Jews in the Diaspora are increasingly at odds with mainstream Israel in a replay of the timeless Jewish challenge of finding the right balance between particularism and universalism.
Jews in the diaspora are increasingly at odds with mainstream Israel concerning crucial issues affecting the future of the Jewish people. These include the path to Arab-Israeli peace, African infiltrators in Israel, the rapid growth of Muslim communities in the West and the Iran nuclear deal.
Recently, Jewish leaders in the United States met with leaders of Qatar, despite opposition from Israel. Qatar is financially supporting the anti-Semitic terrorist group Hamas and is the home of the bigoted, anti-Israel Al Jazeera media network.
At the core of these disagreements is a replay of the timeless challenge for the Jewish people – finding the right balance between particularism and universalism. When taken to the extreme, particularism isolates the Jewish people, while universalism erodes Jewish identity and thereby a Jewish future.
During the Hellenistic occupation, the Jews of ancient Judea were divided between those who embraced Greek culture and those who sought to maintain Jewish tradition and culture.
Today, many young liberal Western Jews embrace universalism, at the expense of their Jewish identity. The result is already visible in the staggering intermarriage rates and rapid assimilation among young non-Orthodox diaspora Jews. Mainstream Israeli Jews in contrast, remain committed to Jewish nationhood and a thriving Hebrew culture, while embracing wide interaction with the outside world.
As a consequence, while diaspora Jewry is aging and in decline, Israel’s Jewish population is growing and is already the largest Jewish community in the world.
Modern Israel and US Jewry both evolved in opposition to traditional Jewish ghetto life in Europe and in the Muslim world. US Reform Judaism and modern political Zionism are both children of nineteenth century Jewish Enlightenment, also known as the Haskalah.
They were driven however, by two fundamentally different visions. Reform Jewry evolved out of the vision of the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who favored increased integration of Jews among gentile majorities. Mendelssohn’s pro-integration model gradually became a slippery slope that led to rapid assimilation among Western Jews in Europe and in the United States.
By contrast, Eastern European Jewish Zionists advocated a Jewish revival that combined embracing modernity with the reestablishment of a Jewish national homeland in Israel.
Many diaspora Jews are only attracted by Jewish values, such as tikkun olam (repairing the world) that can be interpreted in a way that fits their embrace of cosmopolitan universalism over national particularism. They also increasingly criticize Israel and Zionism for “extreme” tribalism.
Israel, on the other hand, is following in the footsteps of Hillel, one of the most important thinkers in Jewish history. Hillel’s timeless philosophy: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” sits very well with many Israelis, contrary to pro-assimilation Jews in the diaspora.
This does not mean that Israel is not firmly committed to the Jewish spirit of repairing the world, tikkun olam as well. In his new book Thou Shalt Innovate, the entrepreneur Avi Jorisch highlights remarkable stories of Israeli innovation and inspiration that have positively affected millions of people around the world.
Despite its flaws, Israel strives to be a light onto the nations. The tiny Jewish state is playing a disproportionate role in feeding the hungry, protecting the defenseless and curing the sick well beyond its borders. David Ben-Gurion’s dream of making deserts bloom for example, has been realized not only in Israel but also around the world, thanks to the ingenuity of Israeli drip irrigation technologies.
The Jewish state is hardly a nation that dwells alone. Quite the contrary. Israel is frequently among the first countries to send crucial humanitarian aid to people in need from Haiti to Syria, from Texas to Nepal. In fact, Israel should be a source of inspiration for other countries regarding what can be accomplished when you combine a big heart with dedicated work and ingenuity.
The modern state of Israel though, was established with the clear purpose of providing a national homeland for the Jewish people, where its culture and traditions could be nourished and maintained. Only in Israel are Jews masters of their own destiny as a nation. Only in Israel can the Jewish people defend itself by itself.
We live in an era that officially embraces diversity, but in reality increasingly imposes post-nationalist conformity on the West. The love for one’s nation is frequently demonized as “racism” by the international left, which claims monopoly on human rights.
The late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin embodied Zionism’s harmony between particularism and universalism. Begin was an unapologetic Zionist, patriot and champion of Jewish national freedom. His selfless humanism embraced both Jewish nationhood and empathy for non-Jews.
In the late 1970s, Menachem Begin offered Israeli citizenship to Vietnamese boat refugees that had nowhere to go. It was also Begin who welcomed thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. For the first time in history, people were brought out of Africa not to be sold into slavery but to freedom, as equals.
Zionism is an inspiring success story that embraces Jewish national freedom with a universal compassion for humanity.
Daniel Kryger is a writer and a political analyst. He lives in Israel.
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