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Continued Promotion of Aliyah Undermines the Legitimacy of American Jewish Life

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2005

In recent days, both the government of Israel and a variety of Jewish organizations in the United States and other countries have stepped up their promotion of “aliyah” — the immigration of Jews to Israel.  

It has long been the Zionist position that a “full Jewish life” could only be lived in Israel and that Jews living outside of that state, in the “diaspora,” were in “exile.”  

In 2000, Israeli President Moshe Katsev called upon Jews around the world to make aliyah and argued against “legitimizing” Jewish life in other countries. In a book published in 2000, Conversations with Yitzhak Shamir, the former Israeli prime minister declared: “The very essence of our being obliges every Jew to live in Eretz Yisrael ... In my opinion, a man has no right to consider himself a part of the Jewish people without also being a Zionist, because Zionism states that in order for a Jew to live as a Jew he needs to have his own country, his own life, and his own future.”  

Dwell and Take Root  

Writing in Forum, a publication of the World Zionist Organization, Ephraim Urbach declared that, “Zionism’s task in the coming years is to transform the State of Israel from the center of interest for Jews to the land wherein they dwell and take root.”  

Visiting Washington, D.C. on a trip to promote immigration to Israel, Ya’akov Kirschen, a New York native who himself emigrated, told students at George Washington University; “You’re not Americans — you’re Jews in the last stage of throwing off your identity. Going to Israel, you won’t be tearing up your roots, because that’s where your roots are. You’ll be coming home.”  

In his much-discussed book, Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic, Hillel Halkin wrote:“Diaspora Jewry ... is doomed. Jewish life has a future, if at all, only in Israel.” Insisting that the diaspora is “historically played out,” Halkin, who had emigrated from America to Israel in 1970, concluded that to properly live as a Jew one had but one choice, “coming from the Diaspora to here.”  

In recent days, efforts to stimulate Jewish immigration to Israel have been escalating. In July, 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon issued an appeal for all Jews in France to move to Israel “immediately” in response to a rise in anti-Semitic attacks. “Move to Israel as early as possible. That’s what I say to Jews all around the world, but there (in France), I think it’s a must.”  

Calls for Emigration  

Particular developments in France have little to do with Sharon’s calls for emigration. He has repeatedly expressed the view that Israel “is the only place on Earth where Jews can live as Jews,” At the present time, the government of Israel is launching a worldwide campaign to increase Jewish immigration to Israel. In May 1999, by a majority of those voting, the rabbinical leadership of Reform Judaism in the U.S. approved guiding principles which encourage Reform Jews to “make aliyah.” This statement of principles discards the older Reform philosophy which rejected Jewish nationalism and declared that Judaism was a religion of universal values and that Jews were at home in America.  
In December, 2004, the new president of the Orthodox Union, told The Jerusalem Post: “Now is the time to promote aliyah. I sense an opportunity.” His group represents close to 1,000 affiliated synagogues across the United States.  

The mass emigration effort now under way has been organized and partly financed by Nefesh B’Nefesh, a group which plans to move than 1,500 Jews to Israel this year, substantially boosting North American immigration. The group’s goal is to bring 100,000 Jews to Israel within the next five to ten years. The Israeli government has thrown its full support behind these efforts. They make clear that with the Jewish birthrate much lower than that of their Palestinian and Arab neighbors, they fear that without increased immigration, Jews will become a minority within their own territory and that Israel will either cease to be democratic or lose its Jewish character.  

“Nefesh B’Nefesh represents one of the dreams I fought for,” states Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly called upon American Jews to emigrate to Israel. “Bringing home to Zion our Jewish brethren from the Diaspora.”  

Contempt by Zionism  

Most American Jews, even those who call themselves Zionists, are not fully aware of the contempt held by Zionism for Jewish life outside of Israel.  

Zionists have repeatedly stressed the fact that, from their viewpoint, Jews are in “exile” outside of the “Jewish state.” Jacob Klatzkin, a leading Zionist writer, declared: “We are simply aliens, we are foreign people in your midst, and we emphasize, we wish to stay that way.”  

