Epic saga of the Jews in Israel and the Diaspora


FLYING from Melbourne to Tel Aviv is always a good opportunity to reflect on the state of the relationship between the Israeli and Diaspora communities. But on a recent visit, two stories in the newspaper distributed on the plane served to dramatically demonstrate how this relationship continues to evolve.

The first item concerned Beth Hatfutsot -— the magnificent museum in Tel Aviv that chronicles the history of the Jewish Diaspora, from the beginning of exile in 70 CE until the re-establishment of the state in 1948. This museum is to be extensively modernised, and re-branded as “The Story of the Jewish People”, as a response to the feelings that the current exhibit marginalises the Diaspora, and suggests that Jewish life outside Israel is less significant than that inside.

The story chronicled in the new version of the museum will not “end” with 1948 -— thereby demonstrating that the birth of the State of Israel was not the conclusion of the Diaspora story, but merely another important chapter, among many, in the epic saga of the Jewish people.

Reading between the lines, it appears the changing focus of the museum is part of a wider trend. Diaspora communal leaders (and philanthropists), especially in the US, no longer want to hear that, prior to 1948, Jewish life outside Israel was no more than a preparation for the return to Zion and since that date, some sort of aberration of history, doomed to disappear.

In place of the former acceptance that Israel had become the centre of Jewish political, religious and cultural life, that Israel was the sustainer of Jewish identity throughout the world, and that schools and youth organisations had to be assisted by Israeli emissaries, there is now an insistence in the independent value and vitality of Diaspora life.

Tragically, this self-assertiveness coincides with, and perhaps causes a weakening of, the ties that bind -— political support for Israel and confidence in its policies. Younger Jews in the US, who are some of today’s leaders and many of tomorrow’s, no longer can be counted on to cry “my country, right or wrong”. Significantly, most of the vast numbers of Jewish voters who backed Barack Obama claim to be satisfied with his new policy of neutrality between Israel and the Arabs.

Yet this reassessment of the Israel-Diaspora relationship is not only in one direction. Whereas generations of Israeli schoolchildren were taught that Jewish history jumped from Bar Kochba in 135 to the Palmach in 1947 with nothing in between, and Jews outside Israel were caricatured by the inaccurate and insulting “lambs to the slaughter” motif, there is now more respect for the strength and significance of Diaspora life.

It was the other item in the paper that demonstrated this development most clearly. The new chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky (himself a hero of the Jewish renaissance in the Soviet Union who became a government minister in Israel) declared on assuming his position that a strong Diaspora Jewish identity was essential for the Jewish people, and that its maintenance was therefore a key goal of his organisation.

In truth, this was not a new development, since for decades the Jewish Agency has supported numerous projects promoting Diaspora Jewish education and identity, but it was noteworthy to hear this responsibility stated so clearly.

But Sharansky’s words did not quite suggest a parity in the significance of the two parts of the Jewish people. He made clear that developing Jewish identity in the Diaspora was a means to an end — to achieve the objective of continued aliyah.

This week sees the commencement of the Three Weeks -— the period of semi-mourning culminating in the fast of Tisha b’Av. For two millennia, the observances of this period have been part of the many ways in which Jewish tradition reminds us that exile is indeed an unnatural state for our people, and that ultimately, in the near or distant future, by miraculous or natural means, our home is destined to be in Israel.

And that is why the relationship can never be one of equals. Sharansky is right; developing Jewish identity in the Diaspora is crucial, and is indeed a priority for the people of Israel, but the ultimate goal remains to move the Diaspora communities to Israel.

The story of the Diaspora is a great saga, and its contribution of scholarship and culture to the Jewish journey is immense. But since 1948, the Diaspora has played a secondary role in the Jewish present and will continue to do so in the Jewish future. From now on, achievements in the Diaspora are the footnotes of our history; events in Israel constitute the chapter headings. No amount of re-branding of the Diaspora museum can change that.

Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College.