‘At Home in Exile’

‘At Home in Exile’

A look at diaspora, ingathering, fear, Bibi, and so much more

As a mostly retired but unreconstructed newspaper editor, I’m licking my headline-writing chops at the possibility of churning out a 60-pointer after the March 17 elections in Israel proclaiming “Bye, Bye, Bibi.”

Is it premature? Definitely. Tabloidish? Supremely. Biased? You betcha. Un-Jewish? Undoubtedly.

Thankfully, my bosses at the Standard would immediately disabuse me of such a notion, possibly conveying their displeasure in several languages. They needn’t worry, though. My leanings are toward traditional journalistic canons of restraint and objectivity, although in an earlier iteration I might have wanted to precede the Bibi blast with one shouting “Attaboy Attaturk” when Mustafa Kemal delivered his now-feckless “democracy” from the Ottomans.

Alan Wolfe

These zero-sum musings on my part more or less coincided with Charlie Hebdo, the kosher supermarket siege, Belgium violence, a knife attack on French gendarmes guarding a Jewish day school, the spasm of madness in Denmark, and the end-run invitation by House Speaker John Boehner to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress (in that purring baritone of his) and disparage President Barack Obama’s negotiations with Iran.

An already crowded plate for worldwide Jewry gets more crowded and more fraught.

The fallout from the speech, scheduled March 3, is still unspooling in Washington and Jerusalem between two tightly bound allies experiencing perhaps the messiest moment of the relationship. The Jewish establishment in the United States is discomfited by the breach of protocol that Netanyahu’s chief operative, Ambassador Ron Dermer, used in arranging the event, and the fraying impact it might have on the world’s most significant bilateral partnership.

Some Congressional Democrats vow to boycott the address. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, asked Netanyahu to call it off. AIPAC is edgy. In Israel, opposition leaders question its appropriateness, offering the counter-scenario of Obama addressing the Knesset without the express bidding of the prime minister. Columnist Thomas Friedman dismissed the Boehner-Netanyahu axis as a campaign “sugar high.”

Both the president and Vice President Joe Biden will snub him. Beware the Ides, Bibi.

The bundling of these exigent developments (who knows what will happen next? but something will happen) coincided with my reading Alan Wolfe’s provocatively titled “At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for Jews.” What began as a straightforward book review billowed into an introspection about the intersections of free speech, geographical relativism, and the responsibility (or the right to irresponsibility and irrepressibility) of the fourth estate.

When “At Home” was reviewed some months ago in the New York Times by critic and academic Peter Beinart, I knew I wanted to read it immediately to clarify my personal feelings of identity, security, perspective, and where I landed on both the Jewish spectrum and the exilic exuberance scale.

My own sensibilities as a secular Jew at a far remove from the continent support Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish what it chooses about Mohammad, no matter how offensive or sophomoric – or for that matter, about Netanyahu. When the prime minister is subjected to the slings and arrows of the fourth estate at home where he is running for a fourth term, it doesn’t excite the violence and threats that follow crude depictions of the prophet. The imbalance is stunning

I say this while in profound disagreement with Netanyahu’s conduct. I find his shameless political alliances, lack of peacemaking mojo, and condescending treatment of my president personally disagreeable. His default position of allowing more settlements, his intransigence toward a two-state solution, and his insistence on reconstituting the nation of Israel as the binomial Jewish State of Israel strike me as counterproductive in both the short and long terms.

As someone living in the safest and most accepting country for a diasporic Jew, am I entitled to such pointed opinions? Wolfe would posit that I have a perfect right, nay duty, to either criticize or feel bullish about Israel’s internal polity and external maneuvers, even though I have no intention of visiting the Holy Land with my JCC’s annual pilgrimage, much less making aliyah. But Wolfe would further insist that I would be doing a disservice to the tribe by my silence, with the collective experience of the 1930s and ’40 as a haunting reminder.

When Netanyahu insinuated himself into the front rank of leaders at the Je Suis Charlie rally, only a few arm-links away from Mahmoud Abbas, I thought the juxtaposition couldn’t be crasser and more bizarre. He followed that with an exhortation to French Jews ( and later, to Danish Jews) to come “home” to Israel, where they could live safely and be out and about wearing their kippot in the only nation with the only government that prioritized and protected their nationhood and their religion.

In response, the chief rabbi of Paris exhorted everyone to stay put and make a statement about diaspora and national roots. Of the country’s 500,000 Jews, 7,000 made aliyah last year, up from 3,000 in 2013, thus becoming the largest “in-source” nation for Israel. Significant as that is, it still leaves the bulk of the community remaining in France. The chief rabbi of Denmark also exhorted his flock to remain calm and anchored.

Wolfe penned “At Home in Exile” just before these convulsions, but the timing only heightens his exegesis. As a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College (very catholic, lower case c, and very nurturing) Wolfe decided after many books to turn the spotlight on his own traditions and religion, confronting the ideological, ritualistic, and historical fault lines undergirding Judaism.

His analysis touches on different brands of Zionism and their level of acceptance among the main streams of Judaism; patterns of flight and emigration; the effects of the Jewish Enlightenment; tensions and bias from those living in Israel toward those in the galut, expressed as shilat ha’golah, or “negation of the diaspora”; the twin phenomena of the Holocaust and the emergence of the state of Israel, and the recalibrated equilibrium of all these incredible forces on a post-generation knowing only an ascendant Israel and a dominant United States.

Wolfe speaks to me strongly and directly as a first-generation American, an unaffiliated Reform Jew who gives reflexively to the federation among other philanthropic organizations, and who feels explicitly exilic in his cultural tastes and politics. My affiliation with JCC Metrowest, which I trace back to its lineage as the High Street Y in Newark, is essentially for its superb gym and workout facilities. Yet it also attracts me to a haimish atmosphere for as many days of the week as I’m able to get there.

I am part of the generation that unhappily put the damper on Yiddish. I became bar mitzvah in the great, domed cathedral of Reform German Jewry known as B’nai Jeshurun of Newark (many years since relocated to Short Hills in slab-like architectural homage to the Ten Commandments, with its chancel choir intact and multiple rabbis on the faculty). My stepsons similarly attended Conservative B’nai Abraham of Livingston. My grandchildren, unfortunately, not at all.

I live on a block in West Orange among predominantly modern- to ultra-Orthodox families who literally worship at the base of our mountainous community in a synagogue created through a merger put together by my secular father-in-law. They send their children to day schools in both the area and by bus to Bergen County. Our interactions and conversations are minimal. I find them insular and helpful only in moderating education taxes. They find me … well, who knows what, if they do at all.

But Wolfe considers me important enough to be addressed in his splendid new study. That makes me feel both invested and a fully-fledged, if flawed, member of the tribe.

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