Israel-Diaspora Relations before Israel

May 15, 2020 | Donna Robinson Divine
About the author:

Around the turn of the last century, the idea of “negating the exile”—of breaking free from the habits and attitudes acquired by Jews during their two millennia of diasporic existence—emerged as an important pillar of Zionist thought. But for those living in the Land of Israel before independence, putting this principle into practice posed unexpected challenges. Donna Robinson Divine writes:

Jewish immigrants to Mandatory Palestine carried their customs to the new land, recreating ethnic neighborhoods in their homeland as in the Diaspora, and for the same reason: to ease the turmoil of assimilation. Even those who embraced Zionism’s romantic ideals often found themselves heavily burdened by trying to put theory into practice. Disappointments that backbreaking physical labor did not produce a sense of fulfillment or feelings of intimacy with the land triggered profound feelings of melancholy and a deep sense of personal self-doubt.

Acknowledged individual “failures”—missing home, lapsing into Yiddish, longing for the music of Beethoven and Chopin rather than for the sound of jackals—were often treated not as private troubles but as public issues, violations of Zionism’s sacred norms.

It was one thing to imagine physical labor as the only way to achieve spiritual fulfillment, quite another to experience it as such. . . . It was one thing to do away with religion—another to live without the warmth of family and synagogue, particularly on holidays. It was easy to criticize traditional worship but hard to replace it with something genuine and appealing. It was one thing to denounce rabbis, another to marry without one. It was one thing to denounce religious rituals, another to bury loved ones without them. It was one thing to insist on speaking Hebrew; it was quite another thing to comply with the demand.

There were also political difficulties with negating the exile:

Leaders of many Zionist political parties understood that the wellbeing of their institutions and organizations depended on their success in generating and maintaining loyalty in the Diaspora as well as in the Jewish national home. Their more powerful branches in various countries of Europe sometimes overshadowed even the strongest of Palestine’s political parties. Torn between conflicting needs, these political parties frequently had to respond to demands issued simultaneously from two different continents or sometimes had to establish priorities between them, often beholden to continental trends.

Read more on Fathom: