The international maelstrom in the aftermath of the recent elections in Israel has not bypassed Jewish communities across the globe. Now, more than ever, they are grappling with the meaning of the results both for their own self-definition and viability and for the nature of their connections with Israel. Questions that have been brewing for some years have assumed a new urgency as Benjamin Netanyahu is busy knitting together a nationalist coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties whose values diverge markedly from those of over 95 percent of world Jews who reside in democratic societies. A serious, deep reevaluation has begun with far-reaching consequences for the Israel-diaspora relationship.
Since its inception, Israel has traditionally held a central place in the construction of Jewish identity in communities abroad — along with the history, traditions and specific circumstances prevailing in each country. As time has progressed, identification with Israel has revolved not only around concern with its survival, but also with its character. Increasingly, in major Jewish communities in North America and Europe, the close link between their Jewish identity and the democratic values they have imbibed from their surroundings has meant that affinity with Israel has not necessarily implied axiomatic support for specific Israeli policies. Indeed, the involvement of many Jews in Israeli life has revolved in recent years around different visions of what Israel is and should be, as evidenced by the lively debates that have taken place within these communities, as well as in the nature of their direct engagement inside Israel (including in the last elections). It is hardly surprising therefore that the outcome of the vote affects how Israel is perceived in many parts of the Jewish world and what this means for its centrality to Jewish life elsewhere.
The first and by far the most widespread cause of heightened deliberation in Jewish quarters outside of Israel in the wake of the elections revolves around the issue of Palestinian statehood. In consecutive polls conducted in North America and the United Kingdom, a vast majority of Jews consistently favor a two-state solution, which to them is the only way to maintain Israel as a democratic state with a Jewish majority (a notion which embodies the key components of their own Jewishness). Similar findings have been recorded in Europe and in other communities. During the course of the elections, however, Mr. Netanyahu stated clearly that he does not foresee a Palestinian state being established on his watch. Even though in the past week he has insisted that he has not backpedaled on his Bar-Ilan speech, much anxiety-inducing ambiguity remains. Moreover, the proposed composition of the new government does not augur well for any workable Israeli initiative on the Palestinian front.
Inevitably, Jewish reactions to the dimming prospects for a two-state solution have gathered steam. Anticipating increased pressure by their own governments on Israel (both directly and in international forums), coupled with rising voices calling for its isolation, their own identity dilemmas are becoming more pronounced. In the United States, the recent J Street conference gave voice to a large number of pro-Israel advocates who have no intention of backing an Israeli government bent on diplomatic foot-dragging or settlement construction. British Jews, in their own way, have expressed their growing discomfort with the narrowing political horizons. And many, already disaffected, have viewed the election results as further confirmation for their self-imposed distancing from Israel (although hardly from their affirmation of their own Jewish roots).
A second source of consternation for many Jews abroad revolves around the attitude of the Prime Minister and his partners to Israel’s Arab citizens. Netanyahu’s appeal to his constituency in the midst of the ballot to go out to vote because “…the Arabs are going in droves to the polling stations…” upset them (and not only President Obama) to the core. No recent statement by an Israeli leader has been viewed as so antithetical to democratic values as this frantic call; nor has any declaration been seen to negate so entirely the key elements of the Jewish tradition. Undoubtedly, none has struck such a sensitive chord in communities where the continuation of a vibrant Jewish life depends on the ongoing protection of minority rights and the values of tolerance and pluralism that support this fundamental democratic principle. Israel’s policies towards its Arab minority (Netanyahu’s feeble attempt at expressing regret notwithstanding) have a direct bearing on the position of Jews in other parts of the world and therefore constitute an immense catalyst of rising moral queasiness.
A third, immediate, reason for the present reexamination of the place of Israel in Jewish life relates to the incoming government’s intention to launch a series of legislative initiatives which threaten to compromise other aspects of Israel’s democracy. Top on the list is the revival of the basic law: “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” which gives preeminence to its Jewish composition over its democratic ethos. This proposal — thwarted on the eve of the dispersal of the outgoing Knesset — is being presented as a pillar of the new coalition agreements, along with a law which would heavily tax foreign-funded NGOs (especially human rights and civil rights groups), thus severely compromising freedom of speech and weakening the foundations of independent civil society in Israel. Such anti-democratic laws — especially in an environment antagonistic to the autonomy of Israel’s judicial branch — increase the growing unease related to Israeli realities in Jewish communities abroad.
These foci of concern, when taken together with an anticipated rollback on the prospects for the pluralization of Jewish life within Israel and the loosening of the religious monopoly over personal law, beg the question of how each Jewish community intends to define its relationship to Israel. The review process has already commenced, not only publicly, but also in a series of quiet thorough discussions. In each Jewish concentration, the answers will reflect the specificities of the community in question (size, demographic structure, traditions and longevity), the scope of overt and latent anti-Semitism it confronts and, above all, the extent of its internalization of liberal values.
No one answer will emerge. American Jews, already heavily split on matters Israeli, will probably experience a solidification of these divisions. In Great Britain, some of the self-confidence of the community may be undermined in the face of domestic criticism of Israeli actions and the disaffection exhibited by growing numbers of the younger generation. In France and other parts of the continent, the specter of rising anti-Semitism may continue to act as an antidote to widespread dissent. But what is common to Jewish communities throughout the world today is one glaring fact: they are rethinking their ties with Israel in light of shifts in the Israeli landscape.
This is not a mere blip generated by bewilderment over the results of the elections in Israel. It heralds a structural shift in Israel-diaspora relations which, while in the making for quite some time, is their inevitable byproduct. The extent and the nature of the Israeli aspect of Jewish identity are under reconsideration and, consequently, the quality and degree of support for Israel and its policy directions.