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MAY 19, 2006
A case for Jewish synergy

NOBEL prizes have been given for less” – these are the words used by the trendy New York Village Voice to describe the masterful prose of Israeli author AB Yehoshua. Recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize, Yehoshua is almost universally regarded as a literary giant of the Hebrew language.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Yehoshua’s ultra-Zionist speech to the centennial meeting of the American Jewish Committee in Washington last week has stirred up a storm both in Israel and among Jews in the Diaspora. His messages – that only in Israel can one experience the “totality” of being Jewish and that Diaspora Jews “change their nationalities like jackets” – have elicited harsh condemnation, alongside a bit of support, around the Jewish world.

Yehoshua has since apologised for the tone of his remarks – but not for their essence. In his defence, Yehoshua stated that he has been saying exactly the same thing for decades. But in life, as Yehoshua well knows, timing is everything.

Indeed, in his seminal 1980 non-fiction book/essay In Favour of Normalcy, which was a bestseller in Israel but largely ignored elsewhere, Yehoshua made plain his utter negation of the Jewish Diaspora. Describing Jewish life outside Israel as “neurotic” by its very nature, Yehoshua stated, in no uncertain terms, “the most astonishing and amazing thing is that the terrible Holocaust, that had its roots in the existence of the Diaspora, did not destroy the Diaspora virus among the people”.

Only in Israel, he insists, can one be absolutely Jewish. Jewish life abroad, by its very definition, suffers from a split personality, existing as it does concurrently in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world.

A hundred years ago, or even 50, Yehoshua’s message would have been wildly applauded at any Zionist conference. Indeed, it reflects the thinking of many Zionist leaders to this very day. Nonetheless, in the 58 years of Israel’s existence, a new status quo has developed between Israel and the Diaspora, not least of which because Israel was in need of financial support and dependent, to a large degree, on the political clout of American Jewry.

THE numbers, at least, are on Yehoshua’s side. The only place in the world that the Jewish population is growing – outside of Germany, which is replenishing its stock of Jews from countries of the former Soviet Union – is in Israel. In the Diaspora, Jewish population is in decline, and even Australia, as reported in the AJN this week, is facing long-term danger. In Israel, no doubt, the possibilities of assimilation are very narrow.

At the same time, Yehoshua is a fifth-generation sabra whose only meaningful time abroad was spent in Paris, not a particularly user-friendly city for Jews. Yehoshua thus has no first-hand knowledge of the fullness of Jewish life that can exist in a community such as Australia’s, which lives among a tolerant, even welcoming, Christian majority. And Yehoshua’s self-confessed estrangement from the Jewish religion denies him any appreciation of the beauty and wholeness of a healthy and vibrant Jewish community, such as Australia’s, and of the potential “totality” of a Jewish life that centres around family, synagogue, school, community centre, organisation and, above all, love of Israel.

Yehoshua, who regards Judaism as a nationality more than a religion, must also confront the sad fact that while traditional Jewish life in the Diaspora is thriving, it is denigrated by many Israelis, mainly because of the ill-conceived fusion between religion and politics. Jewish ritual and tradition, which have maintained Judaism through two millennia of Diaspora survival, have fallen into disrepute among large segments of the secular public.

Yehoshua should be commended for whipping up such controversy, for he has raised fundamental issues relating to the age-old debates over “who is a Jew” and “what is a Jew”, as well as the worrying decline of Jewish populations in the Diaspora.

We submit, however, that he is mistaken in his basic outlook, for as he himself acknowledges in his apology, the Jewish people are one, whether in Israel or abroad. Unfortunately, his words reflect the often one-sided nature of the relations between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, with the latter proclaiming their undying allegiance but the former, more often than not, indifferent and even antagonistic.

Rather than promoting division and strife, the Jewish people should concentrate on their own uniqueness and unity and promote the synergy of their two parts, so that their sum is even greater than their formidable but sometimes separate selves.

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Editorial: May 19, 2006
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