its survival. They do not ask how much Israel remains reliant for economic, political and moral support on "diaspora" Jews who are motivated by the kinds of beliefs that they would like to uproot. Nor do they pause to consider what would be the likely impact of Israel's demise on the Jewish communities of the rest of the world. Therefore, for those of us who continue to worry about Israel's long-term durability and who continue to see it as an indispensable pillar of Jewish survival in the diaspora, New Jews can be a valuable source of information but it cannot alter our basic sense of Israel's unique and central importance to contemporary Jewry.

Aviv and Shneer's call for embracing difference and differences is echoed in the very title of Yossi Yonah's book Bezekhut Hahevdel, "In Defense of Difference" (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2005). From Yonah's subtitle, however, one can immediately discern that his volume has a more circumscribed focus: "The Multicultural Project in Israel." Jews outside of Israel are of concern to him only to the extent that they play a role in what goes on within the country. The differences he wants to see respected, if not necessarily embraced, are connected not so much with geography as with culture and ethnicity. The obstacle in his path is not the old religious and Zionist opposition of diaspora to homeland but "the ethno-republican ethos that lies at the heart of Zionist ideology."

Borrowing the term "ethno-republicanism" from Yoav Peled, Yonah characterizes the nationalism associated with it as reflecting a blend of "ethno-cultural foundations (connection to the Jewish people) with the republican principle that judges the relative attachment of sub-groups to the national collectivity on the basis of their (real or imagined) contribution to the national project." Unlike many of his colleagues on the left, Yonah does not unequivocally condemn the State of Israel for taking its bearings from an ideology of this kind. He does not insist that the state must always take an absolutely neutral position with respect to ethnic, religious and cultural differences among its citizens. But he does argue that deviations from strict neutrality are legitimate only under certain conditions. First of all, there must be inclusiveness. The nation-state must define the common good in such a way that it fosters the development of a national consensus that includes all citizens of the state and every group within it. Secondly, the state must not force any particular understanding of the common good upon the citizens who constitute it. Finally, things must remain "dynamic." The understanding of the common good must be subject to change "in accordance with the preferences of the citizens of the nation-state."

Israel, according to Yonah, falls far short of meeting these conditions. It pushes its Arab citizens and foreign workers to the margins of society. It imposes a type of Jewish nationalism that coerces and stratifies the Jewish segment of its population in accordance with the interests of its ruling elites, discriminating against Jews of non-Western origin. And it has cemented into a law a definition of the state as "Jewish and democratic" that prohibits any attempt on the part of its Arab minority to alter its basic nature even by democratic means. It is in order to call attention to these failings and to argue for their correction that Yonah has written Bezkhut Hahevdel.

Informed observers of Israeli intellectual life are familiar with these complaints. They have heard them often enough, especially from post-Zionist thinkers who maintain that the time has come for Israel to cease to be an officially Jewish state and become a "state of all its citizens." But Yossi Yonah should not be mistaken for a post-Zionist. He is a proponent of multiculturalism, a man who wants to do everything possible to increase the degree to which the various ethnic, cultural and religious groups living in Israel today co-exist on the basis of equality--even if it is necessary for them to do so within the framework of a Jewish state.

Yonah's recommendations include reformation of the Israeli educational system, immigration laws, and land ownership and residential housing laws in ways that would lessen or eliminate existing and unjust prioritization of the interests of one of the state's population groups over others. Greatly concerned with rectifying past and continuing injustices to Jews of the Mizrachi communities, he is similarly attentive to the interests of what he calls the "Palestinians in Israel." He would, for example, scrap the Law of Return "in its current form" and replace it with legislation "that takes into account all groups in the society and even the interests of potential immigrants who wish to settle in it."  This would not preclude laws that would give preferential consideration to Jews who found themselves in dire economic straits or exposed to political persecution on account of their identity. But it would extend such consideration to the kinsmen of "Israeli Palestinians" as well. In the latter case, however, the number of immigrants permitted to enter the country would have to be carefully circumscribed. One cannot right the wrongs done to the Palestinians in the past by committing another wrong and uprooting the Jews now residing in what were once their homes. And one cannot place in jeopardy the right of Israel's Jews to self-determination.   

