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Pesach 2016 / 5776 - The Gap Between Israel and the Diaspora: The Eighth Day of Pessach Can Explain

27.04.2016 by

The gap between Israel and the Diaspora - specifically North American and some of European Jewry (more in the UK, less in France) - seems to be growing. Even without the wisdom of Peter Beinart to guide us through what Israel is doing to alienate right-thinking, liberal, young American Jews, we are,  on an almost daily basis, bombarded with complaints from our “progressive” brethren abroad about Israel and Israelis. These range from the ridiculous – Look, Israelis are nasty, they won’t trade seats on airplanes to be nice to couples who want to sit together – to the very serious indeed – Israel is guilty of grievous crimes and injustices, the worst we’ve ever seen, and I, as a Jew (see Howard Jacobson’s insight into that phrase) will not stand for it.

Why? After almost seventy years of statehood, why are so many Diaspora Jews feeling personally let down, disappointed, and angered by Israel?

This Shabbat, Israel and the Diaspora really do part ways, officially. Here in Israel, Passover ends on Friday – as in the Bible, it’s just a seven-day holiday – whereas Diaspora communities will be keeping Friday as an Eighth Day of Passover. This eighth day business is rooted in the lack of clarity that existed in the Diaspora, many centuries ago, about the calendar – they were afraid that they might have been off by a day.  Today – in fact, for quite a while now - we know exactly when the months start and when Passover falls, but the Jews in exile still keep the custom of tacking on an extra day, not because their calendars might really be off by one day, but as a kind of show of respect to their Diaspora ancestors and their Diaspora heritage.

This means that this Shabbat, we, in Israel, will be reading parshat Acharei Mot, while the Diaspora will not. Instead, they will read a special section for Passover. This year, happily, the difference between the two communities will be erased almost immediately, because next week, we in Israel will read Kedoshim, while outside of Israel they will double up Acharei Mot with Kedoshim, and after that we will be together once again. Some years, however, this gap lasts for many weeks, with Israel one parsha ahead of the Diaspora, until two parshas which can be doubled up come around, allowing the rest of the world to catch up with us.

Being one parshat hashuvua away from each other creates an interesting halachic question for those who travel from one country to another and hear the “wrong” parsha in shul on Shabbat, but it is not really such a big deal. I would like, however, to look at this interesting little quirk in the calendar as a kind of metaphor for the growing gap between Israel and the folks who live elsewhere.

Put simply, in Israel, we have gone back to a more Biblical Judaism. The fact that our holidays last the requisite amount of days, as prescribed in the Torah, without any Rabbinically mandated add-ons, is only a small example, from the realm of ritual, of this fact. The bigger issues are of course, much more important. They basically revolve around one, simple fact: In Israel, we are running a country, just as the Biblical nation of Israel did, once the land of Canaan was conquered and settled. The issues facing the Israelites in the books of Joshua, Samuel, Kings, etc., all the way down to the apocryphal Book of Macabees, are the issues we face today in Israel: dealing with foreign allies and enemies; how to conduct warfare and statecraft; how to legislate and judge; in short, how to run a nation. In the Diaspora, on the other hand, it’s all about running communities: educating our children, building and sustaining communal structures, protecting our personal and communal rights within a larger, non-Jewish, state. This is the way Jews have lived in exile for about 2,000 years, not as sovereigns in their own homeland, but as a minority, sometimes oppressed, sometimes tolerated, sometimes positively welcomed,  but always involved in navigating a relatively narrow Jewish communal path within a larger, more powerful, non-Jewish, political, social, economic, and cultural framework.  

Now, one can certainly prefer one form of Jewish life over the other. One is entitled to choose the cozy, small-bore interests of  congregation, Kiddush club, and classes for the kids over worrying about how to respond to missiles being fired at your towns and cities, running a welfare state, dealing with minority rights, and collecting the garbage, or not; that’s a personal decision. I am not interested, here, in arguing the relative merits of contemporary Jewish life in Israel or abroad. What we can agree upon, however, is that this very basic difference between what it means to be an active, engaged citizen of Israel, and what it means to be a member of a Diaspora community, are two very different things, demanding different skills, outlooks, approaches and, dare I say it, values. 

Diaspora Jews think communally. Israelis think nationally. Being Jewish in the Diaspora is NOT about taking ultimate responsibility, as Jews, for the large, life-and- death issues. America’s admirable separation of church and state make it practically illegal, and certainly inappropriate, to get too Jewish when thinking about issues of state-craft, war and peace, equality and justice, and public policy. This situation allows and enables Diaspora Jews to care about their country, yes, but, ultimately, not specifically as Jews. As Jews, they are never called upon to decide whether or not to go to war, to tax people, to kill people, to give them food stamps, or to arrest them. Those decisions, if they think about them, are made not as Jews, but as Americans; their Jewish decisions are limited to family, and community.

