At the opening dinner of the Boston-Haifa Joint Steering Committee last Sunday night in Haifa, Yona Yahav, the Mayor of Haifa, shared an interesting comment.  He said, in no uncertain terms, that Israeli is half belongs to him, and half belongs to us Jews in the Diaspora.  While I might not even go that far, it was interesting to hear an Israeli politician more or less say that Israel belongs not just to Israelis, but to the Jewish people.

I’m not even sure that I’d say we’re entitled to 50%, but I do know who wouldn’t say that.

A.B. Yehoshua.

A.B. Yehoshua is an incredible author. I love his books. But when it comes to matters of the Israel-Diaspora relationship he and I are not in agreement.  At a lecture delivered last Friday in Israel, he delivered the following words regarding American Jewry:

“They are partial Jews while I am a complete Jew.  In no way are we the same thing – we are total and they are partial; we are Israeli and also Jewish…Israel is the authentic, deep concept of the Jewish people … in no siddur is there a mention of the word ‘Jew’ but only ‘Israeli’. The name of our country and the territory is Land of Israel – and it is about this deep matter that we must defend against a Jewish offensive.”

The encounter between the average Israeli and American normally begins with a tacit understanding that there is an interesting thing happening in Israel with secular Jewish identity and in America with a progressive, religious Jewish identity.  This is the beginning of a discussion that should make room for the differences between two peoples, united by religion and shared history, attempting to build a Judaism that can comfortably fit them both.

That has never been easy.  Tensions exist between progressive American Judaism and the heavy-handed state-sanctioned Judaism of the Israeli state. The visceral reaction many of us felt to the news out of Bet Shemesh in December only served to make us more uneasy with this in-your-face expression of what can only be called misogynistic religious practice.

But A.B. Yehoshua would like us to ignore that.

For years we’ve heard Israeli leaders talk about Israel as the Zionist ideal realized. And I get it. While I profess to be an American Zionist, clearly if I was a truly passionate Zionist I would have made aliyah.  I would buy Yehoshua’s argument that Israelis are full Zionists, and that I am a partial Zionist, but that’s not what he is saying. This is different territory he is staking out, channeling some old Rav Kook Zionist philosophy when saying that Israel now embodies the fullest expression of Judaism.

If that is indeed the case, then mazal tov to the State of Israel and its religious structures for figuring out how to make that happen.  But I would caution A.B Yehoshua, or any other like-minded thinker, to consider the facts on the ground and ponder the following questions before placing American Jewry or any non-Israeli Judaism in second-class status. 

Is any Israeli Jew a full Jew, even a secular one? Are the Haredim who spit on women displaying their full Judaism? Is every American Jew, no matter how “religious”, inherently inferior to an Israeli Jew? Where does Zionism fit into this discussion? Is the inflexible Orthodox Judaism that governs the religious policies of the Israeli government a fuller Judaism than a more progressive approach? Does A.B. Yehoshua consider the radical Haredi Judaism of Bet Shemesh an authentic, deep Judaism that is superior to ours?

Clearly A.B. Yehoshua likes to wordsmith.  He is eager to share with us that the word “Jew” is not in the Siddur. Well, it is in the Tanakh, it’s in our Rabbinic literature, and it’s even in HaTikvah when the word “Israel” is not. And he should also recognize that the B’nai Yisrael who are referred to in the Bible and the word Yisrael in our siddur doesn’t refer to the people living in the State of Israel… it means the children of Israel, the children of Jacob, or, succinctly, all Jews.

We are all Jews. We are all the Children of Israel. And while we are not all Israelis, we are certainly equally invested in the long-term survival of the Jewish people and of Judaism.

In this day and age the last thing we need is rhetoric that seeks to divide us.

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