How Birthright and Achad Ha’am are Leading the Diaspora Home
By Harris Eppsteiner
On May 29, 2005, Ariel Sharon’s new “MASA” initiative held its official launch event among the ancient caves of Kibbutz Beit Guvrin. Speaking in front of over two thousand Diaspora youth gathered in the kibbutz’s amphitheater, Sharon heralded the start of a new era for Jews living outside of Israel:
Today, we are taking a giant step towards the time when living in Israel for a period of time will be an inseparable part of the life of every Jewish youngster around the world, just as the land of Israel is an inseparable part of our identities as Jews.
A joint partnership between the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel, MASA provides both funding and recruitment for over 150 programs for young Diaspora Jews to spend a year or longer in Israel, ranging from Orthodox Yeshiva programs to army simulations to kibbutz-based agricultural work,. Since its inception, over 20,000 18-to-30-year-olds have participated on programs within the MASA framework.
It is remarkable and somewhat ironic that it was Ariel Sharon – former Minster of Defense, former IDF general, and then-Prime Minister – who first pushed for the launch of MASA in 2003. Sharon’s stated political ideology, at least at the time, owed much to the Zionist dreams of both Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) and Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940). For both Jabotinsky and Herzl, the “Jewish Question” could only be solved through the complete dissociation of Jews from European society. Both men saw the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine as a necessary precursor to the immigration of Diaspora Jewry and the consequent solution of their existential problems. Jabotinsky and Herzl were not alone in this belief: “Labor” Zionists like Ber Borochov and A.D. Gordon, influenced by Marxist ideology, believed that the material basis for the “Jewish problem” could only be solved by mass immigration to a future Jewish state and the subsequent creative labor that the new immigrants would invest in the land.
Yet for Achad Ha’am – prolific essayist and father of “cultural Zionism” – these dreams could never be willed into reality. Following the First Zionist Congress, Achad Ha’am, born Asher Ginsberg in 1856 in a small town near Kiev, decried the lack of realism he saw in the “political Zionism” espoused by Herzl and his followers:
Truth is bitter, but with all its bitterness it is better than illusion. We must confess to ourselves that the “ingathering of the exiles” is unattainable by natural means. We may, by natural means, establish a Jewish State one day, and the Jews may increase and multiply in it until the country will hold no more: but even then the greater part of the people will remain scattered in the strange lands. “To gather our scattered ones from the four corners of the earth” (in the words of the Prayer Book) is impossible. Only religion, with its belief in a miraculous redemption, can promise that consummation.
For Achad Ha’am, the political programs of Herzl and other Zionist thinkers were hopelessly unrealistic in their assumption that Diaspora Jewry as a phenomenon would come to an end with the establishment of a Jewish state. Indeed, other Zionist ideologies were doomed to fail if they saw the creation of a Jewish state as a solution to what he termed the “material” problems of Diaspora Jews: anti-Semitism (for all European Jewry) and economic impoverishment (for the Ostjuden—Eastern European Jews). Instead, Achad Ha’am argued for Zionism as a solution to the “moral problem” of the loss of “Jewish dignity” in the Diaspora first identified by Leon Pinsker decades earlier. “The salvation of Israel,” he declared in 1897, “will be achieved by prophets, not by diplomats.”
The salvation would, no doubt, require the establishment of a Jewish national home, but this home would not be the only one for world Jewry. And neither agricultural labor nor reclamation of the Biblical Eretz Yisrael by force would solve Jewish malaise in Europe:
In Palestine, we can and should found for ourselves a spiritual center of our nationality…When all the scattered limbs of the national body feel the beating of the national heart, restored to life in the home of its vitality, they too will once again draw near one to another and welcome the inrush of living blood that will flow from the heart…The influence of the center will strengthen the national consciousness in the Diaspora, will wipe out the spiritual taint of galuth [exile], and will fill our spiritual life with a national content…not like the artificial content with which we now fill up the void.” (“A Spiritual Center,” 1907)
Though Achad Ha’am – whose chosen nom de plume means “One of the People” – never acknowledged it, his vision was necessarily elitist: only the best and the brightest of world Jewry would need emigrate to the future Jewish state, and building the state would be an intellectual, not a physical, endeavor. “True” Jewish culture, a true Jewish national identity, would radiate outward from the “center” in Palestine to the circumference in the Diaspora, wiping away the spiritual depression and alienation felt by European Jews. The Jewish state would not, nor could not, improve Jews’ physical lot; but at the very least it would regenerate Judaism as a cultural phenomenon and reaffirm both achdut Yisrael (the unity of Israel) and ahavat Yisrael (the love of Israel) for all of world Jewry. Among other projects, this work would include the establishment of a single national language, and Achad Ha’am took great pains to promote the revitalization of Hebrew in political and educational institutions (such as the Haifa Technion) in pre-Mandatory Palestine.
