RABBI YOCHANAN, A Palestinian rabbi of the third century, described the qualifications for members of the Sanhedrin: They should be ‘men of stature, wisdom, good appearance, mature, age and they must be conversant with all the seventy languages of mankind as well as some of the arts of the sorcerer’. [Sanhedrin 17a, Talmud Bavli].
Another translation from the Hebrew rendered ‘necromancer’ instead of the wider ‘sorcerer’ while Rashi defined the profession as one who seduces or perverts by means of witchcraft.
If a Sanhedrin of Diaspora leaders, based on such specifications were to be constituted today, would it inspire young people to Jewish commitment and continuity? Even if they were proficient practitioners of necromancy, the answer is unlikely to be in the affirmative.
How can we ensure that young Jews find meaning in their Jewishness and encourage drop-outs to drop in? In the past, waves of anti-Semitism and a perfect faith helped to keep the Jews intact. Today, such forces play a lesser role. Educational and outreach programmes play their part, but two essential factors would enhance efforts to cement Jewish continuity.
The first would be a democratisation of the communal structure, leading to an inclusiveness which would embrace all those outside the formal organisational framework. Secondly, the recognition that there is a plurality of paths to Jewishness. Jewish continuity is not synonymous with Judaic continuity.
At the end of June 1994, a conference on Israel-Diaspora relations took place in Jerusalem. Entitled `Dialogue with the President’, Ezer Weizmann’s invitation to representatives set the agenda as `the future of the young generation, Jewish continuity, aliyah to Israel, ways and means to strengthen our mutual relations’. It stated that ‘Israel’s contribution to world Jewry and world Jewry’s involvement in Israel will be reassessed’. All suitably safe and vague.
Yet it was a vast improvement on Yitzhak Shamir’s ‘Prime Minister’s Conference of Solidarity with Israel’ at the beginning of 1989. That ill-fated gathering was artfully mistitled since it was essentially `a Conference of Solidarity with the Israel Government’. American Jewry’s lack of protest at the onset of the US-PLO dialogue unnerved the Israeli Foreign Ministry and something had to be done to shore up Diaspora support for Shamir’s visit to the White House to present his plan for elections in the Territories to a sceptical President George Bush. Prominent critics who opposed the policies of the National Unity Government were not invited and many others such as Sir Isaiah Berlin refused to attend.
This time there was a sense of openness that had not previously prevailed. This showed through the intellectual strength of the American delegation – Arthur Hertzberg, Leonard Fein, Ruth Wisse, Norman Lamm, Michael Walzer and many others. It also contrasted with delegations from other parts of the Diaspora which included few of their opinion makers, and preferred to fall back on the trusted traditional leadership.
The `Dialogue with the President’ was timely. It took place at a time when Anglo-Jewry is looking inward, searching for the meaning of Jewishness in an uncertain age, forging Jewish continuity out of the wreckage of Jewish discontinuity. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, many Jews have identified only with the state as their point of Judaic reference. For some, that identification was so deep that any criticism of Israel Government policy was taken as self-criticism. They reacted accordingly. Identity merging with the state has gradually come to be seen as no longer an option especially for younger people who were never involved in the early trials of the Zionist experiment.
This does not mean that Jews are lessening their identification with Israel. Research by the American Jewish Committee shows that throughout the divisive eighties, US Jews, whether hawks or doves, did not lessen their support for Israel per se. It does mean that Jews are looking at other aspects of Jewish civilisation as a vehicle to define themselves. Some perceive Jewish continuity as Judaic continuity and have turned towards a religious lifestyle. Jewish women seek protection for their children from the tabloid society that colours Britain today and have found that before they teach their own children Judaism, they have to find it for themselves.
Professor Alan Dershowitz commented at the Conference that ‘we are going to see a redefinition of both Judaism and Zionism over the next decade. This is the first time in modern Jewish history that it is conceivable that we might see an end to our persecution, that we might see a time of real success, and with success come these real challenges’.
This chtttzpadik assertion from the author of ‘Chutzpah’ that a time could arise where there would be no anti-Semitism will be ridiculed by some – certainly in Europe – and almost feared by others in that the removal of the scourge of racism will also remove a profound pillar of Jewish identification. Yet Dershowitz’s basic assumption that the House of Jacob, whether in Israel or the Diaspora, is entering a period of relative normality seems to be accurate. The political causes, which ,involve huge numbers of people and have re-shaped Jewish consciousness, seem to have been resolved. Haifa million Soviet Jews have migrated to Israel, leaving few refilseniks behind. The megaphone war between Arab and Jew seems to have been quenched. Ta’amulah, propaganda, has been replaced by hasbarah, explanation.
This was also the theme that Yossi Beilin, the Deputy Foreign Minister, raised in his much-talked about address. He proposed to fill the vacuum with the establishment of Bet Yisrael, House of Israel, as the main institutional link between Israel and the Diaspora. He proposed the enrolment of a million members by 1997, democratic elections for its representatives and its headquarters to be located in Jerusalem. Beilin expounded four central goals. First, it would serve as the main channel of dialogue between Israel and the Diaspora on all matters concerning the Jewish world. Secondly, it would make Jewish and Zionist education its primary responsibility. Thirdly, it would support allya from all communities and finally, offer ‘free, non-transferable and non-postponable vouchers’ to all seventeen year-old Jews to spend a month in Israel on specially designed programmes.
Beilin’s proposals were too revolutionary for some, including Prime Minister Rabin, who asked where the money would come from for the vouchers. Beilin estimated that if 50,000 young Jews came each year, it would cost $150-200 million – less than a quarter of the annual United Jewish Appeal (UJA) collection in the U.S.A. He also suggested the abolition of the Jewish Agency, which clearly did not please some apparatchiks.
