November 5, 2010
Diaspora dos, donts
Do Diaspora Jews have a role in determining Israeli policy? This was the topic of a panel at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a project of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which took place in Jerusalem last month.
Israeli-Diaspora relations have been debated to death, since 1948 at least. The small matter of “who is a Jew” is one of the lightning rods of this relationship, but there are many more. This conflicted familial struggle is so passionate precisely because people care so much. It is right that North American and other Jewish communities, whose philanthropy is a revenue source to the state of Israel, should have some input on the country they so generously support. On the other hand, no country’s government is obligated to any citizens but its own. On the third hand, Israel is not just any country and Diaspora Jews are not just any non-citizens. This is a relationship without parallel in the world. Diaspora Jews are to Israel unlike any other country’s diaspora for reasons that do not need enumerating here.
While it must be noted that Canadian, American, Australian, South African and other Diaspora Jews have fought for Israel in successive wars, it remains a significant part of this history that Israeli blood has been shed in exponential amounts in defence of the Jewish homeland. Had the past 62 years not been so rife with conflict, it may have been another story, but Israeli lives and limbs count for more than Diaspora dollars. But the decades of conflict in the Middle East have had a distinct impact on the Diaspora, notably in the past decade, when the vilification of Israel has been felt personally by Jews everywhere.
At the Jerusalem conference last month, one delegate made an especially relevant observation.
“The achievement of a peace agreement would be tremendously liberating for the global Jewish people,” said Barry Rosenberg, executive vice-president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, according to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency story. “It would allow us to devote our energy to other major priorities facing the Jewish people and the liberation of resources would be quite powerful.... It would also come with significant risks and potential trauma, like the withdrawing from some territory.”
Rosenberg is absolutely correct, of course. A resolution of the conflict would not only be the realization of the generations-old dream of peace to Israelis. It would impact the Diaspora dramatically as well. Presumably, Jews at dinner parties would no longer be forced to defend Israeli actions and policies, in the imagery used by Alan Dershowitz here in September. It would free up the insane amount of Israel’s GDP allocated to national defence and similarly reduce the need for Diaspora communities to fund programs that restore war-ravaged communities and to pick up the slack left by Israeli budget shortfalls caused by war and imminent war.
Rosenberg’s views may reflect those of most North American Jews, but are probably a bit rose-tinted. A two-state solution may not bring the peaceful utopia we have dreamed of since 1948. Even if the Palestinians are satisfied to live in peace beside Israel, there remain sworn enemies in the region whose major complaint has never been the “occupation,” but the existence of Israel at all. That may change or, if history is any indication, it may not.
Beyond this, as pleasant as it may be to think that a resolution of conflict in the Mideast will lead to harmony for Diaspora Jews, this too may be a dubious projection. The current state of affairs, in which Diaspora Jews are held accountable for Israel’s actions – at dinner parties, on university campuses, when boulders come through the windows of Hillels and synagogues, or when firebombs land in our libraries – is probably a hybrid phenomenon. The kinds of people who act out in hate crimes are not rational thinkers who will see Palestinian self-determination and be filled with kindliness toward the Jewish people. There is a rage out there, utterly disproportionate to anything Israel has done, a wrath reminiscent of the Dreyfus Affair and a thousand incidents before it, in which just a spark, real or fabricated, is needed to send a portion of the population into acts of irrational letter-to-the-editor-writing and dinner-party scrapping, even vandalism and violence.
But Rosenberg obliquely suggests a worrying, potentially dangerous facet of Diaspora-Israeli relations of which we have previously warned. Diaspora Jews must not confuse our own interests for those of Israel. We must not pressure Israel to take any action or enter into any agreement, peace or otherwise, that puts its citizens or its future in danger, just so that we do not have to worry over the fate of our dollars or sit uncomfortably through awkward parties.