Does Israel Represent All Jews?: The Great Debate

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A tension between Israeli and diaspora Jewry has been obvious since the founding of the state. And nowhere was that more apparent than in the epic exchanges between philanthropist Jacob Blaustein and Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. In this episode, Noam shows how their debate both animated and clarified so much about the divide between Diaspora Jewish leadership and Israeli Jewish leadership – even today.

Unpacking Israeli History about German reparations: https://jewishunpacked.com/the-great-debate-around-german-reparations/

Unpacking Israeli History about Entebbe: https://jewishunpacked.com/operation-thunderbolt-the-raid-on-entebbe/

Unpacking Israeli History about Operation Solomon: https://jewishunpacked.com/ingathering-of-exiles-from-ethiopia-to-israel/

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Episode Transcript

Three years ago, I attended the GA, the General Assembly, in Tel Aviv. The GA is a convention of a cross-section of leaders from Israeli and North American society, and specifically, “Leaders who are committed to tackling the challenges of the Israel-Diaspora relationship.” This is the gathering of leading Jewish organizations across the globe and the topic of this year’s conference was “We need to talk.” It’s the Jewish people, I am thinking, of course, we need to talk. We’re always talking! Why now? 

Well, the argument went, the divide between Israeli Jews and Jews living outside of Israel has never been so pronounced. Some of the headliners included then-President Reuven Rivlin, who spoke about the need to not just talk, but “to listen.” Jewish Agency Head (and now the president of Israel) Isaac “Boogie” Herzog did not mince any words, describing the tension between the communities as an “existential threat.” The former leader of the opposition in the Israeli government pointed out the irony that when the external existential threats have decreased, “we ourselves are endangering our own existence.” In his closing speech, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his greatest worry and a call to action, pleading to ensure “that every Jewish child in the world knows how proud they should be to be Jews.”

Listen, the reality is that Israelis and American Jews do not always see eye to eye on everything. In one of the sessions, a presenter asked to describe the relationship between Israelis and Americans. There were hundreds of people in the room and we were playing everyone’s favorite game, no not Mario Kart, we played Kahoot of course! 

Whereas 59% (!) of the audience described the relationship between the two as wounded, only 7% (!) said that the relationship was thriving.

As a history nerd, I kept on thinking, WHY IS NO ONE TALKING ABOUT THE BLAUSTEIN-BEN GURION EXCHANGE OF 1950? It might be comforting to know that this isn’t a new struggle. We’re not the first generation of Jews to have an uneasy relationship with our status in the Diaspora — or our relationship to Israel. The divide, tension, whatever we call it, between Israeli and diaspora Jewry has been obvious since the founding of the state.

Yet, I agree with the conveners of the conference, and I agree there is certainly tension between the communities. We need to work on it. 

Like, here are some recent stats to pay attention to. Ready? Here we go.

60% of Jews overall say they have a lot or some in common with Jews in Israel. Orthodox Jews (91%) are more likely than Conservative Jews (77%), Reform Jews (61%) or those who don’t identify with any branch (39%) to express this feeling.

 Two-thirds of Jews ages 65 and older say that they are very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel, compared with 48% of those ages 18 to 29.

Those are some difficult numbers to swallow. And in the Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explains, this is a quote I really love: “The process of converting pluribus (diverse people) into unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle.”

For the Jewish people, the question becomes, will the Jewish people perform this very miracle?

Why is the Blaustein-Ben Gurion exchange one of the most critical conversations to take place amongst leaders of the Jewish world? And how can their debate both animate and clarify so much about the divide between Diaspora Jewish leadership and Israeli Jewish leadership?

Well, as always, we have to go back. I’m thinking, this time, to America, in 1948.

It’s not controversial to say that Jews in America have had it relatively good. The 1940s and 50s were, to put it lightly, not a good time for most of world Jewry. But by and large, American Jews did okay, despite anti-Jewish quotas all over the place: including Ivy League schools, many suburban neighborhoods, and country clubs. And yet, though they were succeeding and integrating into American society, many American Jews clung tenaciously to their American identity. They were American. Full stop. End of sentence. No hyphen. Sure, a few certainly flocked to Israel as soon as they possibly could, taking up arms against the Arab armies who attacked the young state in 1948. But according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, fewer than two thousand North American Jews emigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1950.