Yonah situates himself between the post-Zionists, whom he regards as unrealistic and utopian, and a camp he characterizes as "neo-republican" that is made up of people who want to revive Israel's old "ethno-republican" ideology. Taking their cues from other left-wing critics of multiculturalism in the West, members of the latter group stress the need to combat excessive privatization by strengthening the "sense of social solidarity anchored in the reestablishment of a homogeneous collective sharing a heritage, culture, purposes, and values." In opposition to their arguments, Yonah contends that in practice "Zionism and social solidarity are not necessarily two sides of the same coin." Indeed, the main point of his book, he says near its conclusion, is to show how Zionism, as a manifestation of "ethno-republicanism," undermines social solidarity by fostering "social hierarchies and inequality in the civic, political and economic status of Israeli citizens." Interestingly, however, he does not conclude his book with a stirring peroration in favor of multiculturalism as the force that will encourage genuine social solidarity. What really matters to Yonah, it seems, is the attainment not of solidarity but of justice. At the conclusion of his book one is thus left wondering precisely what kind of ethos he would expect to develop within the Israeli state reformed along the lines he recommends and whether it would truly suffice to meet the state's unusual needs.          

New Jews and Bezkhut Hahevdel, published in the same year on different sides of the Atlantic, demonstrate in very different ways the deep impact of multiculturalism on contemporary thinking about the future of Jewish communities around the world. Both books, to be sure, focus on the protection of "difference and differences." But they do so for quite different reasons. For Aviv and Shneer, these things are "core virtues." They celebrate diversity for its own sake, on account of the "creativity" and "innovation" it introduces into Jewish life. For Yonah, on the other hand, what really matters is not so much the efflorescence of different cultural forms as the freedom of hitherto subordinated Jewish and non-Jewish groups within the State of Israel both to be themselves and to live on equal terms with others.  

Aviv and Shneer's grievance against Zionism stems from what they see as its usurpation of a place of priority in the Jewish world and its relegation of the "diaspora" to a secondary and subordinate status. They want to knock Israel off its pedestal, but they do not have much to say on the subjects that Yonah discusses. It is easy to imagine, however, that if they did they would be in substantial agreement with him--but only up to a certain point. Unlike Aviv and Shneer, Yonah does not really care if diversity persists in the long run. The multiculturalism for which he stands "does not require social groups to establish separatist cultural frameworks, but it does at the same time maintain that if such groups wish to do so their wishes must be respected." Nor does his kind of multiculturalism "sanctify social separatism." It supports and requires it only when this is what cultural groups themselves prefer.  

From Yonah's point of view, it is clear, all religious, cultural and ethnic identities are socially constructed and therefore socially alterable or even disposable. The inherited differences that all groups, including Ashkenazim, Sephardim, or even Jews in general, may wish to preserve can be relinquished without any great loss if that is what the members of these groups choose to do. In the end, it seems, it is only the justifiable but perhaps unfortunate persistence of Israel's Jews in maintaining their distinctive identity that makes it impossible to do away today with their "ethno-republicanism" and bring into existence the "state of all its citizens." But this persistence need not be permanent. Someday it may be possible not only to temper and moderate Jewish "ethno-republicanism" but to get rid of it altogether. Yonah does no more than hint briefly at such a prospect, early in his book, when he objects to the fact that Israel has legally defined itself as "Jewish and democratic" forever. But if it were ever to appear on the horizon as a realistic possibility, acceptable to the majority of Israel's citizens, it is hard to imagine what he might have to say against it.

What the two recently published books discussed here tend to indicate, then, is that multiculturalism is both compatible with the acceptance of a Jewish state and, to a certain extent, potentially harmful of its interests and in tension with it. Yet, however disconcerting it may be to Zionists, it is surely a force that cannot be ignored. Its Jewish spokesmen raise issues and write books about which Zionists have to think and to which they need to respond, both in Israel and in what I myself, despite everything Aviv and Shneer have to say, will continue to call the diaspora, the zone in which I happen to live.  

About the Author
Allan Arkush is Professor of Judaic Studies and History at Binghamton University. His publications include Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment (1994), Perspectives on Jewish Thought and Mysticism, Essays in Memory of Alexander Altmann, (co-edited with Alfred Ivry and Elliot Wolfson, 1998) and a translation of Gershom G. Scholem's Origins of the Kabbalah (1991).

© Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine 2007

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