Rabbi Shaul Magid is an Israeli-American, and a leading scholar of Jewish studies at Indiana University, long associated with liberal Zionist causes. Last month he spoke in New York at a Center for Jewish History panel on Israel-Diaspora relations. Most of the panelists called for a renewal of the relationship between Israeli and US Jews.
But Magid said the relationship was necessarily adversarial, and all but pronounced Zionism a dead letter. Zionism needs a “radical recalibration” if it is to go on; and as to Israel, where he lived for 10 years:
I often think what it would be like for me to live there again, and given the political reality and given my own inclinations, I think it would actually drive me insane.
But Jews are doing fine in the U.S., said Magid. Here are some of his remarks.
“I’m going to be the buzzkill, I think. It’s a negative tension [between Israeli and American Jewry] and there are four reasons why. Somewhere, first of all, [David] Ben-Gurion said one of the greatest challenges to Zionism will be a robust Diaspora, because he understood that the instability of the Diaspora was that which keeps Zionism alive and fresh, and this notion of the negation of the Diaspora is something that is so built into Zionist thinking and Zionist education, that in a sense, in one way, contemporary America is Ben-Gurion’s worst nightmare.
“The second thing is I think Ben-Gurion made three mistakes, three understandable miscalculations, and the three miscalculations gave us what I think we have in the present state of Israel. The first miscalculation was that Diaspora Jews would come. The second miscalculation was that the Arabs would leave. And the third miscalculation was that the haredi [ultra-Orhtodox] would secularize. Those are three calculations that he made in the state.
“And it was understandable in the 1930s, when the Diaspora was in such a precarious state, that if there was a Jewish state, why wouldn’t Jews come? If there’s a Jewish state, why would the Arabs stay? And why would the haredim live in a secular Jewish society?
“But the truth is the Arabs didn’t leave, the Jews didn’t come, and the haredi didn’t secularize, and in some way the state of Israel is the result of that. And given the fact that all of the procrastinations aside with the 2013 Pew Poll [showing younger American Jews becoming distant from Israel], I think Jews have learned successfully to be in America as Jews. The haredim have learned how to live in America, the assimilated Jews have learned to live in America, non orthodox Jews have learned to live in America… If you think about it, something that Ben-Gurion could never have imagined, that you would have now in Berlin, in New York, in Los Angeles– Israeli diasporas, Jews who grow up in Israel that choose to live outside Israel. That’s something that was beyond his imagination.
“So I think that history has given us a situation where for that relationship, for that negative tension to become a positive tension, there has to be a kind of to my mind a radical recalibration of what Zionism actually is. And I don’t think it can be the Ahad Ha’am model. Because the Ahad Ha’am model of Israel as a spiritual center is a hierarchical one. [Simon] Rawidowicz, the two centers–… it’s not something that’s taught, but I think the reality is that it’s something that is…. I think that’s where we are…
“I am an Israeli citizen. I… served in the Israeli army during the first intifada. And my son served in the army during the second intifada. I lived in Israel for a little over ten years. For the first nine and a half I never contemplated moving back. I actually chose to move back to the U.S., ironically, to become a scholar of Jewish studies. That was the reality. If that’s the profession that you want, then Israel’s not the place to live…
“So I don’t feel guilty about my decision. I have two children that moved back to Israel and lived there for six and seven years and subsequently moved back to the U.S. I go there once or twice a year for various reasons, professional reasons. I have a whole life there, friends that I’ve known for 30 years. I often think about what it would be like for me to live there again, and given the political reality and given my own inclinations, I think it would actually drive me insane.
“I don’t really feel guilty…. I think you can live a full Jewish life in Israel in a particular way. I think you can lead a full Jewish life in America too.”
P.S. I’ve been waiting for Gaza/Netanyahu to shake loose liberal Zionists. At a deep level, many thoughtful Jews are saying, Enough. And Magid is an Israeli, who sees other Israelis voting with their feet.
Note the primacy he grants American Jewish political values over Israeli values. That’s the revolutionary thrust of his comments. American Jews have figured out better than Israeli Jews how to live in the world, and enough of this American deference to Israeli Jews. The Israeli Jews are living a full Jewish life “in a particular way.” That’s a put-down. They are provincials. American Jews have a far broader engagement. Magid makes a point as a Jewish historian to include assimilating Jews like myself as part of Jewish civilization (married to a non-Jew, measuring my actions by codes that are not necessarily Jewish, listening to non-Jewish song).
These comments are a condemnation of Israel’s political decisionmaking by a leading scholar who used to be in its army.