And why should they? They were Americans. This position was reiterated by the American Jewish Committee, a Jewish advocacy organization dedicated to promoting civil rights for Jews all over the world. In 1949, the AJC released the following statement:

“We hold the establishment of the State of Israel to be an event of historic significance. We applaud its recognition by our own and other governments… [but now here comes the important part] Citizens of the United States are Americans and citizens of Israel are Israelis…  Within the framework of American interests, we shall aid in the upbuilding of Israel…”

Notice that language? The AJC’s position was clear from the outset: Israelis are Israelis, Americans are Americans, and American support for Israel should be expressed “within the framework of American interests.”

An understandable position… to American Jews. But Israeli Jews? The Israeli government? What did they think about this stance?

Well… it’s complicated.

Though it certainly wasn’t complicated for everyone. The founder of Revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, famously said in 1937 “Eliminate the diaspora, or it will surely eliminate you” — a remark that proved oddly prescient in the aftermath of WWII.

Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, was no fan of Jabotinsky. Like, really not a fan. Nerd corner alert!: Before Jabotinsky died, his last dying wish was to be buried in Israel once there is a Jewish state. Ben-Gurion flatly denied the request, blithely saying: “The Land needs living Jews – not dead bones.” That’s cold.

But it’s hard to say that he didn’t agree, at least somewhat, with Jabotinsky’s stance. Like many of Israel’s early leaders, Ben Gurion was determined to shake off the dust of the diaspora. Ben Gurion’s passion for Israel, and his distaste for the Diaspora, was a little less palatable to non-Israeli Jews. For example, Ben Gurion passionately believed that Israel must absorb Jewish immigrants, no matter what. But non-Israeli Jews who had no intention of moving to Israel took umbrage at being characterized as what he called “exiles of the spirit of Israel dispersed in the Diaspora”, who needed to be “gathered” back home. 

Ben Gurion certainly wasn’t the only Israeli politician who felt this way. His foreign minister, Golda Meir, a Russian-born American citizen, was no stranger to the discontents of diaspora life. In her autobiography, she wrote of a potential attack by antisemites before making aliyah:

“…to this day I remember how scared I was and how angry that all my father could do to protect me was to nail a few planks together while we waited for the hooligans to come. And above all I was aware that this was happening to me because I was Jewish…”

So when Golda Meir sailed to Palestine in 1921, she did so knowing she was never going back. There was nothing for her back in Milwaukee, and even less for her back in Kiev. Through her long career — as foreign minister, and later as Prime Minister — she was unwavering in her love for Israel, because “Above all, this country is our own. Nobody has to get up in the morning and worry what his neighbors think of him. Being a Jew is no problem here.”

And she spent her entire career believing herself — and all Israelis — to represent and speak for Jews the world over — in particular, the long-suffering Soviet Jews, whose fate she so easily could have shared. And she truly believed that the modern state of Israel was a necessity for the preservation of the Jewish people. In a 1948 speech she gave in Chicago, she said “If these 700,000 Jews in Palestine can remain alive, then the Jewish people as such is alive, and Jewish independence is assured. If these 700,000 people are killed off, then for many centuries, we are through with this dream of a Jewish people and a Jewish homeland.”

Do you see that link she’s making? The Jews in Palestine were “the Jewish people.” They guaranteed “Jewish independence.” Not Diaspora Jews. Israeli Jews. Without them, the Jewish people would not survive.

She maintained this unapologetic stance even when addressing men in power. When Henry Kissinger informed her that he was – in this order – an American, then Secretary of State, and only third a Jew, Golda Meir replied, “That’s fine — in Hebrew, people read from right to left” — a tongue-in-cheek expression of a dead-serious sentiment. For her, a Jew was first a Jew — and then an American, or a Russian, or a freaking Martian. And there was no better place for a Jew to be a Jew than in their homeland, Israel.

You can understand why some American Jews didn’t love this rather condescending perspective, from their perch.

Chief among these Jews was Jacob Blaustein, a fabulously wealthy industrialist and president of the American Jewish Committee. I’m not sure if this is a nerd corner, but it is fun: Blaustein was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and I too grew up in Baltimore. Hey, check that out. But unfortunately, the fabulously wealthy part didn’t spill over to me too. Anyway, Blaustein’s money and connections — including his warm relationship with President Truman — perhaps insulated him from the fears of Jews, like Golda Meir, who had grown up in far less friendly diasporas. 

