As British Columbia’s Jewish community and friends come together Sunday to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary – a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, capping a multitude of celebratory events over the span of weeks – no one doubts that this moment is unlike any in the short history of the state, or in the relations between the Jewish state and the Diaspora.
The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America took place recently in Tel Aviv and the news service JNS headline noted modestly: “Jewish Federations’ annual conference becomes embroiled in political battles.”
It is true that the umbrella of the Federation system has generally tried to steer clear of internal Israeli politics. This is part of a larger family dynamic in which the instruments of the Diaspora are expected to not rattle the cage of Israel and Israeli officials are expected to retain a level of polite distance in commenting on Diaspora affairs. This separation has always been porous, especially when it comes to issues that directly affect Diaspora Jews, such as recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, egalitarian prayer at the Kotel and similar matters. But fears that proposed judicial reforms, and other plans of the new governing coalition, will alter the fundamental democratic DNA of the state have lowered the bar for engagement by overseas mishpachah. Indeed, weekly demonstrations in cities across North America and Europe, including in Vancouver, by the group UnXeptable represent a new wrinkle in the stay-in-your-lane status quo.
It is interesting how little criticism we have heard of this phenomenon. Time was, such behaviour would have been seen as “airing dirty laundry in public.” Israel (and Jews) have enough people criticizing them that we don’t need to add to the pile-on ourselves, the thinking has tended to go. It may be a sign of the widespread revulsion to the proposed judicial reforms themselves that have eclipsed this long-held reluctance to publicly criticize. Or it may be something more fundamental. Perhaps Diaspora Jews and Israelis are now engaging on a more equal footing.
Of course, we should not overstate our influence. Like buttinsky in-laws, we may significantly overestimate the weight of our interventions. Israeli officials have long chided overseas critics for their uninvited advice. And indications are that average Israelis don’t think a great deal about us at all.
Michael Steinhardt, the American philanthropist who cofounded the Birthright Israel program, wrote in the online journal Sapir recently that we may be seeing a complete inversion of the Israel-Diaspora relationship. The paradigm since 1948 has been that the Diaspora’s role is to “build” and “save” Israel.
“Israel is doing just fine,” Steinhardt writes. “We non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews, on the other hand, are not. ‘Supporting Israel’ has become a kind of narcotic, giving us a sense of self-worth and achievement that allows us to ignore the tempest that has put our own future in doubt.”
While Israel still faces challenges, Steinhardt seems to argue that it has evolved to a point where it can handle them on their own. At the risk of taking the family symbolism to its extreme, Diaspora Jews may be behaving like empty-nesters, their role now diminished, struggling to find a new identity.
He specifically cites assimilation, disengagement from Jewish life, declining Jewish education and synagogue attendance, which was already in decline before being pummeled by the pandemic.
“And then there’s the increasing pressure of antisemitism on campuses, city streets, and in public institutions,” writes Steinhardt. “Taken together, these constitute a well-documented existential threat to Diaspora Jewry that is far more immediate and profound than anything Israel faces today.”
It may be hyperbole to suggest that these crises facing the Diaspora, however serious, are “far more immediate and profound” than Iran’s nuclear ambitions, continuing terrorism or, perhaps, even the self-inflicted divisions caused by overreach by the new government. But it deserves discussion.
When our family members grow up (there really is no end to the metaphor), we do not give up supporting them. We continue to offer advice and wisdom – whether they want it or not.
And perhaps this is the correct lesson from the metaphor: when the once-dependent member of the family reaches a level of maturity that they can engage in an equal footing with the rest of the kinfolk, the dynamic rightly changes to a discussion between equals, in which either side is freer to offer criticism and advice, and both sides are free to take or reject it.
Surely we can all agree on this: when you reach 75, you ain’t no kid.