Skip to: site menu | section menu | main content

Chalav U'Dvash

Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought
Currently viewing: Chalav U'Dvash » Home

Volume 0, Number 0

Zionism Outside of Zion

In Defense of the Dual Identity

By Sam Ackerman

Zionist ideology has historically emphasized the idea of shlilat ha-golah, the negation of a future for Jewish existence in the Diaspora. Zionist ideologue Yehezkel Kaufmann, for instance, lamented that, even after many years of residence in the Diaspora, Jews have continued to be seen as strangers.a As an American Jew who in no way feels like a stranger here, I would like to present a case for the validity of Diaspora Zionism. This term is a sort of anomaly by the traditional view, since aliyah (immigration to Israel) has long been considered to be the cornerstone of Zionism. I believe in the possibility and authenticity of being a Zionist in the Diaspora, and in light of changing realities, the traditional ideology needs to be reevaluated. While aliyah is a fundamental part of Zionism, I believe that the scope of what is considered "Zionism" should be broadened to include other activities undertaken to strengthen Israel and the Jewish People, which do not require aliyah. Deeming aliyah the only valid expression of Zionism is based on the outdated principle of negating the possibility of the continuation of Jewish life in the Diaspora.  

The Jerusalem Program, a series of aims for Zionism espoused by the World Zionist Organization in 1968, holds the "centrality of Israel in Jewish life" as one of Zionism's central
tenets.b Zionist writer Gideon Shimoni distinguishes between two Zionist views of the role of Israel in Jewish life. The first, which he terms "inherent centrality," views Jewish life in the Diaspora as an unequal alternative to Jewish life in Israel. According to this view, Diaspora existence is only a partial Jewish existence, since Jews there live in non-Jewish lands and speak non-Jewish languages, whereas in Israel there is a Jewish aspect to every area of life. This school of thought also views aliyah as an action of service to the Jewish People that is required of any Jew who believes in Jewish nationalism.  

The second, the "circumstantial centrality" viewpoint, holds that Israel ought to figure promiently in the minds of Diaspora Jews, because of internal and external threats to Israel's well-being. At the same time, this school of thought considers Diaspora and Israel existence as essentially equal in value, despite differences in their nature. Therefore, it is possible to simultaneously live a true Jewish life and also be involved in the Diaspora country of residence. Also, aliyah is not viewed as required, but is an act undertaken for one's personal preference or convictions.c

As a believer in Diaspora Zionism, I don't fully agree with either of these views. To me, inherent centrality is problematic because of the idea that "the ... society and culture of the Jews in Israel is the crucial determinant of the collective Jewish future." The viewpoint also holds that "Diaspora Jewry is too subsumed by the majority culture to ensure by itself the collective future of the Jews as a people."d But to me, the most problematic idea is that aliyah is a requirement of any dedicated Jew. The circumstantial centrality viewpoint is also flawed, since for me Israel's centrality comes not from concern over the external and internal threats to Israel, as Shimoni says, but simply from the fact that Israel is the Jewish State. Israel's centrality is "inherent"—it simply is central because it exists—though I oppose what he terms "inherent centrality."

One of the grounds for the rejection of Judaism in the Diaspora has been the idea that Jews in the Diaspora are interacting in a land and a language that are not their own. The inherent centrality stance, on the contrary, says that because of the Jewish land and language of Israel, culture is "refracted by the Jewish prism of Israel," and thus everything in Israel has a distinctive Jewish nature.e Thus, the argument has been that aliyah is the only way to truly prove one's Zionist allegiance and to be able to live a truly Jewish life.

One of the difficulties with the argument that all Zionists must make aliyah is that such a requirement is unreasonable for most. Aliyah requires uprooting families, breaking social ties, and leaving businesses behind. Most Jews are comfortable where they are, and have in effect voted with their feet. Additionally, the act of aliyah is a statement that one holds Israel to be of primary importance, a statement that I don't think most people can definitively make; aliyah is a very difficult personal decision. I can't make that statement, at least at this point in my life.   