Dr. Nahum Goldmann, one of the world’s leading Zionist spokesmen, said at the opening session of the Zionist General Council in 1966 that, “The danger to Jewish survival resulting from the integration of Jewish communities into the life of the peoples among whom they live ... is greater than any danger which emanated from external threats, from anti-Semitism and the new persecution of past periods.”  

One of the functions of Israeli diplomats in the U.S. and elsewhere is to persuade Jews to emigrate to Israel. Walter Eytan, at the time he was Director General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, declared:“It is commonplace in our Foreign Service that every Envoy Plenipotentiary of Israel has a dual function. He is Minister Plenipotentiary to the country to which he is accredited — and Envoy Extraordinary to its Jews. This has come to be expected generally by other governments ...”  

Idea of “Exile”  

There is no evidence that even a significant minority of American Jews accept the Zionist idea of “exile.” The natural sympathy which American Jews feel for their co-religionists in Israel is not Zionism, although, those who do not understand the Zionist idea tend to believe that it is. American Jews believe themselves to be fully American and only a small number believe that their Judaism is something more than a cultural identity and religious commitment.  

In his recently published book, American Judaism, Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, noted that, “American Jews mostly rejected” calls for them to migrate to Israel. “For them, the prime justification for Israel’s existence was not the declining state of the Jewish diaspora but the memory of the Holocaust. The destruction of 6 million Jews, followed by the ‘miraculous’ creation of the Jewish state, constituted for them, a modern-day re-enactment of an ancient tale of death and rebirth.”  

Even American Jews who call themselves Zionists reject the notion that all Jews should emigrate to Israel and that a “full” Jewish life can only be lived there. Writing in Midstream, Professor Melvin Urofsky of Virginia Commonwealth University pointed out that, “The Zionism we have in the United States today is the legacy of the Brandeis era in that it is widespread, does not contemplate aliyah as a central tenet and supports the Jewish community of the Holy Land. It is more philosophical than ideological. ...”  

Compared to the Zionist movements in Europe, he argued, American Zionism “differed in significant ways ... American Jews did not face rampant anti-Semitism, which explains why certain types of Zionism did not flourish in this country ... Immigrants learned ... as Louis D. Brandeis preached at them ... that they could be both good Americans and good Jews by being good Zionists. The Brandeisian form of Zionism, with its emphasis on American values, succeeded brilliantly.”  

When Israel was first established, many prominent American Jews were concerned about the Zionist leaders’ contempt for Jewish life outside of Israel and their desire for a massive emigration of all Jews to the new state. In particular, they did not want Israel to interfere in the “internal affairs” of the American Jewish community.  

Historic Exchange  

An historic exchange in 1950 between the president of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein, and Israel’s prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, sought to allay these fears. As summarized by the committee, the agreement stipulated that: “(1) Jews of the United states, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment, namely to the United States of America; (2) that the Government and people of Israel respect the integrity of Jewish life in the democratic countries and the right of Jewish communities to develop their indigenous social, economic and cultural aspirations, in accordance with their own needs and institutions; and (3) that Israel fully accepts the fact that the Jews of the United States do not live ‘in exile,’ and that America is home for them.”  

Whatever David Ben-Gurion may have said in 1950, the fact is that ever since the State of Israel has persisted in promoting the idea that Jews living outside its borders are indeed in “exile” and that all Jews should emigrate to the Jewish state. This call for emigration has little to do with anti-Semitic incidents in countries such as France, for these calls are as vocal in countries such as the United States as they are in France.  

Many Jewish leaders, in many countries, have been critical of Israel’s interference in their internal affairs and its attempts to delegitimize Jewish life outside of Israel.  

Lina Filiba, vice president of the Turkish Jewish community, charged that the Israeli government has exploited anti-Semitic acts such as synagogue bombings in Istanbul, in pursuit of its immigration policy.  

