Diaspora Jews should stay out of draft debate

Apparently, the massive rally calling for an end to exemptions from IDF service was bankrolled by significant philanthropic leaders in the global Jewish community. Diaspora Jews generally have the right, and the obligation, to engage in the Israeli civic discourse. Nevertheless, diaspora Jews should stay out of the political struggle over military service.

The legitimacy of diaspora involvement in the Israeli political scene is rooted in the ideological foundations of the Jewish state. Zionism asserts that Jews are not merely a religious community, but a people with a distinct national identity. The Jewish people, like any other nation, are entitled to self-determination in their ancestral homeland. Thus, Israel serves as the realization of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, as well as an expression of a Jewish national identity.

Since Israel embodies the cultural identity and national aspirations of the Jewish people, it is inexorably linked with the Jews of the Diaspora. Although we are continuously struggling to define the parameters of the relationship between the Israel and the diaspora, the connection between us is undeniable. The Israeli Foreign Ministry maintains a bureau for World Jewish Affairs, while major Jewish communal organizations in the diaspora maintain offices in Israel. As with any relationship, the parties involved take upon themselves both rights and obligations.

The State of Israel has taken upon itself the obligation grant citizenship to any Jew who chooses to immigrate to the country. It serves as the custodian of Judaism’s most sacred holy sites and places of national memory. In addition, Israeli government officials serve as custodians of the Jewish national culture by publicly respecting the Sabbath and Dietary Laws. Thus, President Shimon Peres will not be attending the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, because there is no hotel within walking distance of the arena.

At the same time, world Jewry has accepted a prominent role in the Jewish national project. Israel is the only country, for instance, where the Boards of Directors of its universities are mostly foreigners. Diaspora Jews have historically lent their financial, political, and moral support to the Jewish national project by funding land purchases in Eretz Yisrael, interceding with global powers at key moments in Zionist history, and developing Israel’s military, social, and agricultural infrastructure.

It follows from the obligations which the diaspora and Israel have accepted upon themselves that these two collectivities share more than a common national identity, but common concerns. Religious policies in Israel- particularly with regard to conversions- have repercussions for Jews (and potential Jews) throughout the world. Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians has had serious, albeit unjustified, consequences for Jews on American college campuses, as well as for the Jewish communities in Europe. Moreover, the decisions Israel makes regarding the future of the West Bank will impact the relationship between the Jewish people and the heart of their Biblical homeland.

Given the fundamental nature of the connection between Israel and the diaspora, as well as our shared concerns, diaspora Jews have an imperative to engage with issues on the public agenda in Israel. As Israel represents our national aspirations and identity, it often takes decisions on behalf of the entire Jewish nation. Diaspora Jews, then, have the moral imperative to enter into the Israeli public discourse on questions which touch upon our shared national identity. Since Israel is the expression of that identity, virtually every issue that enters into the civic sphere becomes a matter of concern for Jews around the globe.

Of course, there are limits to diaspora Jewry’s engagement with the Israeli political scene. These limits stem from the reality that while Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people, it is also a sovereign and democratic state. As such, while Diaspora Jews may legitimately inform, lobby, and criticize, the government of the State of Israel is ultimately responsible for matters that fall within the purview of state sovereignty. Diaspora Jews may debate, cajole, and even advocate on behalf of Israeli political movements, only Israeli citizens may decide which parties will be chosen to govern Israel.

The legitimacy of diaspora Jewry’s engagement with the Israeli political scene and civic discourse is rooted in Israel’s existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people. However, Israel’s status as a sovereign nation-state limits engagement in in the Israeli civic sphere. In particular, issues which relate primarily to Israel’s functioning as a sovereign state and the civic obligations of citizenship fall beyond the purview of legitimate diaspora involvement in Israeli affairs.

This brings us back to the issue of diaspora philanthropists backing the movement against the Haredi exemption from military service. The issue of military service is, above all, a matter of the relationship between a state and its citizens. The state, and the state alone, has the legitimate authority to coerce individuals to engage in service for the common good. Moreover, only the state can  turn its citizens into combatants- soldiers who can legitimately kill and be killed under the laws of war. Thus, military service is arguably the most solemn component of the relationship between the state and its citizens.

Because military service is predominantly a matter between a state and its citizens, diaspora Jews should not interfere in Israel’s struggle to cope with the dilemma of compulsory service for Haredi Jews and Israeli-Arabs. By providing financial support for the campaign to draft Haredim, diaspora Jews intrude into one of the most solemn aspects of the relationship between state and citizen. While the outcome of the struggle over universal conscription in Israel will certainly reverberate throughout world Jewry, the struggle should be left to citizens of Israel.

About the Author
Ari Moshkovski is a Doctoral Candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. He holds an M.A. from Brandeis University, as well as a B.A. and M.A. from Queens College of the City University of New York. At Queens College, he engaged in extensive research and curriculum development on Israel and the Middle East as part of a project funded by the Clinton Global Initiative and the Ford Foundation. Ari was also a co-founder of the Queens College Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding under a grant from the United States Department of Education. Has researched, taught, and lectured on Zionism, Jewish thought, Israeli foreign affairs and security policy, Arab-Israeli diplomacy, and the nexus between religion and politics.