October 23, 1997
As a young man going to Hebrew school back East, Ioften felt that a diaspora Jew was like a neutral country in WorldWar II -- a sideline observer of the great consuming drama occuringback in the Middle East. With an insight perhaps made clearer byinexperience, it seemed to me that any Jew worth his kishke shouldmove to Israel and put his life on the line.
Three decades later -- 50 years after Israel'sbirth and a full century since the founding of the Zionist movement-- part of the Jewish front lines have moved from Jerusalem to LosAngeles and scores of other Diaspora centers. Not that Israel isunimportant, but that the focus of the Jewish experience and thesurvival of our tribe may be determined by what happens in placeslike Los Angeles than in the Middle East.
Several factors go into this assessment. First ofall, Israel is no longer a struggling adolescent, but a maturing,complex society with its peculiarities and divisions. It no longerneeds the kind of massive Diaspora assistance that nurtured its earlyexistence, nor do most Israelis, whatever their politics, likelywelcome our intrusion into their debates.
Equally important, the balance of Jewishpopulation has shifted. With roughly five million Jews, Israel is nowthe second largest center of Jewish population in the world and willlikely surpass America within the next few decades. Meanwhile,Diaspora communities around the world are shrinking, including suchlong-prosperous outposts as the United Kingdom, South Africa andArgentina. New York, the 20th-century center of Diaspora life, hasseen its community shrink from roughly two million to one milliontoday.
Even here in Los Angeles, where the Jewishpopulation mushroomed over the last five decades to over 600,000,demographers tell us our numbers are stagnating -- and likely wouldhave dropped -- had it not been for the infusion of newcomers fromIran, the former Soviet Union, both Northern and Southern Africa and,ironically, Israel itself. At the same time, a growing number ofU.S.-born Jews from larger cities are choosing to opt out of theregion, usually for Gentile-dominated strongholds like the PugetSound, Salt Lake City and Colorado, which are perceived as moreliveable, safer and peaceful than cacophonous, conflict-laden LosAngeles or New York.
Such demographic trends represent a direct threatnot only to our community, but to the existence of a global Jewishpeople characterized by what Martin Buber called "the vocation ofuniqueness." When fragmented and spread out across the broadhinterlands, Jews have tended to lose their ethnic underpinnings. InDenmark, for example, thriving 19th-century Jewish communities inJutland could not survive the 20th, leaving the Copenhagen communityto tend their graves. Similar things have happened up and down theMississippi delta, where Jewish burial plots are now maintainedlargely by the still-existent New Orleans community.
History shows us that only in urban areas like LosAngeles -- with enough concentration to maintain Jewish existence inits diversity and complexity -- can Diaspora existence survive. Ifcities like ours become inhospitable for Jews, over time, theexistence of the Jews as a Diaspora people -- a group of peoplespread throughout the world but holding to same faith, lineage andmythology -- will vanish. We will fulfill the prophecy, made over 35years ago by French sociologist Georges Friedman in his "The End ofthe Jewish People?", that the Diaspora Jew would eventually disappearin favor of "the Israeli nation."
In this respect, the preservation of communitieslike ours is as much at the center of Jewish survival as that ofIsrael itself. After all, most of Jewish history, and much of ourculture, has been the product of the Diaspora from the writers of theBabylonian Talmud and Philo Judeaus in Alexandria, to MosesMaimonides in Arabic Spain and Isaac Singer in New York. Thiscontradicts the notion, held by such Zionist theoreticians as JacobKlatkin, that the Diaspora experience has been "nothing more than alife of deterioration and degeneration, a disgrace to the individual,a life of pitiless struggle, a disgrace to the individual, a life ofpointless struggle, and futile suffering, of ambivalence, confusionand eternal impotence."
Jewish existence, to remain unique, requires notonly Jerusalem, but also its Babylons. Jews in Los Angeles need to beconcerned not only with what happens on the Golan Heights, but how tocope with the deterioration of Los Angeles' schools, how to keep theeconomy vibrant and our relations with the city's increasinglydiverse population. This is not the stuff they taught me in Hebrewschool in New York, but it seems on point now.
Nor are these once-unthinkable notions marginal.When I raised them at my synagogue on Yom Kippur, few in thecongregation disagreed. In fact, in the ensuing discussion, therewere many disagreements and even harsh words directed at me, but noton the centrality of Los Angeles to the future of Jewish life. Andthat alone represents a reassuring sign that our city will continueto serve as one of the focal points of the evolving Jewish global experience.
Joel Kotkin is the John M.Olin Fellow at thePepperdine Institute for Public Policy and author of "Tribes" (RandomHouse, 1993). He is a member of Adat Ari El in NorthHollywood.
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