On a January 1996 visit to Germany, Israeli president Ezer Weizman declared that he “cannot understand how 40,000 Jews can live in Germany,” and asserted that, “The place of Jews is in Israel. Only in Israel can Jews live full Jewish lives.”  

Ignatz Bubis, the head of Germany’s main Jewish organization, stated; “I have lived here since 1945 and have met two new generations who simply do not identify with the Nazis. This is a new generation.”  

Posthumous Victory  

Arguing that a Jewish presence in Germany prevents Hitler from achieving his posthumous victory of a “Judenrein” Germany, he declared: “The full revival of the Jewish community in post-war Germany is important.” Weizman was not singling out German Jews with his comments, Bubis acknowledged: “He says the same thing to American Jews and Belgian Jews and in all other countries.”  

Weizman’s declaration that all Jews should live in Israel was widely criticized in the U.S.  

Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the United Israel Appeal, said: “I think it is demeaning to our role in promoting Jewish culture and Jewish life. Israel might be central to Jewish life, but it cannot ignore the Jewish center which exists in the U.S.”  

Professor Deborah Lipstadt, who teaches Holocaust and modern Jewish studies at Emory University, argued that Weizman’s remarks reflect an inability of Zionists to come to grips with the reality that Jews can thrive as Jews everywhere in the world.  

She sees that reality in the faces of her Jewish students at the university, Dr. Lipstadt said. These students pursue all the opportunities America has to offer and don’t “fit the old Zionist stereotype of the craven Galut Jew, frightened and hesitant about their Judaism. I think (the Zionist theorists) certainly didn’t expect that America would give them the opportunity it has given Jews.”  

“Insult to France”  

After Ariel Sharon’s call for French Jews to move to Israel, the front-page headline in the newspaper Le Figaro termed it ‘Sharon’s insult to France.” A front-page editorial in the newspaper France-Soir declared that the Israeli leader is “losing his marbles.”  

The New York Times (July 20, 2004) reported: “French politicians rushed to the airwaves to condemn his declaration. Mr. Sharon ‘missed a good opportunity to keep quiet,’ Jean-Louis Debre, the president of the National Assembly, told Europe I Radio, ‘These words are inadmissible, unacceptable and, furthermore, irresponsible.’ French Jewish leaders also voiced strong disapproval. ‘He doesn’t have the right to decide for us,’ said Theo Klein, honorary president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, or CRIF, an umbrella group, on France 2 television. An editorial in the daily Le Monde suggested that Mr. Sharon’s declaration about French Jews was motivated by a desire to ‘discredit’ France and keep Europe out of any resolution of the Middle East crisis.”  

French officials defended their policies to eradicate anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. “Certainly France today is the country with the strictest legislation dealing with all problems of racism,” stated Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.  

French President Jacques Chirac, in an address early in July, called upon French citizens to be vigilant and to mobilize against intolerance. On July 28, the Israeli prime minister praised France for its “determined action” against anti-Semitism in what The Washington Post called “an apparent attempt to smooth over a diplomatic spat that began ... when he said France was the home of ‘the wildest anti-Semitism.”  

According to Sharon, “We ... very much appreciate the determined action of the French government, as well as the French president’s stance against anti-Semitism. We hope that this determination will serve as an example to other countries as well.”  

Public Ceremony  

The Economist declared: “The annoying thing for French politicians was that Mr. Sharon’s remarks coincided with a historically resonant public ceremony at which top public figures made a frank acknowledgement of the evils of anti-Semitism under the wartime Vichy regime. What the ceremony commemorated was the Velodrome d’Hiver round up in July 1942, when 8,000 French Jews were arrested over two days and  detained at a sports stadium in Drancy. Only in 1995 did France officially accept that its own nationals had carried out the roundup. This year, six government ministers...took part in the memorial ceremony, and they used it to make solemn warnings about the resurgence of anti-Semitic activity ...”  

It is time that Israeli interference in the lives of Jewish communities in other countries, and its persistent calls for emigration, come to an end. It is particularly ironic, as American Jews celebrate the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in the United States, to be told that they are “in exile” in their own country.  