Despite the accusations of ‘harebrained schemes’, the youthful Beilin’s proposals were a breath of fresh air at a conference where the same jaded themes were paraded, albeit with a new coat of paint. For example, Beilin suggested the conversion of Israel Bonds into a world-wide mutual fund for entrepreneurial investment in Israel’s economy. But one of Beilin’s most interesting ideas would undoubtedly assist in the search for Jewish continuity – the only problem is that it fundamentally challenges the very power structure of Anglo-Jewry.
“I propose an effort to count every Jew. I mean quite literally that we conduct a census of Jews in the Diaspora, similar to the census we conducted in Israel…I propose that the census be utilised as a way of ensuring that the basic social and cultural needs of Jews can be met by the Jewish community and that every individual be offered some way of satisfying some Jewish needs Or desires in or through Israel’.
The resulting mass membership would then democratically elect an assembly, Bet Yisrael, which would sit in Jerusalem. Problems of logistics apart, this is not an original idea. The former Revisionist, Meir Grossman, proposed the setting up of a second chamber to the Knesset in 1949 where Diaspora Jewry would effectively dissect the affairs of the Jewish people. Beilin’s idea has raised the old question: Does the State of Israel belong to its citizens or to the entire Jewish people? Ben-Gurion believed in the classical Zionist approach that the Diaspora would simply wither away. He tolerated a politically emaciated World Zionist Organisation as a source of funds for immigration and absorption, but not of democratic participation in the affairs of Israel and the Jewish people. Unelected shtadlanim, court Jews, became the acceptable face of the Diaspora. In Europe at least, this marginalised the Jewish intelligentsia who, by definition, asked questions and it froze out the alienated and the assimilated who had no pathway to their Jewishness.
What Beilin proposes is a return to Zionist democracy through a re-building of the moribund Israel-Diaspora relationship. By emphasising the centrality of the Jewish people in an assembly in Jerusalem, he constitutes an instrument of direct contact elected by all Jews. This would also apply to those multitudes – certainly tens of thousands of British Jews – who have ‘dropped out’. As Beilin comments “I see this census as a way of making the disaffected and the unaffiliated count in the planning of the organised Jewish world and I propose that contact with Israel be the option of the first resort as a way of reaching out to them. Let the federations and the communities find ways of connecting every Jew to the centre of the Jewish world, so that it will continue to be a focus for generations to come”.
Therein lies the problem. Apart from the unanswered question of what sort of decision-making powers Bet Yisrael would have, it is difficult to see the leadership of Anglo-Jewry wishing to constitute a body that would be elected and thereby representative of a broad consensus. To take up Beilin’s idea would be to embrace a movement away from the prevailing truth that Anglo-Jewry is, in reality, a limited company which must be managed efficiently to provide services to the consumers. The Board of Management determines the direction after consultations, but there is no annual shareholders’ meeting to discuss progress or indeed accountability. Only the Board of Deputies attempts to be responsive and bothers to carry out elections every three years – although these are based on synagogues and organisations rather than by individual Jews. Yet even this limited form of representation is played down and under threat.
Bet Yisrael would overcome this structural hurdle and fulfil the democratic aspirations of the wide spectrum of British Jews. People would be elected on their ability to represent a constituency of opinion. However, this still does not answer the question of how to involve the estranged and the disinterested in the affairs of Bet Yisrael.
One pathway on which the Chief Rabbi has written at length in his series of pamphlets on Jewish continuity is a return to Jewish tradition as a means of transmitting Jewishness and Judaism. But are there other directions to Jewishness and indeed Jewish grandchildren?
The question of continuity is more than a question of numbers and identification. It is also connected to quality, depth and inspiration. In a recent address to the American Jewish Congress, Princeton’s Michael Walzer developed the idea of a Jewishly literate secular intelligentsia. Walzer argues for ‘a critical engagement with Judaism as a religious/intellectual/political culture’. Intellectuals should not ‘separate themselves from the community’. Describing himself as ‘religiously tone deaf’, he makes it clear that he is not arguing to swell the ranks of the ba’alei teshuva, those who go back to strict orthodoxy, but for a refashioning of Jewish culture, an intellectual ‘spreading out’ from debate and activity. He points to the richness of the works of Ahad Ha’ am and Bialik, whose output is studded with references to the Bible, the Talmud and the Midrashim. Walzer seems to suggest that part of our problem is that too many Jews today are `amei ha ‘aretz’, ignorant and without knowledge, and should be ‘apikhoresitn’ , Jewishly knowledgable but devoutly non-religious without an ideological sense of oppositionism. It is the knowledge and familiarity with the texts and the sources that are all-important in order to establish a viable culture of Jewishness which can be transmitted to offspring.
Walzer also argues for a thorough study of Jewish politics in the exilic settings of the past to help us deal with the confusion of the present. How did the Jewish polity operate in medieval France or nineteenth century Poland? How did they collect money or deal with host Governments? What were their internal disputes?
“We know ourselves best in historical perspective, but most of us have lost this specifically Jewish, political perspective. We are far better informed about the Greek assembly or the English parliament than we are about the Government of the kahal”. Walzer’s politics of Jewish renewal dovetail with Yossi Beilin’s Bet Yisrael as a point of attachment to the Jewish State.
In Britain the response to President Weizmann’s Dialogue has been muted, to say the least. It got secondary coverage and minimal comment in the Jewish press. It seems the ideas of people such as Beilin and Walzer will truly be the province of the necromancers while the running of Anglo-Jewry Ltd will reach new heights of efficiency.
The profound questions of ‘will we have Jewish grandchildren?’ and equally as important ‘what sort of Jews will they be?’ remain on the communal agenda. Only innovative thinking will change our current predicament.
Manna Winter 1995