The accusation that you can’t be a Zionist outside of Israel is often levied at Diaspora Jewry, but does the accusation have merit or does it misunderstand Zionism at its core? Understandably, many Diaspora Zionists find the notion that their Zionism is lacking because they don’t live in Israel to be offensive. Diaspora Zionists believe in Zionism’s principles and love Israel and her people just as much as anyone living in Israel, so why should their Zionism be discounted?
Some of the greatest Zionists never lived in Israel. After being Divinely punished with being prohibited from entering the land of Israel, Moses begged God to be allowed to enter Israel. God refused Moses’s multiple requests and Moses never walked in Israel, let alone lived there. He wasn’t the only Zionist to never live in Israel, Theodore Herzl, Leon Pinsker, Louis Brandies and Max Nordau, the who’s who of early Zionists, lived their entire lives outside of Israel. The argument that the founder of modern political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, had a faulty Zionism because he never lived in Israel is untenable.
The “negation of the Diaspora” (Shlilat Hagolah) in Zionist thought became popular among early Zionist thinkers. As Professor Shalom Ratzaby wrote, “This new perception of Exile was based on three premises: First, Exile has no purpose and serves no mission. Second, Exile is a negative phenomenon that causes suffering for the Jewish people, places the Jewish nation in existential peril, and distorts the nation’s; way of life thereby causing harm to the authentic creative potential of the nation and its individuals. Third, the existence of a Diaspora is untenable in the age of modern nationalism.” As Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote, “Eliminate the Diaspora, or the Diaspora will surely eliminate you.”
150 years after the first “negation of the Diaspora” arguments were forwarded, and 75 years after the creation of a Zionist state, it is evident that Diaspora Zionists have added to Jewish life and supported the State of Israel. Even early in the Zionist movement, as European and Palestinian Jews spread the idea of negating the Diaspora, American Jewry never considered it and saw a strong Diaspora Zionism as an asset to the Zionist movement and an eventual Jewish State.
Dr. Jonathan Sarna offered a novel idea for the place of Diaspora Jewry, “My own suggestion is that we not only abandon shlilat ha-golah, (negation of the Diaspora) but that we actually embrace, nurture, and encourage a spirit of friendly competition among the great contemporary centers of world Jewry so chat each seeks to create a society where Jews and Judaism might flourish. Such competition, as we have seen, has long existed somewhat furtively, without official recognition or legitimation, between the Jewish communities of Israel and the United States.”
When Jacob was to meet his brother Esav, the brother who had promised to murder Jacob in revenge for his having stolen Esav’s blessings, he prepared in three ways. He sent Esav gifts to appease him, prayed to God for peace and split his camp in two just in case Esav came in violence. The same benefit is an argument made by Diaspora Zionists to explain why the Jewish people cannot all be located in one place. If God forbid the Jews of Israel faced tragedy, the Diaspora Zionists would be safe.
In any scientific experiment in the laboratory, the introduction of a new variable greatly changes the results of the experiment. The idea of negating the Diaspora was initiated before the creation of the State of Israel when anything was possible and every Zionist idea was being considered. The notion of not having a Diaspora community was just as possible as having one. Once the State of Israel was founded, it became the ultimate variable and result changer. 75 years later the Diaspora community hasn’t been negated. The founding of the State ended all practical discussions of the negation of the Diaspora.
There are valid arguments on both sides of the Diaspora Zionism argument. There’s no easy end to the debate. Zionism is about taking control of the Jewish people’s destiny and not leaving it to global forces. As much as early Zionist leaders imagined a future Jewish state that would gather in all the Jewish exiles from all over the world, ending the Diaspora’s existence, “Man plans and God laughs,” and the Diaspora is still strong. The future is an open book whose pages aren’t written yet. It’ll be up to the Jewish people to determine where our people will find themselves and the role of the Jewish Diaspora.