The sins we confess on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are mostly in the plural: not “I sinned,” but “we sinned.” Even if we’re not personally guilty, as humans and as Jews, we’re all responsible. As the High Holidays are approaching, it seems appropriate to point to at least some of our collective sins that darken the horizon of the Jewish people at this time, and to ask ourselves how to atone for them.
The growing estrangement between Israel and the Diaspora is, today, arguably our most serious collective sin as Jews. Whereas the Jewish state had become the force that bound most Jews to each other and Judaism after the Holocaust, helping us recover from the trauma, today, Israel seems to make for separation and alienation. It’s alarming.
Serving congregations in Britain and Canada, I saw it as one of my challenges not only to teach about the State of Israel – its language, history and achievements – but also to bring as many Jews as possible to the country to help imbue them with the spirit of Jewish renewal as manifest in Jewish statehood. I’m not sure that this still works. Most of the visitors I see on the streets of Jerusalem nowadays are Christian pilgrims and tourists from the Far East.
Even Birthright Israel, the project that for years successfully exposed thousands of young Jews to the miracle that is modern Israel, seems to be going sour, as reflected, for example, in some participants leaving their groups to meet with Palestinians.
Consistent with the ethos of collective responsibility, both Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora should feel personally addressed. Those in power in Israel should desist from preferring to associate with Christian evangelicals, of whom there are many, more than with Jewish liberals, some of whom may identify as Conservative and Reform Jews. In turn, it behooves Jews in the Diaspora to resist assimilation and stand up to the growing anti-Semitism around them.
Lack of Jewish commitment is also one of the causes of the alarming rate of intermarriage in the Diaspora. Most Jewish-born partners in such unions don’t seem to want their children to be Jews. As a result, their non-Jewish spouses see no reason to explore, let alone embrace, Judaism.
Bearing in mind that about half of the Jews in the world live outside Israel, to lose most of them would be tragic. Elsewhere in The CJN, I’ve ventured to suggest a radical approach to bridge the gap between the Jewish state and the Jewish Diaspora. Here are further comments:
Israelis must show that they affirm Jews from abroad, and not only when they make aliyah. When Reform and Conservative Jews are marginalized and liberal Jews questioned by police as potential traitors – the experience of Peter Beinart, the distinguished American Jewish journalist and critic, being interrogated at Ben Gurion International Airport when he came to celebrate a family simcha, is one of too many recent incidents – diaspora Jews are no longer sure that they’re wanted in the Jewish state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that it was a mistake to quiz Beinart isn’t enough to dispel the unease.
And when Jews in the Diaspora threaten to cut ties with Israel and cease to contribute to worthy causes there, they’re de facto colluding with those who try to keep them out. Thus when, for example, Britain’s Dame Vivien Duffield, who is said to have been one of Israel’s biggest donors, declared recently, “My Israel is dead,” she came to reflect the tragedy of the Diaspora losing its bearings.
Our challenge during these High Holidays, across denominational and ideological divides, is to do our utmost to make sure that Israel is alive and central to all Jews, wherever they may be. To paraphrase Ehud Manor’s famous song, as Jews we have no other country than Israel that’s our own. And Israel has no better ally than the Jews of the Diaspora.