Are Jews better off outside Israel? Alan Wolfe reconsiders the Diaspora

the Diaspora, writes Alan Wolfe, Jewish can embrace universalism -- applying Jewish values to make the world a better place. "Jewish particularism" better describes the defensive, inward posture of Jews in Israel.

(RNS) Jews exclaim “Next Year in Jerusalem!” at the conclusion of the Passover seder, an acknowledgment that Israel is their spiritual home. But since the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem in 586 B.C., most Jews have lived outside of Israel.

Alan Wolfe author photo by Lee Pellegrini

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Today, Diaspora Jews, as they are called, account for 8 million of the approximately 13 million Jews worldwide; the remaining 5 million live in Israel.

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, ponders this split in his newly-released book “At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews.”

In the Diaspora, writes Wolfe, Jewish life can more easily embrace universalism — applying Jewish values to make the world a better place, for Jews and non-Jews alike. In contrast,  “Jewish particularism” describes the defensive, inward posture of Jews in Israel.

“As it increasingly becomes clear that the Diaspora is not a disaster and that the security offered by statehood has proven to be precarious, the lost universalism that has been so much a part of Jewish tradition may well be prepared for a comeback, this time on firmer soil,” Wolfe writes in his introduction.

Some readers and critics have responded with a collective “duh” to Wolfe’s assertion that Diaspora is good for the Jews. And they take issue with his “particular” vs. “universal” approach to Judaism.

Yes, the Jews of the Diaspora for most of history lived in danger. Centuries ago, the Jewish population of Europe was forced into ghettos and killed in pogroms. Only two generations ago, the Holocaust wiped out most of Europe’s Jews, convincing the U.N. that the survivors could not live safely in the Diaspora and should be granted a state of their own.

But today most Diaspora Jews live in North America, where they feel safe and free and take pride in their contributions to the societies that have accepted them.

“Even the staunchest American Zionists do not claim that Jews cannot live secure, authentic, fulfilling lives in the United States,” wrote Peter Beinart in his review of Wolfe’s book in The New York Times. “To the contrary, America’s most prominent Zionists — people like Alan M. Dershowitz, Abraham H. Foxman and William Kristol — also tend to be passionate believers in America’s hospitability to the Jews.”

Speaking at a book talk at Washington’s Brookings Institution on Tuesday (Nov. 18), Wolfe agreed that the terms “particularist” and “universalist” are undefinable, overlapping and, in general, “hopeless.”

But he added that he still finds them useful: “There really are two basic different kinds of Judaism that have persevered throughout Jewish history since the Book of Deuteronomy was written.”

Alan Wolfe, a professor of religion at Boston College who has spent most of his career writing about Christians and other religious groups. Photo courtesy of Shalom Hartman Institute

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, which studies issues facing Israel and the Jews worldwide. Photo courtesy of Shalom Hartman Institute

One type of Jew sees the dispersal of Jews around the world as God’s punishment. The other sees the Diaspora as a positive thing, “because a relatively enlightened religion associated with Judaism can be spread to the world as a whole, and not just confined to the Jewish people.”

The Holocaust and the creation of Israel in 1948 turned the tide toward the particularist vision, but it’s time to turn the tide again, Wolfe argued, and this will benefit Jews and non-Jews alike, both inside and outside Israel.

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, which studies issues facing Israel and the Jews worldwide, found much to praise when called upon to critique the book at the Brookings discussion. He admired Wolfe for standing up to those who consider Jewish life outside Israel less authentic, and for calling out Diaspora Jews who use their devotion to Israel as a shortcut to developing a more full and meaningful Jewish identity.

But Kurtzer said it was simplistic to suggest that Zionism is particular and parochial and the Diaspora is universal and moral, and he argued that for all  Jews, looking deeply into Judaism and its moral teachings is the key to embracing others — the universalism for which Wolfe seems to long. He pointed to the Bible, which starts with God creating not a Jew, but a person, and later charges Abraham and Jewish people to be an example to others.

“This moral challenge,” Kurtzer said, “runs through particularism and not around it.”