It’s not a secret that Israel’s heads of state had appealed, repeatedly, to wealthy American Jews to use their money and connections in support of Israel. That speech that Golda gave in Chicago in 1948? She was on a fundraising trip, returning from the States with $50 million in aid, double what she had expected to raise. Blaustein, someone who defined himself as a non-Zionist (not pro or anti), himself had leveraged his considerable wealth and clout for the young state — first convincing Ben Gurion to accept the UN’s partition plan in 1947 because he thought it was the only practible solution for some hundreds of thousands of surviving Jews of Europe.” then lobbying the US government to send Israel a loan to finance its massive waves of immigration; and later helping to negotiate West Germany’s reparations payments to Israel in the 1950s. (For more on that story, and it’s a real doozy, check out our episode on German Reparations, the link is in the show notes.)

But Blaustein was firm on two things: One, American Jews are not “exiles.” Even Rose Halperin, who was the president of Hadassah and was proud American Zionist, said the same thing: “We do not accept the concept that we are in exile. Jews are in exile where they live in fear or in torture.” And two, like it or not, Israeli politicians do not speak for all Jews. Blaustein declared, “There can be no single spokesman for world Jewry no matter who that spokesman might try to be.” This was important enough to Blaustein, and to the AJC, to be enshrined into an official statement crafted in partnership with David Ben Gurion.

In 1950, after significant Cabinet deliberation, the two men met in Israel to affirm their understanding of the relationship between Israel and the United States. Ben Gurion’s remarks were an unequivocal rejection of his former attitude:

“The Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment and that is to the United States of America. They owe no political allegiance to Israel…

We, the people of Israel, have no desire and no intention to interfere in any way with the internal affairs of Jewish communities abroad. The Government and the people of Israel fully respect the right and integrity of the Jewish communities in other countries to develop their own mode of life and their indigenous social, economic and cultural institutions in accordance with their own needs and aspirations. Any weakening of American Jewry, any disruption of its communal life, any lowering of its status, is a definite loss to Jews everywhere and to Israel in particular.”

Blaustein, for his part, congratulated Israel on all it had achieved, but reaffirmed that American Jews were, first and foremost, American. “American Jews vigorously repudiate any suggestion or implication that they are in exile. American Jews — young and old alike, Zionists and non-Zionists alike — are profoundly attached to America.” He drove the point home: “To American Jews, America is home. There, exist their thriving roots; there is the country which they have helped to build; and there, they share its fruits and its destiny.”

But…in the years to come, Ben Gurion seemed to “forget” their joint statement, including the very important fact that Israel does not represent world Jewry. In December of 1960, Blaustein wrote to Ben Gurion, and he seemed pretty annoyed. Let me quote you his letter, in my best Baltimore accent – nah, I’m not going to do it:

During past months…there have been a number of definitive violations of your August 1950 Statement. These departures are causing serious embarrassments and consequences. They are again opening up the furor that was existing at the time in 1950 when we got together and resolved the Statement we then issued. American, Canadian, and English Jewries are up in arms about these violations, and I think I should tell you that some are charging me with having been naive in ever having accepted the August 1950 Statement as bona fide. Some of the violations to which I refer are as follows:

2) General Moshe Dayan’s incomprehensible March 9, 1960 statement in Canada that “his government should not only represent the people of Israel, but the interests of all Jews.”

3) And Foreign Minister Golda Meir’s reply to the delegation of the Anglo-Jewish Association which resulted in the startling headlines in the Jewish National Post (April 15, 1960): “Israel will continue to speak for Jewry.” . . . I assure you that if you wish your country to retain its friendships—at a time when you sorely need them—it is essential that you promptly correct the wrong impression to which I have referred. . . .

Out of my closeness to you, I feel I can venture to say that you cannot expect diplomatic and financial cooperation from even friends, including me, when understandings with them, and principles dear to them, are violated or ignored.

