On February 15, the New York Times reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “that his government was encouraging a ‘mass immigration’ of Jews from Europe…. ‘Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews,’ Mr. Netanyahu said Sunday in Jerusalem. ‘Of course, Jews deserve protection in every country, but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home.”
I grew up with this narrative: The world is an unsafe place for Jews, even though there may be periods when we think it’s safe. We would be foolish to allow ourselves to be lulled into any sense of security. It’s only a matter of time until the winds of change blow through, and the anti-Semites come after us again. And when they do come after us, Israel will be there for us– a safe haven, a country that will always say “yes” to us in times of peril, our back door, our plan B, our escape route, our home away from home. Israel is our country, even if we don’t live there…yet.
Over the years of a life blessed with safety, security, opportunity and healing in the coastal cities of the U.S., I’ve gradually replaced my inherited narrative of fear and vulnerability with one that is more hopeful, optimistic and open-hearted. So it’s jarring and disturbing, and at the same time, all too familiar, for me to hear Netanyahu invoke my old narrative with such vigor and certainty.
Netanyahu’s response to incidents of anti-Semitic violence in Europe—the conviction that Israel is the only place in the world that will ever be safe for Jews—shines a light on a question that feels important to me personally, and for us as a community. For Jews, if Israel isn’t our “plan B,” isn’t our “in case of Emergency,” isn’t our extension of “home” even if we’ve never been there, then what is our relationship to Israel, as members of the North American Jewish diaspora? And how does the way we understand our relationship to Israel impact our relationship to Israel/Palestine and to our work for justice and peace for all of the people who live there?
Personally, I am moving toward a more conscious identity as a diaspora Jew. What that means is that diaspora is my home. My only home. I don’t think of myself as being in exile, in galut, waiting for the chance to “return” to Palestine and to the lands of our biblical ancestors. I don’t think of my residence here as temporary (or as any more temporary than it might be for people who aren’t Jewish in this transitory, global time). I am both part of a Jewish people that is dispersed throughout the world, and a citizen of the United States, where I live.
In 1950, Israel passed the Law of Return, affirming the assertion in Israel’s Declaration of Independence that Israeli citizenship should be available to all Jews everywhere in the world, and that Jews the world over should consider Israel to be their home. Embedded in the very name of the law is the idea that the true home of Jews is in the land of Israel, and that to settle there constitutes “return.” The Law of Return ensures that if Jews are persecuted in other nations, they will not have to be stateless or refugees, but will have a nation to receive them as citizens.
One consequence for me of committing to diaspora is that I have decided to relinquish my rights under the Law of Return. I first considered this move five years ago, during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead that devastated Gaza. At that time, my head told me that it was a logical, reasonable and necessary move. But my gut felt suddenly cold and vulnerable, and in the cartoon version of my brain, sirens wailed and red lights flashed, and giant signs lit up warning DANGER! DANGER! DANGER! There’s a place in my gut where fear still stirs when I say this out loud, and as I commit it to writing. But now, along with that fear, I also feel a new sense of liberation at really being home here in North America, at fully casting my lot with the neighbors I live with here in Oakland, at choosing to act out of trust rather than fear.
I’m aware that I’m able to explore this way of thinking and identifying because I live in a time and place of tremendous safety and opportunity as a Jew. I live in a dominant culture where, at this time, anti-Jewish sentiment takes a back seat to racism and Islamophobia. If I lived my life in France, I doubt that I would feel secure enough to take this path.
But it’s precisely the gift of living when and where I do that allows, and maybe even obligates me to push my edges to live as a Jew without fear of impending persecution. It’s not that I’m convinced that no day will come in North America when Jews will be targeted in ways that threaten our lives and safety. I have no way of knowing what the future holds. But this relative safety and healing that I’ve been blessed with allow me to choose to live without the conviction that persecution inevitably awaits us. I can choose to live into trust rather than fear, I can choose to be open rather than guarded, I can choose to be generous with my Judaism rather than protective of it. And as we build Jewish communities that are consciously rooted in trust rather than fear, all kinds of wonderful opportunities emerge.
If you’re Jewish, I invite you to join me in considering relinquishing your rights under the Law of Return. And if you’re not Jewish, I invite you to think through these questions as someone who is part of a Jewish community, and as an ally. I’m not advocating that anyone else relinquish these rights—I’m really interested in how the question lands for you, and in where it takes you. The richness for me is in the considering, and in sharing what we experience when we consider this question. When you think about relinquishing your rights under the Law of Return it, what happens? What do you feel? Where is it in your body? What thoughts and questions run through your mind? Is it easy? Impossible? Complicated? Does anything in your response surprise you or shine a light on new information? I invite you to post your responses on Kehilla’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/Kehilla/ and/or to email your thoughts to me at RabbiDev@kehillasynagogue.org.
Looking at these questions provides a foundation for my thinking about my relationship to Israel/Palestine. Understanding that, despite what Prime Minister Netanyahu says, Israel is not my home, now or in the future, frees me to engage with deeper clarity in the tragic realities unfolding in Israel/Palestine, and to see more clearly my relationship to them. Connected through family, history and Jewish identity, I care deeply about what is happening in Israel/Palestine. But I care about it with my body, and my identity, firmly planted in the diaspora.
Kehilla’s Middle East Peace Committee is now guiding us through a re-evaluation of our Brit Shalom, our Covenant of Peace (see https://www.kehillasynagogue.org/about-kehilla/policies-resolutions/brit-shalom/) and of the ways that we, as a community, can impact the movement for justice and peace in Israel/Palestine. As I join them in this important work, I do so as someone whose Jewish homeland is Oakland, California.