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Diasporism: A poor man’s Judaism

Life outside Israel negates the vaunted messaging of the Prophets, whose writings are hardcore Zionist.

The Elah Valley in southern Israel near the ancient ruin of Adullam. Credit: David Bena via Wikimedia Commons.
The Elah Valley in southern Israel near the ancient ruin of Adullam. Credit: David Bena via Wikimedia Commons.
Yisrael Medad
Yisrael Medad is a researcher, analyst and opinion commentator on political, cultural and media issues.

The clash between devotion to the Diaspora and the yearning for the Land of Israel is not a new phenomenon. In the period between the end of the 18th century to the beginning of World War II and the Holocaust, there were four classic categories of Jews (besides the outright assimilationists) seeking to reject the centrality of the historic Jewish homeland and all that that entailed in a practical and theoretical sense while justifying remaining in the lands of exile.

With the onset of the Enlightenment, the Haskalah, in the mid-to-late 18th century, a break with the Jew’s religious component led, perhaps unintentionally, to a preference for Diaspora community life even while the Land of Israel was treated with respect, if tinged with romanticism as in Avraham Mapu’s novels. It eventually led to a promotion of cultural assimilation.

With the rise of the Hibbat Tzion movement, coupled with the political activity of Theodor Herzl and the Zionist movement, came two Diaspora-centered reactions. One was that of the Marxist Bund, which adopted the concept of Doiykait (Hereness in Yiddish) laced with a strong anti-nationalist position. The second was the extreme ultra-Orthodox rejection of this new “false messianism” as voiced by the Teitlebaum dynasty, first of Sighet and later of Satmar, as well as the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (“the Rashab”). Rejecting Zionism, they held back their followers and those they influenced from leaving Europe before it was too late.

A third trend was pushed by Shimon Dubnow. Realizing, as a result of the Russian pogroms during the last quarter of the 19th century, that his dream of a universalistic, scientifically detached reality was damned, he moved to adopt a truncated nationalist conception of Jewish identity based on community autonomy. As the YIVO Encyclopedia describes his thinking, Jewish social institutions would serve as substitutes for a state being quasi-political forms that were a manifestation of Judaism’s ability to transcend the usual physical requirements of nationhood. Dubnow’s life ended when he was shot in the Riga ghetto.

The fourth was that of the Reform Movement until 1937. Zion was erased from the prayer books. As Jonathan Sarna notes, Reform Rabbis protested efforts aimed at Jewish colonization of Palestine at the 1869 Philadelphia Conference of Reform Rabbis voting for a resolution that “the Messianic goal of Israel is not the restoration of the old Jewish state … but the union of all men as the children of God.” Later, hundreds of Reform Rabbis lobbied U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 to refrain from backing the League of Nations’ decision to reconstitute the historic Jewish national home in Palestine. It was only in 1937, when the Columbus Platform was adopted, that they recognized the “promise [of] … the rehabilitation of Palestine” and “the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland … a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.”

All had felt that Zionism promoted a negative view of Jewish existence in the lands of the exile (or that there even was an exile) and the purpose for a Jewish existence and could not agree that the Diaspora was doomed to failure. The Holocaust provided its own horrific solution to their ideological fantasizing, although the Satanic portrayal of Zionism and Israel as formulated in the tome VaYoel Moshe continues.

And yet, Diasporism has begun again.

From IfNotNow, which is “commit[ed] to grappling together with apartheid, Zionism and the State of Israel,” to Jewish Voice for Peace to Na’amod, there is a significant groundswell among Jewish youth. A Diasporic revival was noted in 2018, and we are told it is being embraced. The new buzzword is “portable.” Pro-Diasporic views are the subject of a 2021 academic thesis. Daniel Boyarin has a No-State Solution, as does Peter Beinart who, as of 2020, no longer believes in a Jewish state.

Now, there is Shaul Magid’s new book with the accompanying New York Times effusive treatment, which asked: “Is Israel Part of What It Means to Be Jewish?” It points out that “some progressive Jews are … reimagining their faith as one that blesses their lives in America and elsewhere.”

Magid’s volume, to quote his publisher, now “challenges us to consider the price of diminishing or even erasing the exilic character of Jewish life.” The book, The Necessity of Exile, views exile “as a positive stance for constructive Jewish engagement with Israel/Palestine, antisemitism, diaspora and a broken world in need of repair.”

In a January podcast, Magid related to Zionism as “another alternative, which basically functioned under the assumption that emancipation wouldn’t work.” That is quite unfair and historically incorrect. Herzl’s Zionism initiative did react to the failure of the non-Jewish world to accept Jews but Jews—since the walk from Egypt through the desert on to the Babylon exile and to the continuum of immigration to Eretz-Yisrael after the Roman conquests—were always Zionists.

It was Leonard Cohen who, participating in a public panel held at the Jewish Public Library of Montreal in June 1964, spoke of Jews who “create this insane Talmud of identity that must end in psychiatry—or Zionism” (here at 10:56) and yet asserted that the Jewish people have a unique mission. Here we are, 60 years later, and we observe too many Jews requiring mind-healing treatment.

A Judaism bereft of the Land of Israel—of Jerusalem Rebuilt, of the Ingathering, of the commandments bound up with the soil and agriculture of the Land, and more—is one that is shallow, mechanical, if at all observed, and most importantly, negates the vaunted messaging of what they hail as the ethical and moral Judaism of the Prophets, whose writings are hardcore Zionist.

Pining for a return to Egypt, the Children of Israel pestered Moses and complained about the culinary dearth they were subject to in the desert. Where, they demanded, were the cucumbers and melons, the leeks, onions, garlic and the fish? A Midrashic commentary suggests that their taste buds found that the manna they picked in the field for their daily sustenance, while quite tasty, nevertheless lacked those very food flavors they were used to in Egypt. That they were slaves in Egypt seemed to elude their consciousness.

The contemporary Diaspora preference-seekers, making themselves slaves to a neo-Bundist progressive agenda, are not saving even themselves from the hate directed at Zionism and Israel. They feed that hate, providing the haters with a cover and, in the end, will suffer a fate that they are attempting to avoid. It will be a repeat for them of a paradigm from a certain Central European country.

To borrow a classic Jewish analogy, they are repeating the act of “loathing the land” (Numbers 14:31), of denigrating the Jewish people’s identity and essence.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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