These positions were clearly rendered untenable and irrelevant by historical events. Israel captured Nazi War criminal Adolf Eichmann, and prosecuted him on behalf of the Jewish people, for crimes committed before Israel was a state. With due respect, none of this could have been done by the distinguished Mr. Blaustein and his colleagues. Israel did not “confine itself” to discussions as he would have wished. Israel and American Jewry were partners in the liberation of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews. These rescues would not have been possible without this partnership. However, the awakening of Russian Jewry was probably due to the victory of the Six Day War, an achievement that only a state could accomplish.

In response to Blaustein’s strong letter, in April of 1961, Blaustein and Ben Gurion issued a joint statement, in which they reiterated that both sides felt strongly about keeping the 1950 agreement. However, the question lingers, and I don’t feel like we have a satisfactory answer – do you?

So, there you have it. Here are your five fast facts about The Diaspora Debate: Ben Gurion versus Blaustein:

  1. So much of Jewish history involves Jews feeling like outsiders in the country where they live. But in America, by the 1940s and 50s, American Jews were doing okay and Jewish American leadership did not want to be viewed as having dual loyalty.
  2. While Jews in other diaspora communities began making aliyah in huge numbers, fewer than two thousand North American Jews emigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1950.
  3. The AJC, led by Jacob Blaustein, made their position clear: Israelis are Israelis, Americans are Americans, and American support for Israel should be expressed “within the framework of American interests.”
  4. Ben Gurion, and other Israeli politicians, disagreed. They felt strongly that Jews were, first and foremost, Jew, and that the future of the Jewish people was in Israel. So, American or not, allegiance must be to Israel first.
  5. Ultimately, Ben Gurion began to follow the party line, probably in part to get the philanthropic dollars that Blaustein and his fellow wealthy American Jews would share in exchange.

So, those are the facts. Here is one enduring lesson as I see it.  We can say, that’s the end of the story. Two powerful men eventually came to an agreement, and made some flowery statements in front of a bunch of other powerful political players. American Jews remained American, Israeli Jews remained Israeli, and we all went home satisfied.

Of course, seen another way, it’s only the beginning of the story. Because this conversation didn’t end in 1951. It’s still raging, 70 years later.

To be Jewish in the Diaspora is to get increasingly familiar with ideological contortions. On the one hand, we’re citizens of the United States or the UK or Australia or wherever. We vote. We pay taxes. We participate in public life and advocate for political causes we care about.

And, on the other hand, we do feel a keen interest in what happens in Israel — and not just because some hooligans find their dislike of some Israeli policies to be an excellent excuse to unleash their anti-Semitism.

We, Diaspora Jews: we go on Birthright. We study abroad in Israel. Some of us have family there. Even if we speak crappy Hebrew, or no Hebrew at all, we often get unreasonably excited when we hear it being spoken in the street. Maybe we’ve only really felt seen by Israeli pop culture, which defines and depicts Judaism as more than neuroses, bagels, and Yiddishisms. Maybe we pray facing Jerusalem. Maybe we grieve on Tisha B’Av, because it marked the start of our exile.

It’s also more than that. When I look back at the history of Entebbe, plug to our earlier episode, the history of Operation Solomon, plug to our earlier episode, the history of Soviet Jewry, check out our Youtube channel for that one, can we really honestly not say that the State of Israel has a vested interest in what happens to Jews outside of the Land of Israel? When Jews are in danger, anywhere in the world, Israeli leaders feel it is their responsibility.

On this, there is no debate, and let’s acknowledge the very real accountability Israel has for all world Jews. But, it does not stop there, because it is, of course, more complicated. 

Does the connection we feel to Israel, and the Jewish people, mean that the government of Israel speaks in our name? Ben Gurion said in 1950 that the government of Israel wouldn’t try to speak for all Jews. He reiterated this statement in a 1956 letter to Blaustein, who had expressed “concern” over a few of the Prime Minister’s later statements. Ben Gurion clarified “I am myself an unrepentant Zionist… For me, Zionism means to live in Israel, and personally to build there our new Jewish independent life… But other Zionists are entitled to their own interpretations of Zionism, just as Jews in different countries (and even in the same one) are free to hold varying views on what constitutes Jewishness.” I am still not certain Ben Gurion truly felt this way. When American Jews called themselves Zionists, Ben Gurion sarcastically smirked. 

And all of this makes me wonder. With antisemitism on the rise in America, will this be different? ADL’s most recent Audit of Antisemitic Incidents in the United States recorded more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. This is the highest level of antisemitic incidents since ADL’s tracking began in 1979.