American Jewish organizations have been hesitant to criticize Israeli government programs which promote the idea that all Jews belong in Israel and, in some cases, have adopted this philosophy themselves, eagerly promoting aliyah as the highest form of Jewish identity and commitment.  

ARZA’s Role  

In 2001, ARZA/World Union (Association of Reform Zionists of America, an affiliate of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) solicited votes for the 34th World Zionist Congress (2002) from Reform Jews across America, using pulpits and the resources of its member congregations.  

As a condition for voting, applicants were instructed to sign a confirmation that they supported the Jerusalem Program, a platform which, as clearly stated in the literature, has as its goal, “The ingathering of the Jewish people in its historic homeland, Eretz Israel, through aliyah from all countries.”  

One must wonder why American Reform Jews were being encouraged to support if not, in fact, to make aliyah by ARZA and the URJ, whose leadership resides in the United States. It is also interesting to note that out of some 1.5 million Reform Jews in the U.S., there were only 37,492 votes cast by ARZA members, a decline of over 27 percent from the previous election. The total vote cast from all participating organizations representing U.S. constituencies in the 2002 election was less than 90,000 out of a U.S. Jewish population of slightly more than 6 million. In 2005, ARZA (an affiliate of the Union for Reform Judaism) remains listed as a member of the American Zionist movement. Its website identifies the Jerusalem Program, with its platform on aliyah, as “the very basis of the unity on which the American Zionist Movement rests.” Is this, in fact, what the 1.5 million Reform Jews who pay dues to the URJ actually believe? There is no evidence whatever that this is the case.  

The fact is that this concept is repugnant to the vast majority of Americans of Jewish faith, who clearly view themselves as American by nationality, citizenship and political allegiance, and Jews by religion.  

Fortunately, there seems to be some movement in this direction. In the present post-Zionist era, the term “diaspora” is going out of style as a way to refer to Jews outside of Israel. Even the venerable Museum of the Diaspora in Israel is now referring to itself at times as the Museum of the Jewish People.  


According to The Forward, “As post-Zionist ideology gains speed, as Jewish communities around the world gain confidence in their legitimacy and as Reform and Conservative Jews grow disillusioned with their movements’ status (in Israel), ‘Diaspora’ is being relegated to the realm of the politically incorrect. The shift in terminology is significant, because it signals that the way Jews around the world think about Israel is changing, with the Jewish state’s centrality on the wane and criticism of its history on the rise ... The idea, say detractors of the term, implies that Jewish life outside Israel is somehow inferior to Jewish life in Israel — a concept that some may find distasteful but that others uphold as a pillar of Zionism.”  

The fact is that Judaism is a religion of universal values — and a worthy Jewish life can be lived anyplace in the world, as has been the case through thousands of years of history.  

Aryeh Cohen, Chair of the Rabbinics Department at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, and a former Zionist, provides this assessment in Sh’ma (December, 2004): “And so in the harsh reality of the ongoing morning-after of my decades-long Zionist affair, I took stock. American Judaism was not dying. Far from becoming a spiritual and intellectual wasteland drawing sustenance from Jerusalem, the Diaspora — especially the North American Diaspora — has flourished. There are both Jewish universities and universities with important Jewish studies departments, in addition to a plethora of yeshivot and seminaries of all ideological stripes.”  

In fact, declares Cohen, “The American Jewish community stands in a long tradition of Diasporic communities — from Philo’s Alexandria before the turn of the millennium to Sura and Nehardea of sixth century Sassanian Persia, to Kairouan in tenth century North Africa, Toledo, Sarragossa and Gerona in the Spanish Golden Age, Spires, Worms, Dampierre and Ramerupt of eleventh to fourteenth century Franco-Germany, centuries of Jewish civilization in Vilna, Warsaw, Medzibezh, and Lodz, Fes, Izmir and Baghdad, Berlin and Paris. The culture produced in these Jewish communities are not merely books on the shelf of Judaism, they are Judaism itself.”  

