The Israel-Diaspora Relationship

An unequal partnership?

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When the State of Israel was established in 1948, many Israelis expected Jewish communities in the Diaspora to relocate en-masse to their homeland in Israel. When they didn't this posed a challenge to the Israeli-Diaspora relationship.

When the State of Israel achieved independence in 1948, Jews in the newly created country hailed the event as the realization of a 2,000-year old dream to resuscitate a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land. In the succeeding years, the influx of Jewish immigrants into the newly created state proved to that the young country that it could achieve kibbutz galuyot--an ingathering of the exiles that was one of the central ideals of the early Zionist thinkers.

Israel at the Center

Indeed, the Zionist ideology that informed the leadership and the citizens of the young state placed their country at the center of the Jewish world. The Hebrew word for "the land," ha'aretz--originally part of a Jewish religious lexicon--became a common way to refer to Israel. Similarly the term hutz la'aretz, literally "outside of the land,'' denoted any location abroad.

israel and americaThe Zionist movement had coalesced in response to a need for a solution to the dilemmas of the 19th-century European Jewish Diaspora. The antidote was the establishment of a Jewish state. But the sabras (native Israelis) went beyond that. They viewed Jewish existence outside of the Land of Israel as doomed and abnormal. The Holocaust was proof positive of this view, as well as endangered Jewish communities across the Middle East and the Soviet Union. The best way in which world Jewry could contribute to the Zionist enterprise as well as their own well-being was to relocate and join in Israel's national project of creating the new Jewish paradigm of existence.

This attitude of placing no value on the Diaspora communities came to be known as shlilat ha'galut, or the negation of the Diaspora. The concept became infused into Israeli education about Jewish history and modern day Jewish life, making it the dominant prism through which Israeli society looked outward for decades after the founding of the State.

Not surprisingly, the fact that many Jewish communities outside of Israel continued to flourish rather than pack their bags posed an ideological challenge for Israelis. Chief among these prosperous Diasporas was the American Jewish community, arguably the most successful Diaspora community since the first Israelite kingdom was exiled to Babylon.

Who is a Zionist?

A poll taken of Israel Jews in the late 1980s by sociologist Steven Cohen and political science professor Charles Liebman found that a majority of Israeli Jews believed their American counterparts could lead a fuller life in Israel rather than the United States. A similar majority said they were "troubled'' that American Jews were not immigrating en masse. And nearly two-thirds said they considered it an obligation to convince American Jews to move to Israel.   

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Joshua Mitnick is a freelance journalist living in Israel. His articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Toronto Star, The Newark Star Ledger, and The Washington Times.