An oft quoted Arab aphorism notes that “Your enemy’s enemy is your friend.”
In the case of America and its Jewish citizens, our enemy’s (whether our enemy has been Germany, the Soviet Union, Arab dictators, or native anti-Semites) enemy (i.e. the United States of America) has always been our friend. Indeed, over the centuries, America has embraced its Jewish population not only because of common enemies but because of shared values, goals, and principles. It has been a symbiotic relationship resulting in benefit to all and which has inured to the success of the majority of Americans and the security of America’s Jewish minority.
Given the current world situation however and the rise of a unique foe employing terrorism, the internet, and a radical ideology, the question now arises as to whether our long time, trusted friend still has the will and/or the ability to protect us from our enemies, and whether our friend can even protect itself. The merger of anti Americanism with anti-Semitism poses a heretofore unencountered threat to both entities that will require new and different forms of strength, ingenuity, strategy, patience and courage on the part of both that only the future will show they are capable of.
A statement in the Talmud (Tractate Psachim 87) notes that it was an act of kindness on G-d's part to disperse the Jewish people among the nations.
Given the many centuries of persecution and torment, it is hard to reconcile the reality of Jewish history with the Talmud’s observation and reference to kindness.
Yet an analysis of the expulsion and dispersion of the Jewish people reveals several positive results emerging from what was otherwise a national tragedy and for other peoples would have been, an often was, a fatal one.
Almost immediately following the destruction of Judea by the Romans, the Talmudic Sages took steps to preserve Jewish unity, including changing to a fixed calendar based on astronomy and mathematics rather than reports of the new moon brought to the Sanhedrin. In this way they ensured that all Jews would continue to celebrate holidays at the same time irrespective of their location.
The dispersion also led to the establishment of new centers of Torah learning that developed lines of communication with far off Jewish communities and thus preserved the continuity of Jewish scholarship, tradition and observance
A millennium later, Don Isaac Abravanel, living through the 1492 Expulsion from Spain, quoted the enigmatic saying in his Torah commentary, calling Jewish dispersion an act of "kindness on G-d's part" because it ensures the continued survival of the Jewish people. He explained that G-d saw to it that there would always be Jews in some corner of the globe who would survive even if others underwent the most horrible of persecutions.
The diaspora has also had a salutary effect on the world. When given the opportunity, Jews have always become a part of the cultures of the lands in which they have lived, contributing to those countries' development and success in numbers much higher than their percentage of the population. Indeed, for example, since 1901 almost one-fifth of all Nobel prizes have been awarded to Jews.
Nevertheless, centuries of unabated anti-Semitism, however, made the Avravanel's prediction that Jews would endure only by wandering from haven to haven eerily prescient. Until America opened its doors, the wandering Jew was not given the chance to put down roots in any one place for long. At the start of the twentieth century, the Jewish sociologist Yaakov Leshchinsky wrote in his text The Jewish Dispersion:
"When we scan the diaspora of Jewry over the entire globe and throughout the entire civilized world, we are surprised to see that this Nation, which is almost the most ancient in the world, is in truth the youngest in terms of the land under its feet and the sky above its head. As a result of the relentless persecutions and forced expulsions, most Jews are but recent new-comers to their respective lands of residence.. [The Jewish People] are dispersed throughout over 100 lands on all five continents."
The re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in the State of Israel changed that perception. In the 67 years since it achieved independence, almost half of world Jewry has come to live there. The idea that all Jews should be living in Israel seems obvious to Zionists, at least to Israeli ones, but is less so to many diaspora Jews.
Does there remain a raison d'etre to the diaspora, if there now exists a Jewish country? Some Jews see diaspora support for Israel as essential, others feel less of a connection, some are ashamed of Israel for not living up to the ideals they set for the beleaguered, tiny country in which they don't live but which they consider theirs, and some, of course, see residing in any land but Israel as a betrayal of the Jewish dream and ideal for which Jews have longed for thousands of years.
This issue of The Jewish Word analyzes aspects of the current, often uneasy, "state of the Jews" in Europe, South America, Australia and the United States:
“In the diaspora,” proclaimed the Economist in the summer of 2012, “Jewish life has never been so free, so prosperous, so unthreatened." It is far from certain that the magazine would write that sentence today.
Indeed, the horrors of the Holocaust had given rise to the hope that anti-Semitism, at least in Western democracies, was a thing of the past. Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld traces the change for the worse that occurred at the start of the 21st century.
In the center of this change is France, recently shocked by the horrific terror attacks on November 13th. An interview with a member of the Central Organization of French Jewry explores the way Jews feel in France and their thoughts about the future.
Life in the UK today for Her Majesty's Jews is described by Arutz Sheva's managing editor, Ari Soffer, a fairly recent oleh from London who visits England frequently.
Surprisingly, Germany is a country where Jewish life is thriving once again. German researcher Oliver Bradley tells readers about the Jews who have permanently unpacked their suitcases in a country other Jews refuse to even visit.
Russia, too, has less anti-Semitism and more security for Jews than many other European countries. Writer Alex Maistrovoy puts that in perspective with wry Russian humor.
A shadow seems to be falling over South African Jewry, writes author Steve Apfel. Australian anti-Semitism expert Julie Nathan and staunch Zionist David Singer tell what life is like for Jews "down under."
Lisa Klug expresses the divided love of land of a Zionist American Jew with a beautiful family story that spans Jerusalem and California. Her “yiddishe mameh-mode ode” to chicken soup accompanies her story.
In Spain, Jews who remained hid their religion; Michael Freund tells of the Spanish crypto-Jews who are trying to return to the Jewish people.
The diaspora was an act of kindness from G-d in yet another way: The fact that Jews were dispersed but had common beliefs and practices – and were victims of common prejudices – gave rise to a special feeling of Jewish brotherhood, an instinctive attachment and acceptance of mutual responsibility that Jews were known to feel for one another as distinct from their connection with the others around them.
Is that true today of liberal American Jews? Are Israel and the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland a part of their identity or is Israel just another place with Jews – whose actions sometime embarrass them? Professor Richard Landes takes on that issue, while Jack Engelhard finds American Jews wanting.
Finally, the rich but mixed blessing that is America is explored by Rabbi Professor Dov Fischer.
We hope you enjoy this issue of The Jewish Word and that it enlightens you on the subject of how diaspora Jews are coping in a world that is fast becoming much different from what they were accustomed to; a world much more dangerous and unwelcoming.
The question to consider is whether the “kindness of G-d” in ensuring His People’s survival will continue to manifest itself in the Diaspora, or whether “G-d’s kindness” is now to be located and reflected in a resurgent, reborn, native homeland.