Tied in Knots  

Discussing the contemporary American Jewish community, Cohen notes that, “... here we are, probably the most learned, most affluent, most politically powerful Jewish community in the history of the world, and we are tied up in knots about who we are. The borders of accepted speech are assiduously patrolled by self-appointed guardians of the walls. (I have a file of hate mail, letter after letter of people comparing me to a kapo, and I am far from alone in this.) The public domain of our institutions and the popular Jewish press has been colonized by the most right wing element of our community. Israel is not a problem for me because my allies on the progressive left think it’s a problem. Israel is a problem because it claims to speak for the Jewish community, and the Jews who speak for it confound and subvert that Judaism that I love and teach — the Judaism that can contribute to creating a better and more just world.”  

In Cohen’s view, American Jews “are in a position to embrace a Torah that speaks to our deeper selves while at the same time commanding us to do justice in the world. The rabbinic tradition of social and economic justice can and should be read through the filter of Jeremiah’s charge to the newly exiled Jewish people in Babylon: ‘Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity shall you prosper.’ (Jeremiah 29:7), Rather than reacting to the enlightenment by cutting loose non-ritual Jewish law, we should be universalizing it — arguing that there is much to be gained from a serious engagement between Jewish conceptions of civil and criminal law and American society.”  

Urging that the American Jewish community move beyond “T-shirt slogans,” Frances Kreimer, currently a student at Columbia University, writes in Sh’ma (December 2004) “Wherever We Stand, We Stand With Israel,’ claims t-shirts, posters and other Hillel paraphernalia. While this slogan conveys a common sentiment of many Zionist institutions, it does not resonate with many young Jews, like me. We consider ourselves heirs to powerful and varied dialogues with tradition; our contemporary challenge is not to force our communities to speak with one voice, but rather engage in multiple ongoing Jewish conversations. While many Jews look to Israel to provide a uniting identity, in reality, Israel only proves the impossibility of such unity, and underscores the need to expand the conversation.”  

Jewish Identity  

Kreimer writes that, “Three years before my bat mitzvah, the bullet that killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shattered hope for thousands and my understanding of Jewish identity. I learned of the assassination during havdalah in Brooklyn, where my Reconstructionist synagogue’s teen group was spending a weekend in a Lubavitch community. While I was challenged by concepts of gender, observance and tradition, I was also aware of the similarities I shared with my host family, and fascinated by the challenge of finding out what made us all ‘Jewish.’ I was stunned when my hosts uttered approval of the assassination, stating that Rabin’s assassin had ‘fulfilled a mitzvah.’ I refused to accept this as a definition of religious commandment. Despite or because of the deep fractures regarding Israel, some Jews (particularly those interested in pluralism) are beginning to explore self-definitions that do not focus on a Zionist state. We may look to Jewish histories of evolving traditions, languages, and cultures that thrived for millennia before Israel. My Jewish identity is a dialogue with these histories.”  

Kreimer concludes: “This does not mean that I ignore Israel. The historical and liturgical relationships of Judaism to land of Israel are deep and compelling. And I am morally implicated by a government that purports to speak in my name and act on my behalf as it denies another people the self-determination upon which Zionism is allegedly founded. My Jewish identity pushes me to ask questions about justice and think critically about what communities I claim and who claims to speak for me. As a Jew, I want to ask these questions in the context of the texts, liturgy, and histories that constitute the continuing conversations that are my true birthright.”  

The idea that Israel is, somehow, “central” to Judaism and to Jewish life in America bears little relationship to reality. In their study The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America (Indiana University Press), Steven N. Cohen and Arnold N. Eisen report that when asked about their emotional attachment to Israel, only 9 percent of respondents answered “extremely attached,” and only another 18 percent said “very attached.” A total of just over a quarter (27 percent) defined themselves as at least very attached to Israel. Only 20 percent in the survey thought it was essential for a good Jew to support Israel and even fewer (18 percent) had similar views with regard to visiting Israel in the course of one’s life.  

