Tsvi Bisk

Tsvi Bisk – The Optimistic Jew Chapter 11 – Realization, Looking back from the future

tsvi bisk

Realization, Looking back from the future



 Tsvi Bisk

Chapters 11 to 15 depict an imagineered future written from the perspective of the future. I have borrowed this device from Herzl’s Old New Land and from Edward Bellamy’s 19th century classic Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887. Wishful thinking and fantasy are not in themselves negatives. They are part and parcel of the “hope springs eternal” trait inherent to the human condition, without which civilization would be greatly impoverished. I have tried to connect the dots between existing projects and organizations in order to present a coherent model of a desirable Jewish future. My aim is to focus energy, excite imagination and inspire action. I have favored the practical over the moralistic because I agree with Benjamin Franklin that being practical is more moral than being moralistic. If something is not practical it will not be implemented, if it is not implemented it cannot be moral. Or as Franklin’s biographer Richard Morris would have put it “what is moral is what works and what works is moral”. I want the future of the Jews to be noble and good, secure and flourishing, meaningful and worthwhile. These aims must find concrete expression if they are to be achieved. The following chapters are my view as to how this can be done. They are part of the story of how the Jewish people can reinvent themselves and lay the foundations for a thriving new Jewish civilization



The Reassertion of the Diaspora


One of the most significant developments of the past several decades has been the reassertion of the Diaspora, led by American Jewry but re-enforced by a resurgent European Jewry. This was stimulated by a growing uneasiness with the leadership and direction Israel was providing to the Jewish people at large. A major subtext was the growing resentment of many Diaspora Jews at being treated as supplementary to Israel’s needs and the negative effects this was having on the identification of young Diaspora Jews with anything Jewish.

When this process began over a decade ago the advocates of post-Zionism celebrated. Yet in retrospect we can see a historical irony. This reassertion of the Diaspora has been essentially Zionist. It has been characterized by the Diaspora demanding that Israel become an instrument for the entire Jewish people and Israel ultimately agreeing to this demand. Consequently, a new partnership was born.

This meant that Israel and the Diaspora would work as equals to develop institutions and frameworks that would guarantee meaningful Jewish existence. The new partnership replaced three existing realities:

  • The Diaspora as supplementary to the needs of Israel (fundraising, political lobbying etc.);
  • the Diaspora as a self contained cultural entity with no need for Israel;
  • but most of all a growing indifference to Jewish identity and Israel.

This indifference was the primary driving force behind the new partnership. Increased numbers of young Diaspora Jews were becoming indifferent to Israel and to Jewish life and identity in general. They no longer cared one way or the other. Many young Israelis were also becoming indifferent to solidarity with world Jewry and Jewish identity as opposed to Israeli identity. The new partnership reversed this trend. It created new frameworks for relating to Israel and expressing Jewish identity and thus rejuvenated Zionism.

Impact on Israel and Zionism

The concept of Israel as the instrument of the entire Jewish people produced a robust new brand of Zionist thinking.

The primary aim of classical Zionism had been to create a Jewish State. The primary aim of the new Zionism was to reconstruct the Diaspora by reconstructing Israel-Diaspora relations. Zionism became the property of the entire Jewish People and Israel was the primary beneficiary. A now famous essay entitled “What is this Nonsense about the Negation of the Diaspora” (2010) served as a major intellectual justification for this new concept. The author of the essay, an American born Israeli, made the following observations.

There are more Jews in Israel than Irish in Ireland, Finns in Finland, Norwegians in Norway and Danes in Denmark and these countries do not have trouble sustaining a vigorous national culture based on a high standard of living.  Nor are they obsessively preoccupied with the size of their population. Why do we Israelis continue to feel that bringing more Jews to Israel is such a vital national goal?  Is it the internal threat of the Israeli Arab birthrate? This has been declining for almost two decades because of the rise in the standard of living and greatly improved educational level of Israeli Arab women. A universal sociological rule is that educated women have smaller families.  Educated Arab women in Israel today already have a lower birthrate than the Jews.

