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What If Zionism Had a Jewish Counterpart in the Diaspora?

What If Zionism Had a Jewish Counterpart in the Diaspora?

Globe covered with flags of many countries resting in the palm of someone's hand

Imagine for a moment that Jewish history had developed along slightly different lines than it did. Imagine that alongside Zionism, the modern movement dedicated to rebuilding the Jewish homeland, another movement, this one focused on building Jewish life outside the Land of Israel, also flourished. It would serve as a counterpart to Zionism, helping to establish a second center of Jewish life.

This thought experiment is not so hard to imagine, considering that throughout much of Jewish history, our people had two centers of civilization: eretz Yisrael, the land of origin, and Babylonia, the center of Talmudic learning. In fact, these two civilizations are the reason we have the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud.

If such a movement had developed alongside Zionism, how might we now think of the experience of Jews living outside Israel? How would we describe the Jewish people to include both its parts? Rather than picturing our people as a wheel with spokes (the Diaspora) radiating out from the center (Israel), we might think of two centers, unfailingly connected but equal – one in Israel, the other in North America – not unlike the dynamic of Talmudic times and the early Medieval period.

During that period, the great rabbinic academies were in urban Babylonia, although scholars remained connected to the Land by traveling back and forth between eretz Yisrael and Bavel. The two communities remained distinct even as they looked to one another for support, learning, and growth. Indeed, over time, the historic Babylonian community became more politically important, influential, and wealthier, but the community in eretz Yisrael remained connected to its deeply rooted traditions and to the Land itself.

Looking at this two-centered model as a paradigm for today, what would we call the counterpart to Zionism, the movement to revitalize Jewish culture, learning, and commitment outside the Land of Israel? Why not Bavelism? 

Successful Bavelism would embrace the differences between world Judaism and Israeli Judaism even as it deepens connections between these two centers of Jewish life. It would:        

  • Embrace Zionism’s gifts without conceding the fullness of world Jewry’s experience. The modern conception of Jewish identity is strengthened by Zionism; Bavelism would not reject Zionism, but would attempt to appropriate its tools to improve Jewish life outside the State of Israel. Any attempt at Bavelism would entail an enduring commitment to both cultural Zionism and the existence of the modern Jewish State.
  • Take mutual responsibility for the Jewish future. Our connection to Israel may be important, but it is not sufficient. We cannot use Israel as an excuse to avoid engaging with our own Judaism. Bavelism would encourage us, no matter where we are, to take responsibility for our own Jewish future, live Jewish lives, and teach Jewish values.
  • Reject the wheel-and-spokes model of Zionism and embrace a world Jewry with two major centers. Bavelism would promote the reality that we are one people, accepting that those who live in Israel have much to teach us, and affirming that we outside the Land have a Torah to teach our Israeli siblings.
  • Build a strong, modern Jewish identity based on religious pluralism, openness, fellowship, and interaction with non-Jews. North American Judaism’s pluralism, cooperation, and openness are its greatest strengths. Because we live in lands in which Jews are not the majority, we can absorb current ideas, share connections across boundaries of religious and cultural identity, and live rich, full, modern Jewish lives. As Bavelians, we would bring these strengths to the whole Jewish people.
  • Embrace the strength and resilience that comes from working to affirm our Jewish identity in a non-Jewish context and make a commitment to living as Jews. By not taking our Jewish identities for granted, Bavelian Jews would built resilience and strength in our commitment to Jewish life. We would acknowledge that living as Jews outside Israel means making sacrifices and working hard to affirm our religious, cultural, and communal commitments.
  • View Judaism as the eternal inheritance of every Jew, and not the exclusive property of a certain kind of Jew. Bavelism would not treat Judaism as the exclusive property of those Jews who refuse to engage with modernity; rather, it would accept all Jews as inheritors of the wealth of tradition and affirm their potential to impact the future of that tradition.

Imagine what the future of the Jewish people could be if such a movement existed. What could Israelis learn from Bavelians, if we would take ownership of our Jewish identities where we are? Likewise, what could Bavelians learn from Israelis, if they didn’t feel their Jewish identity was at risk of disparagement or irrelevance? How much stronger could the relationship between these two centers become?

Adapted from Israel and Bavel: Two Centers of Jewish Life

Cantor Jordan Shaner is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, NY.  He is also part of the inaugural ARZA HUC-JIR Fellowship class, designed to encourage an in-depth understanding of the American-Israeli relationship and related institutions.

Cantor Jordan Shaner
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