Bible Commentator

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Rabbi Moshe Reiss

Judaism vs. Israelism

A.B. Yehoshua: At the 100th anniversary meeting of the American Jewish Committee held in Washington – held the Uber Zionist position: He had earlier (1986) said the same; that ‘Israelism is total Judaism’.

‘I tried . . .  to outline at least a fundamental boundary between Jewish identity in Israel and Jewish identity in the Diaspora.’

‘My identity is Israeli. The Jewish religion does not play a role in my life’.

1. ‘"The Jewish texts," which many Jews today consider to be the core of their identity, did not help us to understand better the processes of the reality around us. The Jews were too busy with mythology and theology instead of history, and therefore the straightforward warnings voiced by Jabotinsky and his colleagues in the early 20th century - "Eliminate the Diaspora, or the Diaspora will surely eliminate you" - fell on deaf ears.’

1A. ‘I keep bringing up the matter of texts, because in liberal Jewish circles this has recently become the most important anchor of identity, as evidenced by the return of manifestly secular people to the synagogue - not in order to find God, but to clutch onto identity. As someone who has spent his whole life dealing with texts - writing, reading and analyzing - I am incensed by the increasingly dangerous and irresponsible disconnection between the glorification of the texts and the mundane matters of daily life. Instead, I propose that we continue to nurture the concrete and living value of "the homeland," rather than the dull and worn-out value of Jewish spirituality.’

2. ‘[T]his Jewish-Israeli identity has to contend with all the elements of life via the binding and sovereign framework of a territorially defined state. And therefore the extent of its reach into life is immeasurably fuller and broader and more meaningful than the Jewishness of an American Jew, whose important and meaningful life decisions are made within the framework of his American nationality or citizenship. His Jewishness is voluntary and deliberate, and he may calibrate its pitch in accordance with his needs.’

3. ‘My identity is Israeli. The Jewish religion does not play a role in my life; it is the territory and the language that build my identity. . . Homeland and national language and a binding framework are fundamental components of any person's national identity’

3A. ‘For me, Avraham Yehoshua, there is no alternative [to being Jewish]…. I cannot keep my identity outside Israel. [Being] Israeli is my skin, not my jacket. You [Diaspora Jews] are changing jackets… you are changing countries like changing jackets. I have my skin, the territory [of Israel].’

3B. ‘Jewish values are not located in a fancy spice box that is only opened to release its pleasing fragrance on Shabbat and holidays, but in the daily reality of dozens of problems through which Jewish values are shaped and defined, for better or worse. A religious Israeli Jew also deals with a depth and breadth of life issues that is incomparably larger and more substantial than those with which his religious counterpart in New York or Antwerp must contend.’


Where does Yehoshua’s Israel as a homeland come from if not the same texts where the practice of the religion he equally does not follow – come from? The ethical Jewish values Yehoshua talks about come from Torah,

(including the Ten Commandments) and the Prophetic faith proclaimed by Isaiah and Jeremiah to ‘protect the poor, the widows and the orphans’ and the Talmud. That is the concept of a ‘light unto the nations’; these ethical Jewish values have been adopted by both Christianity and the Koran (Sura 17:23-39) even if rejected by their fundamentalists.  

The Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel opens with the direct connection between the Jewish people and its country, where its "spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped." The formative declaration of the state also declares that it "will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel." These represent Jewish identity, not an Israeli identity.  I do not see how Israeli’s hold more to ‘Jewish Values’ than American Jews.

Eric Erickson has written ‘anxiety about ones identity engenders an aggressive urge to assert it and ascertain it’. 1   Yehoshua certainly represent that.

Allan Wheelis defined identity as: ‘a coherent sense of self. It depends upon the awareness that one's endeavors and one's life make sense, that they are meaningful in the context in which life is lived. . . . It is a sense of wholeness, of integration, of knowing what is right and what is wrong and of being able to choose.’  2

Jewish ethnic identity is a developing phenomena as the two greatest centers of Judaism, Israel and the United States, are immigrant societies.  In immigrant societies a sense of identity becomes more important because people roots have been disturbed. But we all know that we are Jewish first and foremost.

Judaism is both a nation and a religion.  In that way it differs from Christianity; one of the founding premises of Christianity was the separation of the particularism of the nation of Israel from the universality of the religion. Judaism as a religion and Judaism as a nation can not be separated without destruction.

One hundred years ago the great majority of Jews spoke Yiddish and a significant number spoke Arabic. The Talmud was written in Aramaic as was the Zohar, the major kabbalistic text. The great majority of the texts Yehoshua disparaged were written in those languages. Today a great number of Jews especially intellectual (spiritual and otherwise) speak English and many of the Ultra Orthodox still speak Yiddish. Language is certainly part of an identity, but that is Yehoshua’s Israeli identity not his Jewish identity.