The inherent centrality stance that Diaspora Jewry cannot "ensure by itself the collective future of the Jews as a people" is true. But neither can Israel, and both Israel and Diaspora Jews need to work together in this aim. The statement that Israeli Jewish society "is the crucial determinant of the collective Jewish future" is also flawed; rather, this "crucial determinant" is the cooperation between Israel and the Diaspora. While Diaspora Jews need Israel to serve as a beacon for us, Israel also needs Diaspora Jews—not just to perform fundraising and lobbying in her support—but to participate as partners in maintaining the worldwide Jewish community. The two communities are, in this sense, interdependent.  

In light of the situation that aliyah is an unlikely reality for most Diaspora Jews, Israel and Diaspora Jewry must recognize their responsibility to jointly maintain the future of world Judaism. Thus, I believe that the spectrum of Zionism should expand to include activities undertaken in the Diaspora for the strengthening of Israel and the Jewish People. This way, all Jews can join under the banner of Zionism to work for what is essentially their common cause. Arguing over who is or is not a Zionist is, by and large, counterproductive, since nearly all dedicated Jews worldwide are committed to supporting the future of Israel and the Jewish community. Such debates, in my mind, create needless divisions. Aside from activities that are overtly designed to support Israel, such as fundraising and lobbying, I think any work that is part of the Jewish community, including involvement in Jewish cultural activities and Jewish education, can be considered as a sort of Zionism. Such activities strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora, so Diaspora Jews can better work with Israel to ensure the overall well-being of world Jewry.  

I do not mean to deny the importance of aliyah as a powerful action of solidarity with the Jewish People. Aliyah is very important since it brings skilled workers who can contribute to Israel's economy and citizens who can vote in Israeli elections. I simply think that a de-emphasis on the requirement of aliyah within Zionist ideology—while still acknowledging its importance—may be in order. Zionism should more broadly highlight the need to strengthen Israel, in whatever ways people see fit.    

I do not think that the reduced Jewish quality of our lives makes life in the Diaspora subordinate to life in Israel. The Zionist nature of our Jewish activities in the Diaspora reflects the fact that while our lives in the Diaspora have different priorities, they are still important to Zionism and world Jewry. Most Zionist theorists would counter that the decision to remain in the Diaspora is the primary result of the Diaspora's corrupting influence, and that it demonstrates our weakness as Jews. Since aliyah demonstrates one's singular commitment to Israel, I think that the fact that most Diaspora Jews are not prepared to make aliyah simply shows that support of Israel is not their top priority. At the same time, I don't think that this is necessarily a negative reflection on their Jewish identity; I don't need every area of my life to have a Jewish facet for me to be a Zionist and dedicated Jew. While living a Jewish life is important to me, there are other issues important to me, such as finding what I can do to improve the society in which I live. We have a responsibility to work to correct various social and political problems in our country, and focusing only on Israel and Zionism causes us to neglect this responsibility.

Gershon Cohen, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, explained this position by comparing various important issues, such as Israel, to organs of the body. We do not know which of our organs is most important, he wrote, and while certain situations may cause us to devote more attention to one organ (or issue), we must not abandon responsibility for other organs or issues that are also important.f While I don't endorse the essay's later ideas, I think this point is valid. Aliyah is not appropriate for everyone, and the idea that making aliyah is a requirement for one to be considered a true Zionist is counter-productive. This would necessitate one to focus solely on Israel's needs at the overriding expense of other important issues around the world. Furthermore, there are other ways to be a Zionist which allow us to be dedicated to Zionism but not ignore our responsibilities to the societies to which we belong.

Does the reduced Jewish character of life in the Diaspora make us less fit to work with the Israeli community as partners to maintain Judaism in the world? While our lives are not inherently Jewish and we have divided loyalties to both Israel and our countries, I believe we can authentically be both American (in my case) and Jewish. This was the idea of the "dual identity" for Diaspora Jews, advocated by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism.g Kaplan vigorously opposed the way that Jewish education instilled in children a "sense of misery in being fated to be born a Jew" by preaching the impossibility of a future for Jews in the Diaspora.h He believed that "as convinced Jews and loyal Americans, we should seek to incorporate in American life the universal values of Judaism."i

Supporters of the inherent centrality view, in contrast, believe that Jewish identity must "encompass all of life" for it to be "truly authentic," and reject the idea of dual identity that Kaplan proposed as invalid.j I find this position to be a personal affront. As a Diaspora Zionist, I believe that my American and Jewish identities do not detract from the authenticity of each other. Moreover, the validity of my Jewish identity is not at someone else's discretion to determine.  