Although it remained a powerful substratum in the Zionist movement following his death in Tel Aviv in 1927, Achad Ha’am’s vision never became a part of the dominant ideology of either the Jewish Agency or the State of Israel. While Israel’s Declaration of Independence prominently mentions the “ingathering of the exiles” — a phrase that for Achad Ha’am represented the unrealistic messianism of political Zionism — as a goal of the nascent Jewish state, it is silent on the issue of cultural regeneration. And since the state’s founding, the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora has been tenuous, to say the least. For years, Israelis characterized those who chose to remain in “exile” as victims of a “ghetto mentality,” morally degenerate and spiritually bereft. In the early years of the state, Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) focused on the armed resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto and the partisans of Eastern Europe, not the victims of Auschwitz and Treblinka, the consummate victims of the mentality of exile in their passivity as they marched to their deaths in the gas chambers. Yet the young state was at the same time financially dependent on Diaspora communities in the West, especially as it absorbed roughly one million Mizrahi Jews in the 1950s.
The tenet of “Negation of the Diaspora” (shelilat ha-galut), as it was known in Zionist intellectual circles, carried over into official efforts to attract young Western Jews to make aliya. The Jewish Agency, which handled most Israeli-initiated efforts in the Diaspora, placed young shlichim (emissaries) in Jewish communities in the United States and Western Europe to encourage emigration to Israel. Most Israel-focused organized programs encouraged aliya as an explicit goal; after all, following the Holocaust and the exodus of Jews from Arab countries, American and Western European Jews were the last holdouts, the final hurdle before the completion of the ingathering of the exiles.
This ardent desire for—and presumed inevitability of—the eventual immigration of the whole of American and Western European Jewry manifested itself in programs designed for teens and young adults, the target demographic for today’s Birthright and MASA programs. For many American Jews of my parents’ generation, spending time working on a kibbutz in Israel was a rite of passage, a chance to get away from suburban banality and live, if only briefly, a fuller, richer life. But in the eyes of their Israeli counterparts, these trips were intended to push participants towards aliya. With the exception of yeshiva programs aimed at Orthodox American Jews, almost all programs under the aegis of the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, and Hadassah (including Young Judea) had the immigration of participants as both their main goal and their metric of success. With the success of the Zionist project dependent on the completion of the ingathering of the exiles, with the solution to the “Jewish problem” requiring the complete negation of the Diaspora, with Herzl’s dream truly a reality only if the Jews of Levittown and Highland Park came to live in Israel, these groups could do little else.
This longstanding focus on aliya explains why both Birthright Israel and MASA represent much more than just new initiatives toward Jewish connection funded by the State of Israel and wealthy Diaspora donors, as were the kibbutz programs of the 1960s and 1970s. The establishment of MASA marks a profound shift in Israeli thought and in the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora in the Israeli mind.
Nowhere is this clearer than in MASA’s statement of purpose, which states that visiting Israel
is a proven gateway into Jewish life for many of today’s young unaffiliated Jews—and for others, a vehicle for deepening Jewish connection… MASA, the Hebrew word for “Journey,” is a strategic partnership between the Jewish Agency and the Government of Israel with an extraordinary vision: to dramatically increase the number of young Jews ages 18-30 from around the world on long-term Israel programs and forge a life-long connection to Israel and the Jewish people.
