October 20, 2018

The diaspora debate: Is it good for the Jews?

I’m 58, and I still don’t know what kind of Jew I am or really want to be.  I know that in spite of a complete lack of formal training, I remain a loyal Jew; devoted to Jews of all stripes everywhere.  I think I inherited this surety of feeling from my 90-year-old mother whose weathered face now bears the complex burden of Jewish suffering.  If you were to ask my mother to define for you her Jewish identity; she would laugh at you puzzled by the absurdity of your question.  For it simply is whom she is. 

For her, being Jewish is an exhilarating mixture of joy and anguish that is punctuated by the melodic and haunting tragedies of her beloved Yiddish songs.  Being Jewish takes places in her heart; not in synagogue or in prayer, or in Israel which she found uncomfortable and alien.  She feels no need to justify her Jewish essence or her lifelong commitment to liberalism.  They simply go hand in hand.  Her mother was devout, and kept a kosher home, but her aunts were budding communists who would secretly feed her on Yom Kippur while her mother fasted.  They all lived unbearably close together and helped each other out when there was a crisis.  This became her definition of Jewish morality, which she took with her from Brooklyn to Manhattan.  She always worries for Israel and cheers its victories but refuses to choose sides among the many contentious debates that divide the Jews.  Because for her, the enemy is elsewhere and still breathing down all of our necks.  Which is why my mother would be greatly disturbed by much of the rebellious rhetoric in Alan Wolfe’s compelling new book “At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews” (Beacon Press). 

Wolfe doesn’t seem to possess my mother’s unshakeable certainty about Jewish identity; he is a 72-year-old wanderer still looking for his place amidst the complex matrix that defines modern Jewish life.  He has written on many topics including the culture wars, school choice, political evil, and the strength of our democracy.  He has researched the intricate belief systems of Christian evangelicals, and although a lifelong atheist, feels drawn to religious belief as an area of study.  But he has never written about his own personal relationship with his Jewish heritage and he does so awkwardly now.  He grew up in Philadelphia in a non-religious home, the son of a father who refused any sort of ideological classification other that intellectual explorer.  

In his new book, Wolfe examines the thinking of everyone from Maimonides to Philip Roth to David Ben-Gurion to Hannah Arendt.  His conclusion seems to be that life in the Diaspora is very good for the Jews, and the non-Jews whom they live among, since it allows Jews the opportunity to fight prejudice and work towards justice and human dignity for all.  He feels this benefits the perception of Jews worldwide.  His book is a nothing short of a call to arms.  He writes, “Exile is not the enemy of the Jewish state; isolation is.  Now more than ever Israel needs the universalism that isolation abhors.  It is one thing for Jews to turn their backs against the whole world.  It is even more problematic to spurn those proud to be Jewish but also happy to be citizens in the countries in which they were born.”  He resents the public comments of A.B. Yehoshua, who said recently that the only authentic life for a Jew is one lived in the Jewish state of Israel. 

With the New Age romanticism of an aging hippie, he idealizes those Jewish thinkers who want to redefine a meaningful Jewish life as one that embraces liberalism and tolerance and pluralism as a panacea for all our woes. He mentions Avraham Burg with praise.  Burg was the speaker of the Knesset before he switched political alliances and declared bluntly to a shocked Israeli public that “what I want to do is to expand the borders of Israel beyond land and location to include universalism and spiritual search…We were raised on the Zionism of Ben-Gurion, there is only one place for Jews and that is Israel.  I say no, there have always been multiple centers of Jewish life.”

Wolfe clearly casts his lot with Jewish leaders who believe Israel has become too militant and right wing, and in doing so, have relinquished the dreams of its founders.  Israel, claims Wolfe, was supposed to be the place where the precious values of the Enlightenment would be cherished and practiced and set an example for the world. Instead, Wolfe is upset by the growing Orthodoxy and nationalism that has infused Israeli life, along with the messianic settler movement and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  He believes Israel’s behavior has fueled anti-Semitism everywhere, and prompted a call by many countries for a boycott of its products.  He believes that new hope for Judaism and Jews now lies in the Diaspora – particularly in America, where he feels things for Jews have never been brighter or more secure. 