Leaving that issue aside, this rejection of the authenticity of Diaspora Jewish identity is completely impractical and counter-productive. An American Jewish Committee (AJC) policy statement declares that "the formerly classic Zionist theory of ‘negation of the Diaspora'—even in its contemporary form of predicting future assimilation—is pernicious and denigrating to serious efforts under way to preserve Jewish life throughout the world."k The Jews of the Diaspora are not all going to make aliyah anytime soon, and this is the reality that has to be confronted. If the goal is to build strong bonds between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, rejecting the validity of Diaspora Jewish identity only harms attempts at cooperation.

Jews in the Diaspora must continue to support Israel, but also to maintain the strength of their own Jewish communities—a goal which, in itself, is a type of Zionism. Since Judaism is the strongest common tie between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, Diaspora Jews strengthen their Jewish identity by building strong communities; this helps Israel, as well as the communities themselves, by bolstering Israel-Diaspora ties. The AJC emphasizes this point: "It is the shared responsibility of both communities to nurture all forms and expressions of Judaism in the life of the Jewish People."l On this basis, the AJC correctly advocates "forms of Jewish education [that] demonstrate the viability of Jewish tradition in the modern context, and seek to integrate the values of Jewish heritage with those of Western culture."m Jewish education in the Diaspora must stimulate young Jews with the mission of strengthening their communities as well as  Israel.

The road ahead holds great challenges for the worldwide Jewish community, which Israel and Diaspora Jews need to work together to sustain. In light of the reality that aliyah is neither likely nor appropriate for most Diaspora Jews, the scope of Zionist ideology needs to expand to include a wider range of activities which strengthen Jewish communities worldwide. This helps Diaspora Jews to partner with Israeli Jews in facing the challenge of maintaining Jewry worldwide. Will we as Jews continue to squabble over who should be considered a Zionist, or will we recognize that all Jewish activity ultimately has the same goal, namely the strengthening of our global community?

Works Cited

American Jewish Committee. "AJC on Israel-Diaspora Relations: A Policy Statement Adopted by the Board of Governors." American Jewish Committee. 11 Feb. 1995. <>. Accessed 10 Jan. 2006.

Cohen, Gerson D. "From Altneuland to Altneuvolk: Toward an Agenda for Interaction Between Israel and American Jewry," in Moshe Davis, ed., World Jewry and the State of Israel. New York: Arno Press, 1977. Reproduced in part as "Peoplehood: The Centrality of the Jewish People" at <>. Accessed  29 Dec. 2005.

Gorny, Yosef. "Shlilat Ha-Galut: Past and Present." Beyond Survival and Philanthropy: American Jewry and Israel. Ed. Allon Gal and Alfred Gottschalk. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2000.

Hertzberg, Arthur, ed. The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader. New York, Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., and Herzl Press, 1959. Selections cited from The Future of the American Jew (1948) by Mordecai Menahem Kaplan.

Shimoni, Gideon. "The Current Debate: The Centrality of Israel." Reproduced at <>. Accessed 27 Dec. 2005.

© Copyright  Chalav U'Dvash

Chalav U'Dvash: Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought (Print ISSN 1559-1069, Online ISSN 1559-1077) is an independent forum for discussion relating to Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish People and is a recognized club by the Brandeis Student Union. We publish a journal twice per semester, and copies are available free-of-charge to Brandeis students. Contact us to request copies.

Chalav U'Dvash has no ideological or political bias. We give our writers the opportunity and freedom to express their opinions and viewpoints within a well-researched and factual framework, and so any bias within Chalav U'Dvash is strictly that of our writers and not the journal itself.

© Copyright 2005, Chalav U'Dvash. All rights reserved.