When it comes to Israel, however, some Diaspora Jews seem unable to understand that Israel is not a Jewish community, it is a country. It has minorities, who, as in America, often don’t get the best bits of the pie. It has real enemies, some of whom need to be fought, and killed, as messy as that gets. Instead of relating to Israel as a real country, with all of the messy baggage that that entails, they look at Israel as if it were a shul: the Rabbi’s/Prime Minister’s speeches are awful? Fire him! I was insulted by the shul/country’s president? I’m leaving the shul and going around the corner to the other one! JCC-Israel has gone completely mad and actually killed some people? I quit, I want no part of it! They don’t seem to understand that Israel is a nation state, better than most, perhaps worse than some. It needs to be understood, accepted, critiqued when needed, and helped to better itself. It doesn’t need to be treated like a YMHA. 

Even when it comes to other countries, ones which Diaspora Jews don’t even live in, they do seem able to understand this. Take China, for example. Surely, what China has done in Tibet, and at home, to its own dissidents and minorities, is many times worse than anything Israel has done with the Palestinians. And yet, Jews travel to China, synagogue trips go there, no one in the Jewish community makes too big a deal about the grotesque behavior of that country. Why? Because it’s understood as a country, not some sort of Chinese men’s club, and that’s what countries do sometimes. If you are a better, more concerned person, you might speak out against it, or even take some sort of symbolic action, but that’s as far as it goes. The very same people, who go all apoplectic over Israel’s attempts to navigate its way through an extremely difficult situation, are willing to overlook grotesque injustices committed by their own states, and others - and with good reason; that’s the way the world is. They might speak out against it, raise their voices, vote - and some do - but only Israel is treated by these people as a pariah, singled out for approbation simply for doing what states do.

Quite a few years ago, a few American Jewish college students told me that they were uncomfortable seeing a Magen David – a Jewish star – on F16 fighter jets. Around the same time, another student, this one studying for the Rabbinate, made the claim to me that “Israel is the most racist society in the world.” This, from someone who lives in America, where, in the country’s entire history, there have been nine (that’s 9) African American Senators. (There are two now, two at the same time, for the first time in history!) For the sake of comparison, there are 17 Arabs now in Israel’s 120-person Knesset, and there have been 76 since 1949. And yet this fellow claimed that it was Israel that was so racist. (If the Senate figures don’t move you, look at incarceration and disenfranchisement rates for Africa Americans.)

I think this attitude, this inability to treat Israel like a nation state, with an air force, and minorities, and wars, and everything else that goes along with it, is deeply rooted in the minds of some Diaspora Jews, and is what makes them so disproportionately critical of Israel’s behavior. Interestingly, this approach is, I believe, closely related to the ultra-Orthodox approach, which sees anything short of a Messianic wonderland as illegitimate for a Jewish state. This is a mindset which has not yet gotten beyond the fact of Jewish exile and come to the full realization of Jewish sovereignty. Or which resists that shift.  

These people need to come to grips with the fact that we, in Israel, keep a seven-day Passover: we are living in a Biblical reality, in which we need to do what countries do to keep themselves going: look out for our interests, take care of our citizens, protect our borders. This unwillingness to really accept us as a nation state, entitled to exercise these basic rights, which most other countries, including the United States, do in much more oppressive and often deadly ways than Israel, creates in them a distaste for almost anything Israel does that goes beyond their understanding of what is expected of a Jewish endeavor, which is basically good deeds, kugel, and a Rabbi’s sermon (or a panel discussion). Bernie Sanders’ “10,000 innocents killed by Israel” mistake (Slander? Blood libel?) is a perfect example of the very visceral negative response to the exercise of power by the Jewish state.

Jew abroad need to get real about what Israel is and means, and begin to engage in an honest, rather than hysterical, conversation about how well or poorly we are handling ourselves, as a state.  If American Jews could do that, if they could give us, in Israel, at least as much slack as they grant their own government, which is responsible, in the pointless war in Iraq alone, for more deaths than Israel caused in its entire history, then we could perhaps start a real conversation. 

חג שמח,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Pesach Summary


Pesach commemorates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. We remember the birth of the Jewish nation on Passover with a seven-day holiday (eight in the Diaspora), which begins with the Seder - a festive meal during which we retell the story of the exodus and describe how God freed us from slavery to become His people, receive His Torah, and live in His chosen land, Israel. During the holiday we eat unleavened bread - matza - to remember both the cheap, crummy bread we were fed as slaves, as well as the speed with which we left Egypt - no time for our dough to rise - and we refrain from eating any form of leavened bread.

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