There is no mention of aliya as a goal, no hint that the purpose of the trips funded by the initiative should be to encourage emigration to Israel. We find instead a principle that seems to be lifted directly out of Achad Ha’am’s vision: Diaspora youth should come to Israel for spiritual revitalization—a “gateway into Jewish life” for some, “a vehicle for deepening Jewish connection” for others. Moreover, the trips are intended to foster not only a “life-long connection to Israel,” as might be expected from any Zionist program designed for young Diaspora Jews, but a love of “the Jewish people” as well. Israel is no longer the eventual (and inevitable) home of program participants. It is a place where they can come to feel truly Jewish, where connections between the now-scattered Diaspora Jews – perpetually on the verge of assimilating – and the Jewish nation as a whole may be forged. It is where the periphery of the Diaspora can become a circumference around the center that is the Jewish state.
Most importantly, the periphery exists in its own right. It is not an ever-shrinking circle that will eventually converge to the center. Weak as it may appear, the solution to its problems is not its elimination; it is its revitalization, it is its reinvigoration.
One could – many cynics do – point to this seemingly new attitude as merely a shift in strategy, a change in rhetoric with no substantive ideological or even practical change to back it up. But in mid-2009, Oranim, then the largest subcontractor for Birthright Israel, left the program’s umbrella after an acrimonious dispute over the educational component of its trips. In a Ha’aretz article in September of that year, Oranim head Shlomo “Momo” Lifshitz claimed that he chose to split with Birthright over the latter’s insistence that he stop urging participants in Oranim programs to move to Israel and marry Jews there. Though Birthright officially denied Lifshitz’s claim that they censored his encouragement of aliya, they did acknowledge that they had a different goal of “education.” The periphery, it seems, must not be pulled to the center. It must be simply be “educated.”
Why this change in institutional mindset after such a long time spent pushing for aliya? Perhaps it is the stubborn fact of the Diaspora’s continued existence despite the years of concerted effort by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency to effect mass emigration. Perhaps it is the dawn of a new conception of the “Israeli’s burden”: Israelis need not bring Diaspora Jews to Israel permanently, but must use Israel as a tool to save Diaspora Jews from themselves. MASA sustained a barrage of criticism in 2009, just after Birthright’s Oranim incident, when it began airing a controversial advertisement on Israeli television. Depicting a series of “missing person” posters featuring Jewish names in English, French, and Russian, the thirty-second spot urged viewers to contact MASA with the names of young friends in the Diaspora before they assimilate and “we lose them” forever. The advertisement laid bare a crucial assumption of both the MASA framework and of Achad Ha’am’s philosophy: Israelis must actively work to save their Diaspora brethren. They must expose them to the power of the “spiritual center” before it is too late. Otherwise, the periphery will weaken to the point of nonexistence, and the center, to use Achad Ha’am’s terminology, cannot exist without the circumference.
Thus, the change in mindset is not a matter of placing the Diaspora on an equal level with the Jewish state. Israelis still remain the privileged few, the “true” Jews who can save world Jewry by bringing Jews to Israel, if only for a short period of time. But at the very least, MASA represents an acknowledgement that the Diaspora has a place within Judaism, that the State of Israel is not the necessary endpoint of Jewish history, at least in the foreseeable future (and barring some Messianic redemption).
Have Israelis ditched Herzl for Achad Ha’am? Not definitively. Yet MASA and Birthright do represent a remarkable shift in Israeli institutional attitudes towards Diaspora Jews to ones more at home in Ginsberg’s “A Spiritual Center” than in Herzl’s Der Judenstaat, a shift that is perhaps easy to miss among the headlines coming from Israel. It is still unclear whether this shift represents only a temporary concession to the existence of the Diaspora or instead marks the start of a broader shift in Israeli attitudes. It remains to be seen whether Achad Ha’am’s vision manifests itself in other spheres of Israeli life and culture, and how mainstream Zionist institutions in both Israel and the Diaspora will react to these changes. At the very least, it is clear that Achad Ha’am’s cultural Zionism is far from dead. Perhaps it merely awaits new prophets, and not more diplomats or politicians, for its full resurgence.
 Full disclosure: I participated in a MASA-sponsored program from 2007 to 2008 and received a scholarship from the organization.
 Achad Ha’am almost never mentions non-Ashkenazi Jews in his writings. Like most European Zionists of his day, for him “the Diaspora” is essentially Europe (and, on occasion, America), and the major divisions between Jews a matter of Eastern European versus Western European and not Ashkenazi versus Sephardi or Mizrachi.