November 9, 2006
The next wave: Zionism needs a new narrative
The success of Zionism requires a revisiting of values and priorities. Negation of Diaspora may not only be irrelevant, but counterproductive. We need a new vision.
In 70 C.E. the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and political independence was lost. Sixty-five years later, ultimate decimation followed the failed rebellion against the Roman Empire. Instead of diluting the Jewish identity, these events brought about one of the most successful and resilient societal and political creations in human history. It was the product of the vision and leadership of Rabbi Yochanan Ben-Zakai, who was carried out of the ruins of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. in a coffin pretending to be dead. He realized that Jewish society had to be transformed, in fact reinvented. By 135 C.E., the infrastructure had already been laid.
Rabbi Ben-Zakai moved to Yavne and established a school. This school was the precursor of what was later known as the "Yavne Process." Its generations of students are known as the "Sages of Yavne." The Yavne Process was an episode of outstanding leadership. Political, social and religious structures had to be reinvented to face the challenges of exile, loss of sovereignty and the destruction of the temple as a center of worship. In a matter of six decades, the Jewish people had to disengage from centuries-old values, priorities and rituals and embrace new ones. A new global outlook had to be created to allow the dispersed people to survive and thrive.
The outcome of this transformation has been one of the first global networks -- a worldwide web of communities. At the heart of each node are the minyans -- the mandatory requirement for 10 men to pray together. The minyan is a profound Jewish vision exemplifying that a Jew cannot stay as an individual outside the community and at the same time portraying that even 10 people from three to four families can sustain a vibrant Jewish community. The nodes were connected through "protocols of communications." Their foundation was shared culture, values, text, language, calendar, clear lines of spiritual authority and mitzvot of mutual responsibility and hospitality. These protocols were consolidated into the religion based on a simple principle that both the written and oral Torah were handed down at Mount Sinai.
These protocols have proven to be very resilient. To this day, a person who knows how to read a siddur -- the Jewish praying book -- can walk into a synagogue anywhere in the world, feel comfortable and bet on being invited for a Shabbat dinner. Another example is the cases of Jewish organizations in the Diaspora or the State of Israel reaching out to Jewish communities and individuals in need all over the world.
Networks are also very resilient structures. Electricity grids, the Internet or Al Qaeda are just a few modern examples. Similarly, the Jewish network was able to withstand severe setbacks and reemerge. The expulsion from Spain in the 15th century dismantled the most politically and economically powerful Jewish community of that time. Nonetheless, a few decades later Jewish communities in the Low Countries and then in England and Germany dominated politics, science, literature and economies. The destruction of European Jewry by Nazi Germany was followed by the emergence of the wealthiest and the most powerful Jewish community in history in the United States of America.
The 20th century brought about a new challenge to our network. The Holocaust eliminated an estimated 5,000 communities. The rise of America and the forces of globalization, together with the downfall of the Iron Curtain, led to the consolidation of countless other communities due to voluntary immigration.
Zionism also challenged the Jewish network, but, unlike outside forces, Zionism is a Jewish movement that disrupted the Jewish network by gathering all Jews in Eretz Yisrael. Zionism rose to dominate the Jewish world in the 20th century, negating Diaspora life while placing aliyah -- immigration to Israel -- and participation in the process of state-building as the ultimate goals of Jewishness.
At present, the dilemma of Zionism stems from its own success. By the late 19th century, the number of Zionist immigrants was negligible. By 1948 and after the Holocaust, only 600,000 -- barely 5 percent of all Jews -- lived in the newly established State of Israel. By 2005, the Jewish community in the State of Israel became the largest in the world consisting of 40 percent of all Jews and 50 percent of all Jewish births. These statistics represent steady trends.
The symbolic moment of demographic parity between Israel and Diaspora should be a call for an ideological reevaluation of Zionism. Do we really want all Jews to live in the State of Israel, in Eretz Yisrael, putting all Jewish eggs in one geographic basket? Is it really in our interest to dismantle the Diaspora? It is time for some Zionists to begin to be careful of what they wish for in case they get it.
The paradox of Zionism is that, while striving for security of Jews, it compromises the national security of the Jewish people. By working to bring all Jews to the State of Israel, it accelerates the diminution of the Jewish network, which has been the secret of our continued existence through two millennia.
The longevity of the Jewish people -- its survival and well-being -- should be the context of the efforts and sacrifices to ensure the prosperity and security of the State of Israel. Professor Yehezkel Dror, winner of the Israel Prize, frames the answer most lucidly in his book, "Epistle to an Israeli Jewish-Zionist Leader": "Prosperity of the Jewish people is an absolute norm superior to the prosperity of the State of Israel. "
Negating the Diaspora and seeking to terminate it may be counterproductive. A strong and vibrant Diaspora is a clear Zionist imperative.
What are the challenges that emanate from this agenda? For example, the Jewish world has to embrace the challenge of rebuilding and strengthening its network of communities wherever possible and particularly in places where the infrastructure for Jewish life has been eroded such as in Latin America, Europe and in the former Soviet Union. Community building is in our genetic code. Organizations like Hillel or Chabad can and should rely on the Zionist movement for support. Ladies, Gentlemen, and Jews:
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Another challenge is to provide for continuous movement between Israel and a vibrant Diaspora. As Israelis seek and occasionally seize global intellectual, political, technological or business leadership, we will spend longer periods overseas in growing numbers. Hence, the top priority for Zionism should be to implement an Israeli education system that equips Jewish Israelis, particularly non-Orthodox ones, with tools to be part of Jewish communities overseas. Jewish organizations and communities in the Diaspora should work harder to bring them in. At the same time, an equally important challenge is to allow for Diaspora Jews to spend significant parts of their lives in Israel going to school, working or doing business. In other words, Zionism needs to prioritize favorable legislation and a more effective and forthcoming bureaucracy.
These are just examples. The basic need is a global Jewish conversation that reprioritizes values. Nearing its 150th anniversary, Zionism needs a new narrative.
As professor Dror puts it: "A 21st century Yavne Process is in need."