Israel Not Central  

Professors Cohen and Eisen state that, “It is no longer uncommon to find lukewarm-to-cool attitudes to Israel coexisting with warm-to-passionate feelings about being Jewish ... Israel is not central to who American Jews are as Jews...”  

While Jewish organizations place Israel at the “center” of their agenda, for the vast majority of American Jews Israel remains a largely peripheral interest. Indeed, those who are proclaimed — and proclaim themselves — ”Jewish leaders” may speak for a very small constituency, largely themselves.  

Editorially, The Forward (September 24, 2004) makes the point that, “It’s been apparent for decades now that America’s Jewish community does not have leaders as most people understand the term. There are those who run institutions, chair committees and deliver sermons, but few can be called leaders in the normal sense, because there’s nobody following. You would never guess American Jews’ opinions from listening to the groups that speak for them publicly. Attacks ... are demonized as veiled anti-Semitism, putting critics on the defensive and skewing the debate. Most American Jews view themselves as an American constituency with its own interests ...”  

The Forward cites a survey of Jewish opinion released in September by the American Jewish Committee. When asked the quality that respondents consider most important to their Jewish identity, religion and social justice scored l4 percent and 20 percent. Support for Israel came in last at 6 percent. Surveys have shown the same thing for decades.  

In his book Homelands: Portraits of The New Jewish Diaspora (Henry Holt and Co.), Larry Tye points out that calls for Jews to move to Israel and declarations that they are in “exile” in their own homelands is “outdated.” Jerusalem, he says, is an idea, not an address, a metaphor for the day the world lives in spiritual and earthly peace — not a destination for today’s Jews who are, he finds, very much at home in the various nations of the world.  

Feelings of Alienation  

Remembering his own youth growing up in Boston, Tye found that while the American environment was welcoming, the Jewish institutions he encountered sought to alienate him from his own country: “I grew up with a sense of being deeply rooted in my surroundings, of being a Bostonian and an American, and feeling comfortable with those identities. But at the same time the pride of belonging to an ancient people left me with an unsettled sense that, no matter how firmly grounded I felt in America, I belonged somewhere else. These feelings of uprootedness were reinforced every sabbath when we recalled the messianic vision of a return to Zion ...”  

The idea that Jews outside of Israel are residing in some “unnatural exile,” declares Tye, “is a distortion of history. The First and Second Temples, and the golden ages they represented, were relatively brief notations on a Jewish time line that is, instead, dominated by diaspora. Abraham, father of the Jews, discovered his God outside Israel. The Torah was given to the Jewish people outside Israel. The most important Talmud, or compilation of Jewish tradition, is the one from Babylon, not the one from Jerusalem. Even during the era of the Second Temple, more Jews lived in the diaspora than in Israel. ‘Displacement,’ then, has been the normal state of affairs for Jews for nearly 2,600 years.”  

The place of Israel in Jewish life is far different from the myths which have been created about it, in Tye’s view: “The founding of Israel half a century ago seemed to answer what Jews of the diaspora were longing for. Now, at last, they had a place of their own to go, a way to end their physical isolation and realize the promise of celebrating a Seder in Jerusalem. That is a potent image, and for more than fifty years its promise and seduction have held the collective Jewish subconscious in a powerful grip. But like many metaphors this one does not fit the real-life aspirations and situations of most diaspora Jews today. ... Most of us have finally built secure lives ... and have no interest in adjusting to the strange climate and society of Israel. Indeed the busiest traffic today between Israel and the biggest diaspora country, America, could be called aliyah in reverse, with four times as many Israelis living in America as U.S. Jews living in Israel.”  

Universal God  

The 19th century founders of Reform Judaism rejected the notion of a God confined to a particular “holy” land and embraced, instead, a universal God, the Father of all men, and a religion of universal values, as relevant in New York or London as in Jerusalem. Early in the 20th century, Hermann Cohen, one of the foremost Jewish philosophers of modern times, understood the danger that Zionism would re-ignite an intoxication with the land that would strangle Jewish morality. This concern motivated those in the United States who rejected the Zionist enterprise. Indeed, even those who embraced Zionism in the U.S. altered its meaning, never accepting the idea that American Jews were, in “exile.”  

