A.B. Yehoshua's remarks at the recent conference of the American Jewish Committee predictably kicked up a storm on both sides of the ocean. In Israel people charged that it is not true that Israelis are indifferent to the fate of Diaspora Jewry, and in the United States they said that were it not for their continuous aid and staunch support on behalf of Israel, the country would not have survived. On both sides, again and as always, this was the usual paternalistic reaction. We know what is good for you, we help you. Without us you will not survive.
But Yehoshua's remarks about the relations between Israel and the Diaspora, as infuriating as they may be, disturb me less than the way he described his own identity: My identity is Israeli, he said. The Jewish religion does not play a role in my life; it is the territory and the language that build my identity.
This definition of identity grants a bill of divorcement to the Jewish people, to the Jewish heritage, to 3,000 years of culture, creativity, prayer, rituals and tradition.
This definition of identity grants a bill of divorcement to the Jewish people, to the Jewish heritage, to 3,000 years of culture, creativity, prayer, rituals, tradition and everything that is subsumed in the term Judaism, and shows a preference for the Israeli "nation," which "arose from the sea" 100 years ago. For Yehoshua -- and many, many others in Israel -- the only thing that is important, existential and relevant from the Jewish perspective is what happens here, in Israel; everything outside Israel is obsolete and its fate is to be lost. In making this claim, Yehoshua undermines and weakens the justification for the State of Israel.
The internal debate among us here on the question of the country's borders, and the discussion of the correct way to achieve peace in our region, derive entirely from the assumption that the State of Israel has a right to exist - morally, legally and historically. This assumption faces constant questioning. The Hamas people try to undermine it, as do many other leaders in the Palestinian and Arab world. And many intellectuals in the Western world, who have adopted the Arab narrative that sees in us an anachronistic remnant of old colonialism, also try to undermine this assumption. Facing these debilitating forces is the belief held by many others in the world in the Jewish people's right to a national state in its historical homeland. We can win the struggle between these two approaches only if we ourselves, those of us who live in Zion, believe this and feel this way.
Ultra-Orthodox disciples of the Gaon from Vilna who immigrated to the Land of Israel in the 18th century, Zionist socialists at the end of the 19th century, and assimilated Jews from Soviet Russia who fought for their right to immigrate at the end of the 20th century -- they had nothing in common with regard to their perception of the Jewish tradition. However, all of them saw themselves as partners in the realization of the same ancient dream, the ancient Jewish prayer to return to the Land of Israel. All of them saw themselves as part of a special people and of the unique historical process of the return to Zion. This belief was the source of their strength and the only guarantee of their success.
There is no Zionism without Judaism and there never has been. Just as the Israeli people has never had a right to the Land of Israel. Only the Jewish people. It was the Jewish people that received the Balfour Declaration, and it was they who were granted by the United Nations the legal right to establish a state. It was the Jewish people that returned to its ancient homeland, for which it had prayed and longed for, for 2,000 years. For if we are talking about the Israeli "people" -- how is the right of a "people" that has existed for about 100 years greater than or equal to that of the Palestinians, who have been living on their land for about 300 years? What really distinguishes it from other colonial projects that have vanished from the earth?
It was clear to Arafat that the historical connection that is anchored and based in Jewish tradition is the basis for the existence of the State of Israel.
The discussion of our right to the land and the war between our narrative and theirs is not a purely philosophical discussion. At least not in the eyes of the Palestinian leaders. When the leaders of Hamas, like Yasser Arafat in his day, were or are prepared to consider recognition of the fact of Israel's existence, but not its right to existence, they are not playing word games. That is why Arafat reiterated over and over again his supposedly historical claims with regard to the absence of the connection between the Temple Mount and the Jewish people. It was clear to him that the historical connection that is anchored and based in Jewish tradition is the basis for the existence of the State of Israel, and without it, the state will disappear, just as it "appeared from the sea."
The difference between Israeli identity according to Yehoshua and Jewish identity is exactly the difference between the fact of existence and the right to exist. The difference is between a group of people that lives on a piece of land and speaks the Hebrew language, and the descendants of a people that is scattered throughout the world, who have returned to their historic homeland.
If, heaven forbid, we cut ourselves off from the chain that links us to the Jewish people, if we cut ourselves off from 3,000 years of Judaism, if we cut ourselves off from being the realization of 2,000 years of Jewish hope -- for next year in Jerusalem -- then we will lose the right to our existence. And in losing that right, we will be lost.
Perhaps the Jews of the Diaspora were insulted by Yehoshua's blunt remarks, but we, the Jews of the Land of Israel, we must rise up against them, for this is a matter of the very fact of our existence.
This article originally appeared in Haaretz.