Center Field: Diaspora-Israel relations as bad date

Jerusalem Post, July 27, 2008

The results of the third annual Survey of Contemporary Israeli Attitudes toward World Jewry commissioned by the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem are in, and once again we can proclaim: Israel-Diaspora relations remain less fraternal than we like to believe – and more like a bad date than we really acknowledge. Just as North American Jews are convinced that Israelis need us more than we need them, Israelis believe we need them more than they need us. In this survey, focusing on the Israeli side of the equation, most Israeli Jews – 76 percent – believed it is safer to live as a Jew in Israel than in the Diaspora, while 43 percent believed the State of Israel rather than the local Jewish community was more responsible for fighting anti-Semitic outbreaks in the Diaspora.

These results reveal a condescending Israeli approach to Diaspora Jews as weak, embattled, incapable of self-defense, and dependent on Israeli super-heroes to save them. These attitudes would be more offensive if they were not matched by the too-prevalent Diaspora view of Israelis as weak, embattled, poor cousins needing Diaspora donations – and impassioned letters to the editor – to survive. In fact, both communities are far stronger, more independent, and in some ways more interdependent than most Jews on either side of the Atlantic realize.

Fortunately, the survey uncovered a strong shaft of light bursting forth from this gloom. Nearly half the Israelis surveyed approved of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent announcement, shifting Israel-Diaspora policy away from promoting mass Aliyah. Instead, Olmert’s welcome move sought to improve Jewish education in Jewish communities, emphasizing Hebrew, Jewish culture and heritage, Jewish values, and strengthening the links between world Jewry and the State of Israel. This is a marvelous mutual agenda. Aside from Hebrew, which in Israel is thriving, Israeli Jews would also benefit by learning more about their culture, heritage, ethics, and fellow Jews. The failures of the Israeli educational system in most of these areas are as dismaying as the failures of the Diaspora Jewish educational system in these realms.

Prime Minister Olmert was right to first emphasize Hebrew. Hebrew remains the key to Jewish learning, offering entrée to two of the most fundamental Jewish experiences: attending synagogue and visiting the State of Israel. Of course, one can do either without knowing Hebrew, but mastering the language allows Jews to approach prayer in a more knowledgeable fashion and to approach Israel as insiders not outsiders, as brothers and sisters coming home not tourists visiting an exotic locale. It is lamentable that so many of this generation of Diaspora Jews have distanced themselves from Hebrew. Even many of the finest Jewish day schools in North America no longer emphasize Ivrit, fearing that their students will not be able to appreciate Judaism’s relevance if filtered through a “foreign language.” The rest of the world is appreciating the value of knowing multiple language – yet our parents and educators are spurning a great mind-expanding opportunity, fearful that their “bubbelehs” (all of whom during their bar and bat mitzvahs are hailed as geniuses) somehow won’t be able to cope with the second language.

Although the Israeli school system does a good job teaching Hebrew, both the religious and secular schools are far less effective in teaching a love of Judaism. Too much of the religious education emphasizes dos and don’ts rather than whys; too much of the secular system approaches Jewish studies as a laborious requirement to be endured rather than a blessed opportunity to be enriched.

Mutual salvation is possible here. Both Israelis and Diaspora Jews would benefit from a joint Jewish renaissance, a new commitment throughout the Jewish world to learning from each other about our past and our present to guarantee a more dynamic future. In this  — and so many other realms – birthright Israel has shown the way. The program offering free trips to Israel for young Diaspora Jews has a “Mifgash,” requirement, wherein young Israelis – and now, frequently Israeli soldiers – join the trips for a significant part. The initial motivation was to give Diaspora Jews a more authentic link to Israel; most of the Israelis who have participated have ended up experiencing their own reawakening. The Israeli Army Education branch has become an enthusiastic cheerleader for the program, seeing how it makes most Israeli soldiers absorb a keen sense of peoplehood, a newfound love of Judaism, and a deeper understanding that they are not just defending their homes but the Jewish people’s homeland. These successes reinforce Olmert’s essential insight – by taking responsibility for teaching Diaspora Jews, Israeli Jews will jumpstart their own process of becoming responsible and knowledgeable Jews.

Inevitably, much of the energy in developing this new chapter of Israel-Diaspora will focus on formal education – which certainly needs reforming. In the spirit of the Zionist youth movements that helped establish the state, informal education will also get attention. But in order for this renaissance to resonate most broadly, we need to think of a whole other dimension – that of popular culture, perhaps the most influential force in young Jewish lives today, be they in the Diaspora or in Israel.

Recently, I looked for some Hebrew books on Israeli history in a Jerusalem bookstore. “We don’t really have much of a selection,” the saleswoman said. “Really, in Barnes and Noble in New York there are shelves full of American history works for kids,” I replied. “We’re not just that patriotic,” the saleswoman replied with a world-weary sigh, despite being barely 25. This exchange illustrates the formidable challenge we face. We need to learn from American Girl, this extraordinary marketing colossus that has brilliantly fused inspiring stories from America’s past, the contemporary search for some “Girl Power” role models, and the crassest form of commercialism. We need to create a Hebrew-English Jewish Harry Potter, perhaps situated in Temple Times, plumbing the mysteries of Judaism in a delightful, compelling way. We need to mimic Disney, which so cleverly blurs shameless entertainment with education about science, history, geography.

This is not an endorsement of watered-down Judaism, whereby we create a pop Judaism as meaningless as the rest of modern popular culture. Rather, this is a call for an invigorated Jewish atmosphere, in Israel and the Diaspora, that harnesses the power of popular culture to redirect our youth, on both sides of the Atlantic toward meaningful interactions with our profoundly rich civilization. But just as Olmert’s strategy recognizes that we will only see a rise in Aliyah after we have seen a resurgence of education, we will not see that educational resurgence, until we get more young Jews to consider embracing their heritage, their people, their faith as their fundamental anchors in this tempest-tossed and trend-obsessed world.

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