Membership in the Jewish People

A major consideration in forging a peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the relationship between the diaspora of each of the nations to their respective homelands. In the case of the Palestinians, the relationship is best captured in a discussion of the right of return of refugees. In the case of Israel, the relationship is best analyzed in understanding the implications of Zionism, the movement for self-determination of the Jewish people. Once a State of Israel came into being, did the relationship of the diaspora, of tfutza, or the exile, galut,change beyond giving diaspora Jews the right to make aliyah, to migrate to Israel?

The first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and Jacob Blaustein, the president of the American Jewish Committee at the time the state was declared, both understood that this was an issue and debated its interpretation and significance. The latest issue of the Israel Studies journal (25:3) took up that debate. Blaustein and Ben-Gurion opposed versions of Zionism that did not envision aliyah, immigration to Israel, as the ultimate goal of every Jew. They envisioned the eventual dissolution of the diaspora. Clearly this goes far beyond that of the relationship of members of the Palestinian diaspora insisting on a right of return, for refugees only, to their original homes, or, at the very least, to their homeland. However, in Ben-Gurion’s and Blaustein’s view, although return is an obligation and not just a right, nevertheless Ben-Gurion accepted that American Jews owed, as a primary duty, allegiance to the United States so that migration to Israel, though a moral obligation, was one determined by a decision of the individual.

Jews had a hierarchy of obligations. At the peak, they were responsible for being witnesses and advancing the redemption of all of humanity. Each Jew was then also responsible for the redemption of the whole of the Jewish people. Third, they have a moral and political obligation as citizens of the state in which they live both in the sense of loyalty to the state as a whole over and above personal ideologies and interests, and in the sense of national patriotism to the American nation as the prime example of a diaspora state. The second and third potentially could be at odds if the mamlachtiyut, loyalty to the state of an individual Jew, is divided.  Finally, each Jew had a moral obligation to his or herself to offer oneself, to sacrifice, to engage in halutziyut (pioneering) to forge a better world, to enhance the Jewish people, and to advance the Jewish and/or home state.

Others went even further and made a claim for primary loyalty for the Jewish heart. The Israeli poet, Natan Alterrman, in the year of my birth (1938) penned the poem, “On the Highroad.”

There’s a tinkling in the pasture and a whistling
And the field lies in gold till evening.
A hush of green wells,
My wide open spaces and a road.

The trees risen from the dew
Gleam like glass and metal.
I shall never stop looking, I shall never stop breathing
And I shall die and will keep going.

Even beyond the grave, Jews must use all their energy to advance the lofty vision of Israel. That duty and identification goes well beyond offering “material and moral support, warm-hearted and practical idealism.” The other side of the coin of his 1938 poem is one he wrote almost ten years later, after the partition resolution was passed by the UN in November of 1947, “The Silver Platter,” (מגש הכסף‎ magásh ha-késef). Chaim Weizmann had said that, “No state is ever handed on a silver platter… The partition plan does not give the Jews but an opportunity”. The Jewish People are waiting to receive the Jewish state, as the Israelites were waiting to receive the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai,  they see two youths, a boy and a girl, wounded and near dead with exhaustion. When asked, “Who are you?” they reply, “We are the silver platter on which the state of the Jews was handed to you.”

The Silver Platter Natan Alterman And the land grows still, the red eye of the sky  slowly dimming over smoking frontiers

As the nation arises, Torn at heart but breathing, To receive its miracle, the only miracle

As the ceremony draws near,  it will rise, standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy

When across from it will step out a youth and a lass and slowly march toward the nation

Dressed in battle gear, dirty, Shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly

To change garb, to wipe their brow
They have not yet found time. Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field

Full of endless fatigue and unrested,
Yet the dew of their youth. Is still seen on their head Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death 

Then a nation in tears and amazement
will ask: “Who are you?” And they will answer quietly, “We Are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”

Thus they will say and fall back in shadows
And the rest will be told In the chronicles of Israel

That is what is expected of the pioneers – blood, sweat and tears. And that is what the youth gave in the War of Independence.

That is the case even when diaspora Jews who are non-Zionists, owe a primary fealty to the state where they are citizens. When Ben-Gurion openly aligned with the non-Zionist American Jewish Committee (AJC), he adopted a pragmatic ideological opposition to imposing the obligations of Zionism on all Jews in the diaspora that on the surface seemed at odds with his belief in Israel as both a nation state and as a Jewish state acting on behalf of Jewry as a collectivity. This did not mean that Jews in the diaspora could not or should not act on behalf of Israel’s foreign policy, as, for example, on Iran. Ben Gurion favoured a strategic alliance with diaspora Jews oven at the risk of ideological capitulation.

In an address to the Herzliya Conference (1/24/2007), Prime Minister Ehud Olmert argued for support of diaspora Jews in tracking Iran’s intentions, increasing international awareness of the threat Iran posed to Israel and mobilizing international support on behalf of Israel. Thus, although diaspora Jews owed a primary obligation of fealty to their home state, they also carried a burden of advancing Israeli foreign policy, particularly in the face of any existential threat, especially from Iranian development of nuclear weapons and support for terrorism.


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