Even on intermarriage, Wolfe is cavalier.  He writes “Intermarriage is universalism in miniature; by bring Jews together with non-Jews in the most intimate of ways, intermarriage, both as Herzl once hoped and as the work of Fishman and McGinity documents, really does expand horizons.”  He wants Jews to stop living as a people “doomed to drown in a sea filled with danger, from Christians, from secularization, and from Muslims…”  He resents the attacks made on Jewish liberal thinkers like Tony Kushner and Jacqueline Rose and the late Tony Judt who are often labeled self-hating Jews.  He sees their comments as heroic since it reflects their belief that they expect more from the Jewish state and are willing to voice their opinions publicly. 

These feel like fighting words to Jews like myself who see great danger in his loose talk about the Jewish plight.  I am a secular atheistic liberal humanist Jew just like Alan Wolfe, but not an amnesiac.  Wolfe seems to have tremendous trouble accepting Jewish vulnerability.  He doesn’t waste a drop of ink mourning for them, or the Holocaust, or the Jewish oppression he has witnessed throughout his life.  His passionless intellectuality will irritate many readers and confuse them.  He refuses to accept that, as Harold Bloom wrote years ago, “the Jew has perpetually been on trial; still today, the Jew is on trial, in the person of the Israeli, and this modern trial of the Jews, this trial which never ends, begins with the trial of Shylock.” 

Anthony Julius, the author of “Trials of the Diaspora,” points out that much of what is said about Israel is frighteningly deplorable.  Julius adds, “There’s a frightening animus, a one-eyed assessment of the dynamic of the conflict there.  The cartoons coming out of the Arab world are couched in particularly anti-Semitic imagery of the Jew as hooked-nose and ringleted, behaving oppressively to the Arab.”  He adds that more troubling is the extreme rhetoric and violent behavior of Hamas and the atrocious amount of anti-Semitic discourse in the Muslim communities around the world.  He cites those who equate Israel to Nazi Germany and Zionism to Nazism as the most heinous.  But Wolfe dismisses Anthony Julius and describes him critically as possessing the “luxury of self-pity, and the moral status associated with being a victim, without any of the perils that define that condition.”  Julius seems to have had men like Alan Wolfe in mind when he wrote, “There is a small history to be written of Jewish critics’ insensibility to the anti-Semitism of anti-Semitic works.”

Still, one can understand why Wolfe feels the pull to extricate himself from the burden of Jewish history, memory, grief, and obligation.  Philip Roth confronted these issues when he wrote “Operation Shylock” in 1993.  In it, there are two Philip Roth’s; the one we are familiar with and his alter ego who believes Israeli’s Ashkenazi Jews should return to their ancestral homes in Europe to fulfill their Diasporist destinies.  Roth’s alter ego has it all worked out.  The anti-Semitism that remains in Europe will be controlled by a new organization called Anti-Semites Anonymous that even has its own 12-step program.  Roth’s alter ego is not afraid to criticize the policies of the Israeli government that harm Palestinians and leave Israel vulnerable to charges of wrongdoing.  He believes eventually the Arabs will wipe out the Jews or the Jews will have to destroy them with nuclear weapons and inadvertently destroy themselves.  Roth’s alter ego sees Israel as a no-win situation.  Better to flee now for the Diaspora! 

Roth grew up in a tight-knit home in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark, N.J., not far from Philadelphia, where Alan Wolfe was raised.  Roth claims his neighborhood was mostly secular, and he never saw a skullcap or a beard on any of his Jewish neighbors.  Like Wolfe, Philip Roth’s life was enmeshed in America and the pursuit of success.  He remembers that when he would ask his grandmother where she came from, she’d say “Don’t worry about it.  I forgot already.”  But Roth didn’t forget and much of his fiction explores the emotional contradictions inherent in forgetting.  Wolfe seems to have really forgotten. 

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.