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Diaspora-Israel ties: A work in progress

At a time when most US Jews disagree with Israel's government, there are still good reasons for them to care

The invitation to contribute an article about Jewish solidarity to a special issue of the journal Eretz Acheret came at a very interesting time for . . . well, Jewish solidarity. A few months ago Jews around the world felt united – in shock, horror and support – on behalf of our brothers and sisters who were attacked in a kosher market near Paris. Together we prayed for their safety, mourned the loss of those who were so brutally murdered, and rejoiced at the salvation of the survivors. This was an example of elemental, pure solidarity: Jews were targeted, just for being Jews, and in our hearts and our shuls we stood with them: Je suis juif.

But only a few weeks later, in a breach of protocol that was seen as an intentional insult to the White House, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives invited the Prime Minister of Israel to address the US Congress. The latter accepted, and the bitter debate over the wisdom and appropriateness of this decision has divided Jews in both America and Israel. Indeed, the state of the Jewish world, as it relates to the Prime Minister’s decision to come to Washington, can be described as the very antithesis of solidarity.

So danger tends to unite us, and Israel often divides us. It is ironic, and rather sad, that the state created to bring the Jews together and to bring them home is so often the cause of such disagreement between them. But it isn’t a surprise. The fact is, when it comes to Israel, we Jews really often disagree.

From its earliest days, the Zionist project was a matter of great debate and disagreement in the Diaspora. And while that changed significantly after the Shoah and with the founding of the State, Israel’s role as a rallying point for Jewish solidarity has eroded. Increasingly, Jews outside Israel on one side of the political spectrum or the other find themselves in disagreement with policies pursued by a given government of the State of Israel.

This is understandable. It is part of the essence of Jewish peoplehood that Jews stand together when Jews are persecuted and threatened. But a modern state is not a people, and the Israeli government is not the elected representation of the Jewish people. This, by the way, is why the proposed “Jewish nation-state” bill is so divisive: the state is supposed to be the arbiter of all its citizens’ interests, not an ethnic ruling body.

So what happens to “Jewish solidarity” when an Israeli government pursues policies with which the majority of American Jews disagree? Policies they think may actually be “bad for the Jews,” let alone Israel? What happens to Jewish solidarity when the elected leader of the Israeli government claims to represent the interests not only of the State of Israel, but also of the Jewish people?

From where I sit, on the American side of the ocean, nothing good. Most American Jews are liberal no matter how you ask the polling question. When liberal American Jews are told – by their community institutions, by representatives from Israel – that “Jewish solidarity” means standing with Israel, and that “standing with Israel” means supporting not just the people of Israel or the right of Israel to exist, but rather whatever it is the government of Israel decides to do, well, a lot of American Jews, especially young ones, are going to walk away.

We’ve seen this begin to happen. We can pretend that the results of the 2013 Pew Study don’t tend to confirm the growing vector of drift and disaffiliation that increasingly characterizes the relationship of young American Jews to Israel, but pretending won’t solve our problem. One day, in the not-too-distant future, we may be nostalgic for the current debates. American Jews may simply not care enough about Israel to get agitated over what the Israeli prime minister does or does not do.

It is long past time to reframe what constitutes Jewish solidarity when it comes to Israel. We should stop pushing an artificial notion of solidarity based on jingoistic calls to rally round the policies and actions of a particular Israeli government, particularly when that government runs roughshod over critique and dissent. That is a recipe for failure.

To build a genuine sense of solidarity, we should give American Jews a reason to care about Israel beyond “they’re all out to get us.” For many American Jews, the Israel debate often seems to come down to a choice between “Israel can do no wrong” and “Israel is always wrong.” This is especially the case for young people on college campuses. But most of them are too smart for that. They know a false dichotomy when they see one. They know that in Israel, as in America, there is a third way, and that is to work for an Israel that is just, one that lives up to the best of both the Jewish and liberal-democratic traditions that informed its founding.

When I speak with American Jews about Israel, I tell them that Israel is far from perfect and is a work in progress, just like our own country. I remind them that there are tens of thousands of Israelis who, every day, are working to fulfill the vision Israel’s founders enshrined in its Declaration of Independence, of a state that is both a Jewish homeland and also a fair, open and equal society for all of its inhabitants. Those Israelis who work for social justice, human rights and religious freedom may not be the face of Israel that the current government of Israel wants to show the world. But they are a powerful argument for why Americans should care. They are the face of the Israel most American Jews can and want to connect with. They are the face of a dream worth fighting for.

This article is one of 17 important perspectives on the current state of the Israel-Diaspora relationship published in a special issue of Eretz Acheret magazine, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and available free of charge to Times of Israel readers. Access the full digital edition at:
Come let us reason together
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About the Author
Daniel Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.
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