What we Israelis have that the Finns, Norwegians and Danes (and even the Irish) do not, is a well developed and powerful Diaspora so intimately concerned with our welfare.  This is a strategic resource that is the envy of every nation on earth and we Zionists – at least ideologically – want to do away with it.  In the course of human events has there ever been an ideological principle so irrational?


A new breed of Diaspora leaders arose in response to this new approach: leaders reminiscent of Weizmann, Brandeis, Hillel Silver and Wise. This in turn caused Israeli leaders to take a different direction. The headline in the New York Times said it all: “Israeli Prime Minister tells Jews: ‘Don’t Send Us Money– Invest in your Local Communities’”. Another prominent Israeli public figure added: “We don’t want your contributions we want your ideas and initiatives”.

While many of the projects discussed below were first conceived by Israeli thinkers, Diaspora Jews initiated and implemented them. They possessed the energy, idealism and intellectual force. Israelis had been intellectually overstretched for decades. They had been carrying a self-imposed load dictated by the outworn Zionist principle of “negation of the Diaspora”. Zionist purists and would-be ideologues called this development “a betrayal of Zionism”. What it has proven to be is the opposite. It has been a maturation of Zionist ideology that has enabled the realization of the Zionist project on a scale and of a quality that Herzl, the dreamer, would have found incredible. It was named the New Zionism. The contribution to Jewish life has been enormous. Just as women’s liberation added 50% of society’s underutilized populations to the development of their societies, so too the addition of the talents and energies of the previously underutilized Diaspora (50% of the Jewish people) contributed to the development of Israel and world Jewry.

The paradox was that New Zionism facilitated the aims of classic Zionism, most notably in the area of demographics. The improvement in Israel’s standard of living and quality of life it made possible greatly lessened emigration for economic and professional reasons. It also created the conditions for increased aliya from the West. As of this writing (2020), a thousand European and American Jews are arriving in Israel weekly– over 50,000 a year. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of classic Zionism this development is not negating Jewish life in the Diaspora but reinforcing it.  Every one of these immigrants becomes a focal point of concern for Israel for a wide range of family and friends left behind.

This concern has in many cases translated into more active participation in the local Jewish community. Recent research has shown that in 90% of the immigrants’ immediate families at least one member becomes active in a Jewish organization or activity within one year of their immigration.  Immigration to Israel is not a zero sum game. Addition to Israel is not subtraction from the Diaspora. Within the framework of the New Zionism it has become a win-win situation whereby the Diaspora is also strengthened. The fact is that immigration of friends and family to Israel has become a major barrier to assimilation for those remaining in the Diaspora. One cannot be for aliya and for the negation of the Diaspora as aliya strengthens the Diaspora.

    New Zionism has played a major role in the Diaspora reversing its demographic decline. Because of new partnership projects a significantly higher number of young Jews began to seek out Jewish activities. A much higher percentage of non-Jewish spouses also chose to become members of the Jewish people. A new organization called Ruth was established. It was the official “welcoming mat” for these new Jews. Based on the principles of the biblical story of the Moabite woman Ruth welcomed into the People of Israel by Naomi, it offered a warm embrace to non-Jewish spouses rather than the cold shoulder often previously experienced.

    The Society for Humanistic Judaism www.shj.org has become the preferred option for agnostic non-Jewish spouses to join the Jewish people. By way of a “conversion” ceremony that affirms certain general principles and a commitment to dedicate oneself to Tikkun Olam and the welfare of the Jewish community wherever it may be. This corresponds to the idea of Jewish citizenship discussed previously. The increased community identification of non-Jewish spouses has also become a major component in the reversal of demographic erosion.

Intermarriage has now become a major positive factor for Jewish demographics. The Jewish spouse more times than not remains Jewish and the non-Jewish spouse, more times than not, identifies with the community. For the first time since before WWII the Diaspora is now experiencing a net demographic gain despite substantial aliya to Israel. This has reversed the Jewish reality of two decades earlier, when the western Diaspora was experiencing net demographic decline despite substantial immigration from Russia and Israel.

