Israel/Diaspora Relations: What Unites Us, What Divides Us

Delivered at the 1998 National Convention of
The Jewish National Fund
Phoenix, Arizona


It is truly a privilege and a pleasure to be able to speak with you today. I have been putting quarters into your pushkes for longer than I can remember, and I am glad to join with other pushke pushers too.

It is also a pleasure to be able to share a panel with such distinguished colleagues and friends. I want to try to speak with you from the perspective of someone who is deeply imbedded in the American Rabbinate, which is to say in Jewish life as it is lived in the United States, both from the perspective of ten years as a congregational rabbi in Orange County, California and, now, as the Executive Vice President of an organization of 250 rabbis from every stream of Jewish life. You know that we rabbis are a contentious group and we have strong opinions. So I want, in the spirit of an open dialogue, to share with you what I think are some areas of rabbinic consensus, and where our discussion — all of us together — might proceed along fruitful lines.

By way of an introduction, let me say that I think there is a broad consensus in our love of Zion and our love for the land of Israel. That broad consensus continues to unite and inspire America’s rabbis and America’s Jews. Paradoxically, it is our love of Zion and our Jewish commitment that leads us to speak out when we have something to say. I’d imagine I was not the only American in this room whose first response, upon hearing of the terrorist bombing in Beer Sheva, was to think about those poor victims, and that the thought about the political implications were secondary. I am sure I am not the only American in this room whose best friend in college is now a citizen of the State of Israel, whose nephews and niece are Israelis, who has aunts, uncles, and cousins in the State of Israel. The connections that link America Jewry and the State of Israel are very real and far more important than mere politics. (Applause)

It is because of my commitment to my nieces and nephews that, when I have something to say, I need to say it. They tell me that the silence of American Jewry is putting their lives at risk. We have to be able, for the sake of our families and for the sake of our people, to have faith in the process of democracy (which thank God Israel is and thank God America is) to be able to speak our peace and to listen to other responsible viewpoints. We may differ as to how best to show our support for Israel. But we must show support for Israel, and on that imperative, I think there can be no question.

What is it that still unites us? I believe that I speak for all of my colleagues in the rabbinate when I assert publicly and proudly that Israel has the right not only to exist, but also to thrive. The Jewish people, like all peoples of the world, have a right to national self-expression. But the nation of which we are part is larger than the State of Israel; it embodies all Jewish people everywhere. We all of us have a link to the land of Israel and to its government. We all have a right to be part of the on-going polity that is the Jewish people, which preceded the existence of the Third Jewish Commonwealth, which preceded the existence of the Second Jewish Commonwealth. It is the peoplehood of the Jewish people that created the State of Israel and not vice versa.

Another point of consensus: All Jews everywhere have a stake in what happens in Israel. There is a wonderful ancient Midrash that compares the Jewish people to a sheep, noting that when you strike any of the limbs of a sheep it bleeps with its mouth. So too with us: when a Jew is hurt in Buenos Aries or Johannesburg or New York or Tel Aviv, Jews everywhere ought to cry out.

The third area of agreement: There is an ongoing war against the existence of the Jewish State. That war takes many forms: through diplomacy, the media, through military action, and through terror. All Jews everywhere have a moral obligation to stand in solidarity with Israel in the battle against that war.

Finally, there is a recognition (asserted by the Rabbis since the Emancipation) that Jewish survival will take place only if there are Jews who are educated in what it means to be Jewish, who are living their understanding of Judaism. That is true whether you are in the galut of Phoenix or the galut of Tel Aviv. Regardless of where a Jew lives, without a Jewish education, without a commitment to living a Jewish life steeped in our sources and embedded in the richness of our heritage, pursuing a life of justice and holiness, there isn’t sufficient cause for us to continue our endeavors.

Let me tell you a story along that line because it moves me exactly into what divides us: the Los Angeles Jewish Federation has a partnership with the City of Tel Aviv. This year we brought fifteen teenage students from Tichon Hadash to study in different schools throughout greater Los Angeles, both Jewish day schools and public schools. At a recent event, one of the girls got up to speak and she said as follows, “I am sixteen years old. The first time I stepped foot in a synagogue was when I went to Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles. It was great!” she said. “I can’t wait to tell all my friends back in Israel how wonderful it is inside synagogues.” Her comment made me think that perhaps we need to start flying young Israelis to the Diaspora to experience firsthand the many rich ways to live as Jews.

We have been living rich and meaningful Jewish lives in the Diaspora for over 2000 years. We have learned how to maintain and to build vibrant Jewish communities because we have been doing that for millennia. Don’t get me wrong: Israel is the crowning miracle of Jewish life in this century, and I am awe struck by the accomplishments of the State of Israel and its people. But the achievements of the Diaspora also have much to teach. What we need is a full partnership in which each of us are able to recognize the wisdom and the insight that the other partner brings to the table. Rather than one side preaching to the other, we ought to be able to learn from each other, and to learn that sometimes what works in one place isn’t what works in the other.

In that regard, I must say that the issue of pluralism in Israel is, in my opinion, not simply an issue of misunderstanding. The fact that Rabbis in Israel are funded or not because of their denomination, the fact that my colleagues with whom I went to rabbinical school are by law not allow to perform weddings or funerals in the Jewish State threatens the unity of the Jewish people. It was the great Anatol France who commented that the majesty of the law is such that both rich and poor are prohibited from sleeping on park benches. To portray the lack of recognition of all streams of Jewish life in the State of Israel as simply a mutual misunderstanding is I believe, with all due respect, a distortion. (Applause)

And then, finally, it is the great glory of the Torah — to which we owe our ultimate allegiance — that we are commanded to have mishpat echad, one standard of justice for all people. Alas, there are areas in Israeli civil life where that has not yet been realized (as indeed is true in every democracy including the United States). But one of the areas that divides us, then, is when we see areas in which those living in Israel are treated unequally and we see the government acting — instead of defending them —attempting to maintain a status quo of inequality.

I want to close where I began: Jewish life without the State of Israel is unthinkable. Israel is a great and ongoing blessing, and the work that you accomplish is one of the most important efforts we can be doing to stand in solidarity with the people and State of Israel. But solidarity means that we have to contribute not only our financial resources and our organizational skills, but also the benefits of our opinion, which Israelis are welcome to share or disregard as they choose. There needs to be a free flowering discussion between our communities both of which are variegated and complex, neither one of which can be beaten by a single party line.

Thank you very much.


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).