We, American Jews, grew up in the shadow of 9/11, which threatened big targets. Israeli Jews grew up in the shadow of the intifada, whose aim was to sow terror, daily, by attacking soft targets, like buses and movie theaters and nightclubs.

We live in a country of mind-boggling size, dispersed among nearly four million square miles. Israelis live in a country the size of New Jersey. (Everyone who has taken even one hasbara course knows that one.) They can cross it, top to bottom, in six hours. But there’s a sense of warmth and immediacy that we just don’t have in our enormous country.

And it continues. If we Diaspora Jews serve in an army, it is generally by choice. Not so for Israelis. And — depending on where we live — most of us Diaspora Jews enjoy the luxury of fixed borders. Stability. We know when we’re crossing from one province to another. We know the land where we live is unlikely to change hands anytime soon. Israelis do not have that security.

We can list the differences all day. They’re mostly illustrative, anyway — meant to underscore the fact that it’s OK for Israelis and Americans to advocate for, and believe in, different things.

But either way, how can any one country represent or speak for millions of people? Even just representing your own citizens feels impossible sometimes! Take a look at America right now. Does it seem like 100% of our fellow citizens feel represented by the government? That’s a rhetorical question, obviously.

So why place the burden on Israel to speak for all Jews? And why place the burden on all Jews to feel represented by Israel?

Perhaps the best we can do is acknowledge that the question of whether any one institution can represent us is flattening. It steamrolls nuance. It erases the validity of our millions of perspectives. 

Maybe instead the question we should be asking ourselves is what unites us? Or what divides us? Or which of our gaps do we need to bridge?

I’m going to guarantee that there are no easy answers to any of these questions. But I’m really heartened. I am heartened by the accountability Israel feels for world Jewry. I am heartened to live in a country which has overall been a dream place to live as a Jew. I am heartened by my awareness of history, and that for almost 2,000 years, whether Jews had it good or bad, it was always subject to the whims of the leaders, and with a State of Israel now in play, that is just not something Jewish people have to be worried about. And I am also heartened  by Ben Gurion’s words from 1956. We’re all free to hold varying opinions on what constitutes Jewishness. And for the rabbinic sages who appear in the Talmud, isn’t that debate — that dissension — the most Jewish thing of all?

Indeed, with 7.5 million Jews living in America and nearly 7 million Jews living in Israel, one thing remains clear. The future of world Jewry depends on the ability for these two communities to continue having exchanges, not for one to displace the other, and most importantly, for these two communities to do what seems to be too hard at times, root for each other.

—-

Thank you all for listening. If you haven’t yet, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And help us grow this podcast community, by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts.

Now it’s time for our final segment, Israel Nerd Talk, where we highlight one of you, our amazing listeners. We get the best emails from you guys, and we want to share them with the world. This week, I want to highlight an awesome letter from Lauren:

Your podcasts are great. I’m looking forward to listening to more, particularly about contemporary subjects. The energy, research, passion and intelligence you and your staff bring to each video/podcast is fabulous.

Job well done. May Unpacked go from strength to strength.

Lauren, I want to tell you why I really love this letter. Because you called out something that I think we forget about often. Each podcast is a labor of love for me – but I’m not alone. I have a freaking amazing team behind me, working just as hard as me, maybe even harder. And in this month of the holidays, where we like to introspect, and we need to introspect, I want to call that out explicitly. If you like this show, then you like the entire team here at Unpacked, especially those who work so hard on Unpacking Israeli History. So, thank you, Lauren, for the letter, and for recognizing that. If you, listeners, if you also have thoughts, comments, suggestions, ruminations, whatever to share, don’t hesitate, be like Lauren! Send us a message at podcasts@jewishunpacked.com.

Unpacking Israeli History is a production of Unpacked, a division of OpenDor Media. Check out jewishunpacked.com for everything Unpacked-related, and subscribe to our other podcasts. Follow Unpacked at all the social media places, like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – just look for @JewishUnpacked. And again, write to us at podcasts@jewishunpacked.com – your email might even get on the show.

This episode was produced by Rivky Stern. Our team for this episode includes Adi Elbaz, Baruch Goldberg, and Rob Pera. I’m your host, Noam Weissman. Thanks for listening, see you next week!

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