Strong bonds between Israel and diaspora are crucial

These blunt words from one of Israel's leading writers will create an angry controversy among American Jews:

"If Israel should ever go under — and I do not find it inconceivable — I would not want the diaspora to continue. I would not want there to be any more Jews in the world. It would be too shameful. That is the only word for it that I can think of."

But in calling for a mass aliyah (immigration to the Jewish state) that will never happen, this article by Hillel Halkin in the June issue of Commentary not only beats a dead camel, but takes hold of the wrong end of the beast.

First, Israel could only be destroyed if the United States allowed it to happen. If that nightmare did occur, American Jews, with their vaunted political strength, would certainly feel a devastating — and, yes, "shameful" — dereliction of duty on their part.

But Halkin proposes that American Jews must make aliyah not only in order to help Israel survive, but to help themselves survive as Jews.

American Jews seem to be in some agreement on that point. Year after year, according to American Jewish Committee years, seven out of 10 American Jews have agreed that "if Israel were destroyed, I would feel as if I had suffered one of the greatest personal tragedies in my life."

As always, that response means different things to different people. But it is noteworthy that almost all Orthodox Jews agree that Israel's loss would be a great personal tragedy, as compared with eight out of 10 Conservative Jews, six out of 10 Reform Jews and five out of 10 who say they are "just Jewish."

Thus, even among Jews who have the least traditional religious commitment to Israel, a majority would still feel highly disturbed by its loss.

Among other reasons, many Jews who still want a Jewish identity — especially those with a shaky religious orientation — know that Israel is somehow necessary. The hypothetical of Israel's disappearance sharply poses the question of whether there is enough substance in American Jewish life to sustain its future, with or without Israel.

But it is also useful to identify the substance in Israeli Jewish life which can sustain its future. Halkin suggests that the large number of secular young Israelis — some have called them "Hebrew-speaking goyim" — will remain firm Jews because of their strong sense of group or tribal ties.

But, apparently aware that tribal ties alone, without a religious component of some kind, will not ensure Jewish survival in Israel, Halkin adds that the religious core in Israel "will allow secular Jewish culture in Israel to develop while still in contact with its religious roots."

Eureka! What we know of American Jewry tells us that the same combination is needed here. Tribal ties — Jewish social values or communal activity — alone will not ensure Jewish survival.

On the other hand, the varieties of religious expression that American Jews pursue will most likely remain Jewish when strong tribal ties prevail. In an open, integrated America, those ties are hard to sustain, and that is where Israel comes in.

Many Jews may not accept Israel as the religious center of world Jewry, but that nation is now the indispensable center of Jewish tribal ties around the world.

So, "strong Israel-diaspora relations" is not just a nice slogan; it's key to the survival of American Jewry.

That vital connection is dimming a bit in both countries. While eight out of 10 American Jews aged 60 or over agree that Israel's disappearance would be a great personal tragedy for them, only six out of 10 under the age of 40 agree.

Meanwhile, a significant sector of Israel is trying to downgrade the tribal ties of those nine out of 10 American Jews who do not hold Orthodox religious views. That kind of dismissal — the attempt to officially ban Conservative and Reform conversions in Israel — would be as "shameful," and deadly to Jewish life, as any reduction of American Jewish support for Israel.