One of the great cardinal errors of early Zionism was its complete negation of the millennia old Exile and the achievements of the Jews in that Exile. The early Zionist leaders did not stress the spiritual, national and psychological allure of the Land of Israel as much as they emphasized the shortcomings of Jewish life in the lands of Jewish dispersion. This philosophy generated a great deal of opposition to Zionism, an opposition that in many respects still remains active today in many communities outside of Israel.
But neither the Zionists nor their opponents imagined at the beginning of the twentieth century what the Jewish world would look like a century later. The heartland of the Jewish people then was central and eastern Europe, the home of Ashkenazic Jewry. The Sephardic diaspora was scattered throughout the Middle East, the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans, with small pockets in other parts of the world.
The number of Jews living in the Land of Israel under discriminatory Turkish rule and economic ruin was very small, probably not even approaching ten thousand souls. And after some initial enthusiasm, the idea of Zionist sponsored immigration to the Land of Israel waned and faded.
The major Jewish immigration, from Eastern Europe and other parts of the world as well, was headed for North and South America, especially the United States. This immigration involved millions of people making a conscious decision to embark on a new life in a new environment and milieu. Yet, even after this mass immigration, most of the Jews in the world still lived in Europe.
But unforeseen world events changed the picture, as they always do. The First World War in all of its horrors and tens of millions of corpses scarred the Jewish and European landscape forever. In its aftermath it gave rise to institutionalized, government-sponsored anti-Semitism and to the Communist revolution that created the Soviet Union.
This occasioned a second wave of Jewish immigration from Europe, but again the vast majority of Jews leaving Europe came to the United States and other Western countries, though there was a significant number who chose to come to the Land of Israel. The Jews were on the move but tragically not enough of them were able to leave in time.
World War II and its attendant Holocaust made Europe the graveyard of the Jewish people. Great Britain made immigration to the Jewish homeland difficult if not impossible for most European Jews. Eventually the State of Israel came into being and over its decades of existence has more or less successfully absorbed enormous amounts of Jewish immigrants from all over the world.
The once great centers of Jewish life in Europe and the Levant are no more and have become only a tourist attraction, to visit Jewish cemeteries. And even those Jewish communities that still remain in Europe are slowly hemorrhaging with the continuing danger and discomfort of hope and anti-Semitism, much of it now cloaked in the pious garb of anti-Israel hatred.
So, at least as far as Europe is concerned, the centuries old Jewish exile there is definitely closing down… with the Jewish communities dwindling in numbers, influence and leadership. The main exile remains in the United States of America.
But the United States is going through a hard time, economically, politically and diplomatically. My grandchildren there are growing up in a completely different America than the one I grew up in decades ago. There was a period of time, not too long ago, when it was unthinkable to imagine that American Jewry would feel uncomfortable and less confident of its future and its accomplishments. But that time has passed. Jewish students are subject to open anti-Semitism on American college campuses, the government of the United States, under the current administration, has been a constant critic of Israeli policies and behavior. The entire tone of the liberal, leftist social revolution of the past few decades has made Jewish life and leadership in the United States cautious, reserved and in my opinion somewhat fearful.
It certainly is incorrect to say that the romance of the Jewish people with the United States of America has ended. Nevertheless we do live in a rapidly changing world and completely unpredictable events have become the norm of our existence. The Jewish population of Israel is currently as great as in the United States. The balance of influence is also changing in favor of Israel. In many respects we all have to agree that the exile is inexorably closing down.