Israel now has a population of 8 million Jews and 2 million Arab citizens (20% of the population). As a consequence of educational affirmative action for Arab women enacted in 2009 the birthrates of both communities are now similar. Given continued Jewish immigration and equal birthrates, the percentage of Arab citizens will decline to 15% by 2030. The economic, professional, cultural and social profile of Israel’s Arab citizens is now on a par with that of Jewish citizens.

This equalization of circumstances joined to the end of the “demographic threat” has enabled both communities to interrelate as equals and has all but ended structural and cultural racism in Israel. Israeli Arabs have become a “light unto Ishmael” – a model for other Arab societies throughout the Middle East. This too has been an indirect consequence of the reassertion of the Diaspora.

The Israeli Diaspora

The major player in this new partnership has been the half million strong Israeli Diaspora, the most vilified group in the classical Zionist narrative. From being “traitors” to Israel and Zionism they became the bonding agent that held the new partnership together. They have facilitated constructive communication, being able to speak the psychological language of each. In truth they were the major initiators of this new approach. They had been a growing subset within Jewish organizations and embraced the new partnership when it was conceived. They made their participation in Jewish organizations conditional on engaging in special projects that reflected the new partnership concept. They were the pioneers of this new Jewish reality.

    The Israeli Diaspora initiated the projects and soon a growing number of native born American Jews began to join them. A prime example of this phenomenon was the Jewish Energy Project described in the following chapter. This was initiated by a group of Israeli High Tech executives in Silicon Valley that had been enlisted by the Set America Free Coalition www.setamericafree.org to pressure the government to adapt the coalition’s agenda. (One of the founders of the coalition was himself an Israeli American). It seems that being on the margins of society gives one a greater perspective. Being in a society one can not see the forest through the trees. This truism enabled the Jews to see new opportunities in American society and Israeli Americans to see new opportunities in Jewish society. Major players in this development were The Israeli-American Study Initiative www.israelisinamerica.org; and The Council of Israeli Community www.cicisrael.com. Much of the online debate and philosophical discussion about this new development took place on www.newzionist.com founded by Israeli Americans and on Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture www.zeek.net. In aggregate Israeli Diaspora individuals and organizations were the driving force in creating this new reality.

Religious Pluralism

A new reality regarding the question of religious pluralism in Israel developed. At the outset of the second decade of the 21st century, the Conservative and Reform Movements became militant. This combination of Reform and Conservative militancy along with the rise of Humanistic Judaism caused a shift in the religious landscape of Israel. These three movements as well as the Reconstructionists have been recognized in Israel as legitimate constituents of the Jewish people with rights equal to the Orthodox. This was enabled by a reaffirmation of the Enlightenment principle of separation of “synagogue” and state.  As one Israeli thinker paraphrased Lincoln: “the Jewish people cannot exist half for religious freedom and half in contravention of religious freedom”.  He added that separation of synagogue and state is not the same as separation of religion from state. Judaism is still the official religion of the Jewish state (in the same way that Lutheranism is the official religion of the Swedish State) but, unlike Sweden, the clerical class has no special status and is not directly employed or subsidized by the State.

Religious affairs budgets are now distributed to every citizen of Israel on a proportional basis by way of electronic cards for purposes of contributions to religious institutions only, according to the religious preferences of the individual citizen. There is no longer any direct State involvement in religious institutions or governance. The Chief Rabbinate (an artifice created by the British Empire and elected by the Knesset) has faded into history. Citizens now use their cards to make yearly contributions to the religious body of their choice. Money not used is returned to the State. All non-Orthodox movements can now legally conduct marriages in Israel, which by law must be registered by the Ministry of Interior.  And since many agnostic Israelis have been joining the Society for Humanistic Judaism the conflict between Jewish and Israeli identity, which had been worrying Israeli society since its inception has diminished.  If the Diaspora had not reasserted itself, religious equality in Israel would have remained a dead letter and the divide between “being Jewish” and “being Israeli” would have widened.


Go HERE for the rest of chapter 11

Tsvi Bisk

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