In one of his most inspiring speeches, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, less than five feet tall, spoke from the towering heights about Jews living in exile and the need for them to gather in their own homeland.
“The exile is one with utter dependence,” he said, “in material things, in politics and culture, in ethics and intellect; and they must be dependent who are an alien minority, who have no homeland and are separated from their origins, from the soil and labor, from economic creativity. So, we must become the captains of our fortunes, we must become independent—not only in politics and economy but in spirit, feeling and will.”
Ben-Gurion was articulating a concept called shlilat ha’golah, the “negation of the exile.” University of Tel Aviv Prof. Shalom Ratzabi has explained that the early Zionists had a new perception of exile, which “was based on three premises: First, exile has no purpose and serves no mission. Second, exile is a negative phenomenon that causes suffering for the Jewish people, places the Jewish nation in existential peril and distorts the nation’s way of life, thereby causing harm to the authentic creative potential of the nation and its individuals. Third, the existence of a Diaspora is untenable in the age of modern nationalism.”
In today’s Israel, feelings about the Diaspora are divided. Many Israelis appreciate the support of Diaspora Jewry and recognize the love, dedication and feelings of commitment the Diaspora feels towards Israel.
On the other hand, many Israelis are perplexed by Diaspora Jews who identify as Zionists. From their perspective, a Zionist who believes in the State of Israel should live in the State of Israel. It is difficult for them to understand how a Zionist would choose to live in the Diaspora.
When the State of Israel was founded, the fledging nation was struggling economically and socially, and was challenged by a myriad of security threats. Israel needed help from wherever it could secure it. Diaspora Jewry answered Israel’s call, sending it much-needed funds.
As Israel matured, however, it began to stand on its own two feet, and became mostly self-sustaining. It overcame its security challenges by defeating its enemies on the battlefield. It met its social challenges by creating a melting pot that gathered global Jewry into one cohesive nation. As the Start-Up Nation, Israel’s hi-tech sector brought economic prosperity.
Given all this, is support from the Diaspora still necessary?
It seems clear that, even if it is not existentially necessary, a strong relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is of great benefit to both sides. While Israel’s survival may no longer depend on Diaspora support, that support remains invaluable.
For example, Diaspora Jewry advocates for Israel in the international community, and Diaspora organizations like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations work hard to shore up support among local and national politicians in the United States.
Moreover, it is a great mistake to assume that the third commonwealth of the Jewish people is invulnerable. Just as the first two commonwealths were destroyed, so too the third could be destroyed as well. If Israel’s enemies succeeded in destroying the Jewish state, the only thing that would save the Jewish people is a robust Diaspora. It would be foolish for the Jewish people to put all their eggs in one basket.
In the end, it is unreasonable for either side of the Israel-Diaspora divide to presume they are correct about the necessity of a close relationship between the two. And one thing is certain: It will not be up to Israelis to decide if a strong Diaspora is necessary. Only the Diaspora can do so.
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.
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