THE FUTURE OF THE JEWSBy David Vital
Harvard University Press, $18.95
For Israel the events of recent months have been surprising and dismaying. Having warned the world for years about Saddam Hussein, there was no small amount of gloating in Jerusalem after Hussein's troops smashed into Kuwait last Aug. 2, and proved to any doubters that he is, indeed, a dangerous man. But having been right did not benefit Israel, for as Washington moved to check Iraq, it turned for help, not to Israel but to Israel's neighbors and enemies, to Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, thus instituting what was described by some experts as a new, Arab-based strategic arrangement in the region.
The basis for the long-standing strategic relationship between Israel and the United States had indeed been undermined by something that happened even before Iraq became an obvious threat before the world. Mikhail Gorbachev undermined it when he removed the Soviet Union as a factor of menace in the Middle East. For, in truth, Israel's strategic alliance with the United States was anchored in its role as an American foil against Moscow's Arab clients in the region.
But the divergence of interests with their powerful ally and patron is not the only grim prospect facing the Israelis. Worse, from the point of view of the world Jewish community, is Israel's growing alienation from the Diaspora.
David Vital's book is about the Jewish people and what is to become of them. Scattered across the planet for some 19 centuries, subjected to the most relentless persecutions, the Jews in 1948 reconstituted themselves on a territory, raised a flag, and asserted themselves as a state among the other states of the world. It was Zionism's stunning triumph. To have reclaimed Palestine, the ancient home of the Jews (and in the teeth of so much opposition) and to have revived and put into currency their antique language, no people have ever done anything like that. It affirmed the exceptional nature of the people in a most heroic way.
And yet in doing this, the Zionists virtually assured the withering of Jewish life elsewhere in the world.
There was no evil intention, no betrayal. It is simply that now that Israel is a state it is inclined to act like a state, which is to say to construe for itself where its interests are, and pursue them. This, of course, has always been very difficult, owing to the existence of the Diaspora. What other country has people spread out all over the globe, people of some influence who contribute to the state coffers and in turn demand influence on the formulation of national policy? It marked the exceptionableness of the Jewish state, yet it was a situation that could not endure, if only because policy decisions can only be made by those who must live by them and bear with their outcomes _ that is, the people in the homeland itself.
As originally conceived, the founding of a homeland would provide Jews beseiged in the Diaspora a place of refuge, and for those not under threat, a spiritual beacon, a comfort. Yet, comfort was the last thing it yielded to the Diaspora. The moment Israel was established the question of national loyalty became a factor in the various countries where Jews resided, and with that question the strain that dual allegiance inevitably imposes, a strain which has not lessened over these past four decades, which has worsened in fact since the outbreak of the intifada in December, 1987.
Dr. Vital, a historian of Zionism and Jewish civilization, believes the Jewish Diaspora is on the road to oblivion. But it was not the creation of the state of Israel that initially sent it off in that direction, he says. That happened in the wake of the French Revolution, when Napoleon asked the Jews in France if they wished to come out of their unique society and join the new civil society only then being created, and thereby "to discount the national content of the life of the Jews themselves and virtually to dissolve the national component of that great complex .
. of history, high culture, belief and social and ritual practice we call Judaism."
They accepted _ in France, and later in Germany and England, Italy and the United States. They accepted everywhere they were offered the opportunity.
According to Dr. Vital, the center of Jewish life today is in Israel. The Diasporas, American and European, ". . . beaten by assimilation on the one hand and by destruction and threats of further punishment on the other _ are now coming apart. Where there was once a single, if certainly a scattered and far from monolithic people _ indeed, a nation _ there is now a sort of archipelago of discrete islands composed of rather shaky communities of all qualities, shapes, and sizes, in which the Island of Israel, as it were, is fated increasingly to be in a class by itself."
It is not as sad a picture as one might think. The ultimate goal, The Return, has been gained. The sadness, a sadness of the mind, is only for those left behind.
Richard O'Mara is the foreign editor of the Baltimore Sun.