Israeli And Diaspora Jews: ‘We Are Siblings, Not Cousins’

Avinoam Bar-Yosef, Jewish People Policy Institute


For an Israeli like me, the recent visit to Israel of 450 members of the Park Avenue Synagogue is very encouraging. The questions and consternation raised by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, the congregation’s leader in his online Opinion piece (“Are We A Nation Or A Religion?” Jan. 14), are evident, and the aspiration to retrieve a common language and to acknowledge our shared past and destiny shows a palpable optimism. It reflects more a relationship between siblings than between “cousins.” This approach is in stark contradiction to the dark vision expressed by Jonathan Weisman in his recent New York Times op-ed: “American Jews and Israeli Jews are headed for a Messy Breakup.”

As an exile-born Jew, I had both the privilege and challenge of defining my identity at an early age. My late father was the first to confront me with the tough questions of identity when I entered the first grade: “If you are asked who you are, you should answer that you are a Romanian Jew. We are proud to be Jewish as we are part of an old civilization that has made a huge contribution to humanity. We are part of the Romanian nation because we live here and share the rights and obligations of
Romanians,” he explained.

Our secular family was deeply assimilated in Romanian society and culture. The Romanian flag was designed by my grandmother’s uncle, Baruch Iscowitz, who “Romanianized” his name to Barbu Iscovescu. He was one of the three leaders of the 1848 People’s Spring Revolution in Romania. Two of them were Jewish and they never concealed it. As a young engineering student, my father was deeply moved by Herzl’s book, Altneuland, and later influenced by Mordechai Kaplan’s civilizational approach to Judaism. He became a fervent Zionist.

I remember our first day in Israel. When we entered our very modest apartment in a neighborhood for new olim on the outskirts of Jerusalem, he looked at me and said: “Now everything has changed here you are Jewish first.” I answered instinctively: “My understanding is that here we are Israeli Jews.” He replied: “We moved to Israel because we choose to be Jewish first.”

As a kid in Bucharest, I was taught by my parents about Judaism from a book on the history of civilizations — not from the siddur or Bible. My mother used to light Shabbat candles, but it was only a tradition passed down to her. Until I was eight years old, she also decorated a Christmas tree, which she called a “winter tree,” so I would not feel like I was different from my classmates.  When I was eight, my parents took me to a synagogue for the first time, saying that I needed to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah.

“It is not too early?” I asked.

“This is the only place where you can learn the Hebrew language under the Romanian Communist regime,” was their prompt answer. The government refused my father’s petition to make aliyah in 1948, when the Jewish state was established, but his dream that his only child would live as a Jew under Jewish sovereignty persisted. Four years later, we were allowed to leave, and my bar Mitzvah was conducted in the synagogue in that Jerusalem neighborhood for new olim.

This is how my Jewish national, religious, and civilizational identity was formed. Later, it was very much influenced by the Bible lessons in school, my army service, and my four-year post in Washington, D.C. as the bureau chief of the Israeli daily, Ma’ariv.

I perceive being “reborn” in Jerusalem as a privilege that not every Jew has enjoyed.

This is why it became clear to me that the first loyalty should be to the country you choose to live in, and why at the same time to be Jewish means also to be part of a spread-out people that care about each other (Arvut Hadadit), and to have pride in our common civilizational roots.

This is why every visit I make to a new place in the world starts at a synagogue or a Jewish community center, and the visits of Jews from all over the globe to Israel creates for them a special feeling of belonging. We do not always share ideologies, but we have deep values that unite us. We are not cousins, we are siblings.

These differences are not only between Israelis and diaspora Jews; they often characterize the disputes inside each community. It is true that living in different environments, sometimes even different neighborhoods, leads to the development of different approaches and different life challenges.

The years I spent living in the States exposed me to an amazingly vibrant, influential, and successful Jewish community. This flourishing is not accidental. It is a result of decades of commitment, investment, and the vision for a thriving Jewish communal future. This began well before the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Israel and was vulcanized in the fire of the European tragedy.

Zionism also became the most successful revolution of the 20th century. This triumph was based not only on the Israeli determination to survive when the choice was between war and being pushed into the sea. It was not only due to Jewish brain power and creativity. It was also nurtured by the love and strength of the American Jewish community, which over the years has increasingly become an Israeli strategic asset. In parallel, Jewish sovereignty in its ancestral homeland has boosted the self-confidence of Jews the world over.

The concurrent success of American Jews and Israeli Jews, even if they are developing with two different understandings of Jewish identity, should not lead to distancing or sibling rivalry. Rabbi Cosgrove relates to the emergence, in both the U.S. and Israel, of two Jewish communities no different than the Sephardic and Ashkenazic. In Israel, the Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide belongs to the past. The greatest success of the Jewish state is Kibbutz Galuiot, the creation of a unifying identity for Jews of every stripe.

This concurrent success should foster mutual pride and respect for each other, what Rabbi Cosgrove describes as “leaning in.” Mutual pride is the first step in retrieving the common language that the Park Avenue Synagogue has chosen to lean into with love. It is right that the schism between Israeli and American Jewry is not about the Kotel, or the two-state solution, or liberalism versus conservatism. The second step should be the acknowledgement of the different legitimate identities developing, and of the constraints faced by each side.

There is an inevitable need for dialogue, not only around our shared past and destiny, but in regard to our mutual responsibility for the continuing contribution of the Jewish civilization to humanity. The Jewish People Policy Institute’s (JPPI) work clearly shows that windows of opportunity for an ongoing conversation exist on both sides to enhance mutual care and narrow the distance.

Not every Israeli shares my personal experience in life, but also, not every American Jew shares the worldview expressed in Rabbi Cosgrove’s eloquent and encouraging piece in The Jewish Week.   But most Israelis are either themselves immigrants or the children of olim – they share similar stories and memories. They should also understand the diaspora experience. Similarly, the Israeli reality should be better digested by American Jews. I’m confident that many of them are not strangers to stories like those of my childhood.

For an Israeli, the negative approach of Weisman in his New York Times piece doesn’t leave much room for hope. Rabbi Cosgrove does.

Judaism is at once a religion, a nationality, and a civilization which can only flourish with a united sense of purpose.

Avinoam Bar-Yosef is the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, based in Jerusalem.