While commemorating the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in the United States, many Jewish groups and spokesmen have viewed their overwhelming success in the free and open American society as a cause for concern rather than celebration. Professor Gary Tobin of Brandeis University points to this strange anomaly: “So have we stood back and enjoyed this wonderful American success? No. We’ve turned it into the intermarriage crisis. We don’t know how to deal with normality ... Right now the American Jewish community is behaving in ways that are insecure, confused, backward-looking and neurotic.”  

Zionist leaders once said that their goal was for Jews to live “normal” lives. There is no place in which such “normality” can be said to exist more than in the United States, where every citizen is free to practice or not practice religion as he or she sees fit. It is in America, not Israel, where Jews are free to follow their consciences and beliefs in matters of faith. Yet, this reality, which should be celebrated, is turned on its head by those who repeatedly speak of a “continuity” crisis. Normality, it seems, is difficult for some people to accept.  

Narrow Nationalism  

Israel’s persistent promotion of a narrow nationalism, calling upon all of the world’s Jews to emigrate to what it perceives as their genuine “homeland” is not only contrary to the wishes and identity of the overwhelming majority of Jews but flies in the face of today’s globalized world. Dr. Shaul Kelner, senior research associate at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, points out that, “From the time of the Babylonian exile and through the present day, Jews have always been a global people. It has taken a few thousand years, but the technology has finally caught up. Air travel, cell phones, satellite television, and the Internet have all democratized the experience of being part of a community that transcends place.”  

He writes that, “Zionism, of course, rejected on ideological grounds the notion of transnational communities. But today’s networked world is blurring the concept of place on which Zionism’s negation of the Diaspora rested. Who is in exile and who is at home when most Israelis have close family living abroad and everyone is meeting in cyberspace? ... World Jewry and Israel would be stronger if Zionism helped Israelis experience Jewish transnationalism, not escape it. They would be stronger if Israel treated itself less as the Jewish people’s mainframe, and more as a node in the Jewish people’s distributed network. ...”  

It is time for the Israeli government to end its continuing interference in the lives of Jewish communities in the U.S. and elsewhere by its promotion of the idea that these communities are in “exile” and that emigration to Israel represents the only way to live a “full Jewish life.”  

It is also time for American Jewish organizations to decide who they are and what they represent. Are they Americans, or are they Jews living in “exile,” only temporarily in the United States, with their bags packed and another country the prime recipient of their emotional ties?  

Israel Not the Issue  

Israel itself is not the issue here. Jews around the world must decide for themselves what role, if any, Israel plays for them. The issue is the rhetoric from Israeli political leaders and Zionist spokesmen, as well as those in America who do not represent the overwhelming majority of Americans of the Jewish faith on the matter of aliyah.  

For those who choose to live there, whether due to persecution or personal decision, Israel is, indeed, a haven. Certainly it is an oasis of democracy and free speech in a troubled part of the world. Its historic significance to the major religions of the world is without question as are the achievements of its citizens in science, medicine, the arts and other areas. The prophetic teachings of Judaism, however, make it a universal religion, as much at home in America and other counties as in Israel. It is meant, after all, to be “a light unto the nations.”  

Changes in Reform  

It is particularly painful to see how Reform Judaism has abandoned its view, set forth in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, that, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community.” In 1897, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) adopted a resolution declaring: “Zion was a precious possession of the past ... as such it is a holy memory, but it is not our hope of the future. America is our Zion.” From that position, the CCAR, in 1999, adopted a new declaration of principles encouraging Reform Jews to move permanently to Israel.  

In the movie “Story of a Patriot,” seen by generations of visitors to Colonial Williamsburg, two Virginia planters are speaking to one another on the eve of the American Revolution. One reports that he is leaving for England on the next ship. “I am going home,” he says. The other responds: “I am home.” American Jewish organizations must decide where “home” is. Most American Jews have long ago made that decision — America is the answer.  

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