Essays

Israel and the Jewish Diaspora

In 1990 the scholar David Vital wrote how Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel were heading in different directions. For better or for worse, this observation is proving to be increasingly accurate. For many Diaspora Jews, however, this direction of travel is undesirable. There exists a strong bond between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, and should this bond fray there are serious concerns that it may do irreparable harm to the Jewish people. As such, Diaspora Jews spend considerable effort to retain ties with Israel, including sending their children to Israel as part of youth group programs. The major Diaspora Jewish organizations also devote considerable resources to keeping up ties with Israel through a variety of sponsorships and public discourse. Yet, all this activity may well be for naught if Israel does not start to pay greater attention to Diaspora concerns about Israeli security policy.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, Antony Lerman argues that liberal Zionism is a lost cause. By liberal he means Jews who believe in Israel but equally believe in universal human rights and the dignity of humankind. Politically and philosophically this usage of the term liberal is problematic. Nevertheless, his point is that the major Diaspora Jewish organizations, like AIPAC, the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee, have replicated Israeli politics by taking a turn to the right, but unlike Israeli politics, are not representing the wider concerns in the Diaspora about Israel’s security policies. Moreover, he argues that liberal Zionists in the Diaspora, by not being critical enough (sometimes because if they do they are vilified in public) provide cover for the increasingly racist, violent and bigoted policies of the Israeli government. He has a point. However, regardless of how vocal liberal and other critical Zionists can be in their calls for political changes in Israel, the big question is the extent to which Israel will listen.

Ever since its inception, the Zionist idea privileged life in the Jewish state over Jewish life anywhere else. The very idea of being a Zionist and not living in Israel was for both Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir nonsense. Not all Diaspora Jews, however, wanted to settle in Palestine or move to Israel. Indeed, the strength of American Jewish support for Israel rests on American Jewish intellectuals being able to successfully argue the case for being both an American Jew and a Zionist.  Eventually, within Zionist thought the idea of all Jews having to immigrate, to ascend, to Israel became less important, and in some cases it was never necessary to begin with. Ahad Ha’Am’s Zionism required the Jewish State to serve as a spiritual home for the benefit of world Jewry, not just those Jews who chose to settle there. For most of its existence, Israel has variously needed the economic, political, social and moral support of Diaspora Jews. The current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has been especially active throughout his political career at working the Diaspora crowd for his benefit, especially in the United States. There exist numerous precedents, both within Zionist thought and Israeli political practice, for turning to the Diaspora and not negating it.

The pattern, however, in regard to Diaspora/Israel communication has been largely one-directional when it comes to Israeli security policy. This makes some sense, as it is primarily Israeli citizens that have to live with the policies of its government. However, this claim can now be questioned in light of how Israeli security policy is used as an excuse to attack Jews across the world. The connection between being a Jew with what Israel does has reached such heights that the British supermarket Sainsbury’s temporarily removed Kosher food from one of its stores for fear of being attacked by anti-Israel protestors. Diaspora Jews are expected to support Israel, so we are told not just by the main Jewish organisations and by the Israeli government, but now by non-Jews and even the local supermarket.

Consequently, it is high time to inquire about the extent to which Israel ought to listen to critical Diaspora Jewish voices. The common practice is to turn to Diaspora Jews only for support against a hostile world that takes umbrage at Jews when they try to defend themselves in their state. Israelis also claim that only those who live in Israel may offer criticism of Israeli security policy. Diaspora Jewish support is expected uncritically.

Diaspora Jews, by definition, do not live in Israel, but that does not mean we do not have important points to make about Israeli security policy. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly important for Diaspora Jews that Israel start to pay greater attention to how its security policies create difficult situations for Diaspora Jews. As even many Israelis will acknowledge, Israeli security policy, such as Operation Defensive Shield and Operation Protective Edge, achieves short-term security at the expense of long-term insecurity. The issue is not about whether or not there exists a viable negotiating partner, but about opening up dialogue between Israel and Diaspora Jewish opinion in order to advance thinking about a progressive solution to the conflict as opposed to an ongoing war that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians seem capable of resolving on their own.

What Diaspora Jews seem to remember better than Israelis, is that “we were once slaves in Egypt” and that to oppress another people is fundamentally at odds with being Jewish. If Israel decides that it will not listen to those voices in the Diaspora that are serious, educated, caring, and critical, then it risks losing the mantle of being a Jewish state. Instead, Israel runs the risk of becoming a pariah nation, one that does more harm to the Jewish people than good. This would be the ultimate irony, a tragedy, and one that must be avoided.

This post was prepared for publication in YNET in Hebrew. It is published here in English with permission.

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Ilan Zvi Baron

  • Mark Sondheim

    This distinction between how the Diaspora sees Israel and how so many Israelis see it is a critical and complex issue. This is an excellent article. I’d be interested in hearing more about the author’s views on whether liberal Zionism can be salvaged.

  • Blocky

    Well done Ricky

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