Zionism is about the national home for the Jewish people in Israel. Yehoshua’s definition of identity disregards the Jewish people, Jewish heritage, millenniums of Jewish culture, prayer, rituals, tradition and everything that is subsumed in the term Judaism’ He shows a preference for the new Israeli ‘nation’ which (to quote Natan Sharansky) ‘arose from the sea’ one hundred years ago. For Yehoshua - and too many other Israelis - the only thing that is important and relevant from the Jewish perspective is what happens here, in Israel; everything outside Israel is obsolete. In making this claim, Yehoshua undermines and weakens the entire justification for the State of Israel.

There is no Zionism without Judaism and the Jewish people. Jewish peoplehood and Jewish religion are intimately related and inextricably intertwined, and it is the interplay between the two that has maintained Jewish existence for 3,500 years in the diaspora and Israel. Zionism and the connection to the Land of Israel is a religious idea, rooted in Torah, the Prophets and the covenant. The Jewish people based on the same texts are also a religious culture with different ethnic groups.  

The people and its Jewish religion do not exist for the State of Israel, but vice versa. Israel is justified by the Jewish people; its religion and its texts. The Jewish people returned to their homeland not the Israeli people.

The Jewish world is now in a state renaissance (more so in America than in Israel);  and  it is in Israel's interest to be a part of and not to separate from it. If Judaism is to continue to be a living covenant it may grow more in the Diaspora than in Israel.

There is no longer an exile (other than in a theological sense); there is a Diaspora. Almost every Jew can leave his country if he so chooses, can immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return and become an Israeli citizen; but only if he chooses.

The Yom Kippur war changed the nature of the Israeli-Diaspora relationship.  In the Yom Kippur American intervention saved the State of Israel; this was obviously assisted by the American Jewish diaspora.  American Jewry did a great deal to assist Soviet and Ethiopian Jews to emigrate to Israel, both politically and with funds. These represent 20% of the Israeli population.  

American citizens of Irish origin are connected to the Catholic religion and the Irish people, similar to American Jews have connections with Israel and the Jewish people with respect to ethnicity and culture. No Irishman living in Ireland would criticize the Irish living in America. The greatest Irish writer of the twentieth century (James Joyce) chose to live in continental Europe but his Irishness was never (then or now) doubted. Many of the greatest Jewish Rabbis of the last half of the twentieth century (Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe are examples) chose to live in the U.S. Nobody doubted their Jewishness.

Every other ethnic and religious group is proud of its cousins abroad, whether Chinese, Greek or Irish; only Jews can argue against their own disapora instead of welcoming the connection. The fact that fifteen percent of Israeli citizens live abroad is helpful to Israel and to Judaism. The interchange of the two largest Jewish communities in Israel and America can only guarantee the survival and expansion of Jewish life.

Conflating Jewish and Israeli identity is a major mistake. It eliminates over 20% of the Israeli citizenry as illegitimate and is a mockery of Israeli democracy. It resembles the white Christian groups in America rather Jewish values.

Rabbi Lau, former Ashenazik Chief Rabbi when asked about the Haredim who do not say ‘Hallel’ on Israel Independence Day said half of the Israeli’s are secular Jews and never say Hallel; do they therefore disrespect Israel or Judaism? Unfortunately too many Israeli secular Jews feel about our texts and the religion of Judaism as does Yehoshua. Although both Yossi Sarid (former leader of Meretz – the secular left-wing Israeli political Party) and Yossi Beilin (its current leader) rejected Yehoshua’s definition of Israeliness; both emphasized their Jewishness. In May 2006 the Hebrew University founded the Gandel Institute for Adult Education to correct the problem of ‘Jewishly’ illiterate Israelis.

Yehoshua’s Israeliness and its hostility to religion is as much a problem for the Jewishness of Israelis as is intermarriage in America. Israelis could learn a lot from the pluralism of American Jewish (and Christian) religious beliefs. It is time to give up Ben Gurion’s famous ‘proverb’ that the ‘shul I do not go to is an Orthodox one’. His negation of the diaspora may have been necessary when Israel’s survival was questionable; it no longer is.

Fundamentalism does not represent Jewish values any more than it represents Islamic or Christian values.

The Torah began with Adam and Eve and not with Abraham or Moshe. That is because we are all children of God. In fact Abraham’s oldest son is Ishmael the purported father of the Arabic people. Esau Jacob’s twin brother is the mythological father of Rome and Christianity.

I am an Israeli citizen but not Israeli; my identity is Jewish; my imbedded culture is Western-American. Israeli culture, so beloved by A.B. Yehoshua is still a developing phenomena equally parts of which are Arab/Levantine and Western. Yehoshua is not living as he claimed a more Jewish life; his jacket is not as he claimed Jewish at all; it is all Israeli.

1 Erickson, Eric, Childhood and Society, (London, 1951) P. 359.

2 Wheelis, A, The Quest for Identity, (NY 1958) P. 19.