Israeli-American Dialogue on Jewish Identity
The tension in the room was palpable as 15 Israeli and American staff members at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin gathered to discuss their Jewish identities. Up for discussion this time: Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua’s controversial 2006 comment that if “in 100 years Israel will exist, and I will come to the Diaspora [and] there will not be ... [any] Jews, I would say it’s normal. I will not cry for it.”
Addie Gellman Chomsky, 18, an American Jew from Ohio, could barely hide her disgust. “Being an American Jew is a huge part of my identity. My dad is a cantor in a conservative synagogue, and I love it,” she passionately explained to her Israeli counterparts.
Despite Addie’s best efforts, some of the Israelis could not understand her point. “It’s weird to me that you have both your loyalty to America and to Israel,” said Rama Shifron, 21, a first-year Israeli staff member who recently finished her national service. “If I was a non-Jew who saw your loyalty to Israel, I would think you were a traitor.”
There was an awkward pause.
“If you love Israel, why don’t you come here?” echoed Inbal Ben-Menachem, 20, a first-year Israeli staff member set to join the IDF in several months’ time.
These types of exchanges reccurred over the eight weeks during which I conducted dialogue groups at Camp Ramah’s summer camp. In spite of the goal of generating a shared understanding that would reveal a common mission to Israeli and American Jews, many discussions left participants hurt and even more skeptical of the other side than when they entered the room.
This was not, of course, the first time frustration has been born of the debate over Israel’s centrality and the Diaspora’s relevance. Tension has plagued the relationship between American and Israeli Jews since the establishment of the State of Israel. At the 1951 World Zionist Congress, a mere three years after the State’s founding, an impassioned Golda Meir told the delegates, “Why are we not allowed to say that after the emergence of the State a Zionist is only he who packs his bags and comes to Israel? One must not acquiesce in the idea that the Diaspora will be permanent.” An angry Hadassah president, Rose Halpern, retorted, “The concept of golah [exile] connotes coercion. It does not apply to us [American Jews] and we refuse to accept it.”
Sixty years later, the debate still haunts the relationship between American and Israeli Jews. It continues to linger, suggests Gidon Shimoni of Hebrew University, because it goes to the core of our respective Jewish identities. “One pole asserts the primacy of Jewish life in the State of Israel over Jewish life anywhere else,” he writes. “The opposite pole asserts the intrinsically equal value of Jewish life in Israel and Jewish life in the Diaspora, particularly in the United States.”
If the unrepresentative sample of Jews at Camp Ramah is any indication, the pull of the polls may be weakening. Despite the frustration, and for all of the polemics about the centrality of Israel and viability of the Diaspora, there were an almost equal number of more nuanced and respectful exchanges. For a good number of the Americans, Israel was indeed at the center of their Jewish identity. This vocal group, of which many had spent significant time in Israel, valued integrating the complex issues of Israeli society into their lives as Jews.
Of the Israelis, a vocal minority didn’t see the Israel-Diaspora divide in such black and white terms, and more began to allow for shades of gray as the groups progressed. For example, at the beginning of the sessions, Yaakov Levi demanded that every Jew make aliyah to Israel. During the second session, one of the Americans turned to him and said, “What if you were constantly told to leave for a place where you have a special connection. Would you leave your family and your previous life behind?”
After spending a moment deep in thought, he shook his head. “No. I wouldn’t make aliyah.”
Several of the Israelis even found American Jewish life superior to Jewish life in Israel. Merav Binyamin, 22, candidly told her group that “in many ways, American Jews are much more ‘Jewish’ than Israeli Jews. There’s a level of tolerance and openness and acceptance that Israeli Judaism just doesn’t have.”
It seems that we have embarked on the project of building a united Am Yisrael that will use the values of Torah to enlighten our own people and the peoples of the world. For thousands of years, this project has been our calling. We must not allow polemics like Yehoshua’s to distract us from our mission.
Avi Herring is a Junior at the joint program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he is majoring in Middle Eastern Studies and Modern Jewish Studies. He is also managing editor of The Current, Columbia University’s undergraduate journal of politics, culture and Jewish affairs.