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Alan Wolfe on Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews

On Thursday, 11 September 2014, Alan Wolfe gave a seminar at the University of Montana on “Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews.” He is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. Since receiving his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1967, he has become a leading scholar in the field.  He also is an eminent public intellectual, with wide-ranging interests in the manifold ways religion and politics intersect with each other. In addition to his teaching and administrative work at Boston College, he is a senior fellow with the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York. In the fall of 2004, he was the George H. W. Bush Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. The author or editor of more than twenty books, he writes for The Wilson Quarterly, Commonweal, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, and other magazines and newspapers. He has lectured widely at American and European universities.

In his controversial new book, At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for JewsWolfe observes that for the first time in their long history Jews are free to live in a Jewish state or lead secure, productive lives outside of it. Jewish communities in the diaspora are flourishing as never before. Israel, he thinks, needs their democratic universal values if it is to survive. Such views did not endear him to some Zionist critics who interpreted his book as a work of derogation at Israel’s expense.

Wolfe began his UM seminar with a summary of the arguments that he had made in At Home in Exile. He described the Jews, by their own estimate, as “the ever-dying people.” As the Jews see themselves, they are always in crisis and insecure about the future. One such crisis, the Holocaust resulting in the destruction of the Jews in Europe, had a permanently scarring effect on them and led to the fulfillment of Zionism with the creation of Israel as a home and refuge for remaining Jews. For many post-World War II Jews, Zionism became a secular religion. 

Something has gone wrong, however, with Israel’s mystique as a haven of safety. In the first place, Israel is one of the most dangerous places in the world for a Jew to be today. Moreover, younger American Jews in particular identify with Israel less and less. They tend to see the country as an embarrassment rather than as a source of ethnic or religious pride, especially in the aftermath of the incendiary situation in Gaza. The tensions within American Judaism are compounded by the rapid rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. The ethnic character of Judaism is undergoing a dramatic dilution while the religion itself appears to be in crisis as many Jews lose touch with their faith. Judaism, a religion and an ethnicity, is struggling to redefine itself in the face of external and internal pressures.

When a Chronicle of Higher Education summary of At Home in Exile appeared, Wolfe told us that he received hate mail. Only a self-hating Jew, he learned from these communications, would be capable of such an outrageous litany of slanders against Israel and American Judaism. Evidently, it had done him little good with these critics to point out that he was a believing Zionist. He wanted Israel to survive and to flourish. For it to do so, however, the tragedy that Zionism had brought to the Palestinians would have to be acknowledged. 

Here Wolfe sounded a note familiar to readers of Martin Buber’s I and Thou“He who emphasizes the thesis at the expense of the antithesis distorts the sense of the situation.” Buber thought that the world could be saved from its immoral worship of violence and fanatical devotion to collective egotisms only if I-Thou relationships between equals replaced the normal way that the world did its business via I-It relationships between the saved and the damned. The home team was always the former, the morally destitute adversary the latter. What have Middle East politics been since 1917 but a tissue of I-It distortions? 

In making his Buber-approved, if not Buber-inspired points, Wolfe voiced his angry disapproval of the Benjamin Netanyahu-Avigdor Lieberman strategy of blaming the woes of the Middle East exclusively on Arab terrorists. Some other causes also might be responsible for the witches sabbath in the Middle East, including—though certainly not beginning with—the tragic expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their ancestral homeland. To understand Middle East terrorism, it would be necessary to essay the hitherto unthinkable task in Tel Aviv and Washington by taking into account the Palestinian side of the story.

Ironically, in view of past anti-Semitic horrors, the Jews have found a safe haven in the diaspora. Jews are thriving in the United States, France, Spain, and many other countries as well, including Germany where many Israelis have gone to live. Anti-Zionist sentiment is on the rise in Europe, but much more as a result of what Europeans perceive to be heartless Israeli policies toward Palestinians than the traditional anti-Semitic animosities toward Jews as an eternally cursed race of Christ-killers. Wolfe encouraged us to think that the current right-wing government and its illegal settlement policies posed insurmountable obstacles to peace. Insofar as Washington supports the Likud’s approach to peace in the Middle East, the United States also contributes to the bloody impasse there. All of our wars in that part of the world will gain us nothing, so long as the Palestinian-Israeli problem remains a catalyst for Muslim extremism.

The diaspora had come to Israel’s aid at its founding. Now Wolfe is calling for yet another surge of support from the diaspora, but not to defend the plainly ruinous policies of the Netanyahu government. Instead he calls upon Jews worldwide to reassert the universal traditions of justice and humanity within Judaism. A close critical reading of the book of Jeremiah, with its fierce attacks upon the corrupt status quo of the time, would be a good place to start a review of the moral power within Judaism. The world, and Israel most of all just now, needs for the Jews to live up to their best traditions, as laid down by Jeremiah and explained for contemporary audiences by the incomparable Buber. Judaism, Wolfe reminded us, is a state of mind, not a place where you live.

The question and answer period for our seminar got off to a demoralizing start when someone in the audience informed us that the Palestinians were not a real people and, therefore—in so many words—we did not have to worry about them. Wolfe took a deep breath in the face of this withering blast of I-It logic and magisterially drew our attention to the scholarly literature about the ethnic cleansing that took place in Israel at its founding. Primal distortions have a nasty way of perpetrating and augmenting their injustices. He set an equable example, which we then made our best effort to maintain for the rest of the seminar. 

Richard Drake
9 October 2014

Published inNotebook

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