Is caring about Israel “essential” to what being Jewish means today?
“Diaspora criticism of Israel is largely ineffective in influencing Israeli policy”
Ilan Zvi Baron is Professor in International Political Theory and Deputy Head of School in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, in the UK. Dr. Baron grew up in the West Coast of Canada.
In 2018, he published a paper that explored a question that he stated, “is often assumed but rarely addressed: “What does Israel provide ideationally for Diaspora Jews that serves as the basis for Diaspora/Israel relations and justifies the importance of Israel for Jewish identity?”
In 2023, his question today has far-reaching implications for Diaspora Jews regarding how they see the current political hysteria attaining new heights on a day-to-day basis in Israel.
Today, for Diaspora Jews, Israeli governance contains no middle ground for them to comfortably shelter in and be protected. Today, more than at any other time, polarization contains the very essence of the equation. One is for or against the current Israeli elected government.
As has been pointed out on numerous past occasions, there has been an accepted rule that Diaspora Jews do not air their unclean laundry in public. It gives ammunition to the antisemite. With antisemitic social media frothing at the mouth to declare at a moment’s notice hostility against Jews as a religious, racial, or ethnic society, there is much to accept in this statement as fact.
Current governance in Israel
To those readers who are unfamiliar with current governance in Israel, the most right-wing and extreme government in Israel’s history, it is based on the separation between three authorities: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial branches. The Knesset – the Israeli Parliament – is the legislative branch, having exclusive authority in the country to enact laws. The Knesset also has a formative legislative function: the establishment of a constitution for the State of Israel. The Knesset is the arm that supervises the government and has several quasi-judicial roles, as well as the tasks of selecting the president and the State Comptroller. The Knesset has 120 members (MKs) and is located in Jerusalem.
As Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen the director of the Israel, The Palestinian Territories, and the Region program at the U.S. Institute of Peace pointed out earlier this year, senior members of the new government include, “Chief among these personalities are Itamar Ben Gvir, a routine provocateur and a convicted supporter of terror and inciter of racism against Palestinians, and Bezalel Smotrich who has consistently called for territorial expansion and Palestinian Arab expulsion. Ben Gvir is now national security minister, a newly defined role that gives him policy- and priority-setting power over Israel’s police operating within Israel, and also a border police unit that operates within the West Bank. Smotrich is Finance Minister [updated].”
“Beyond, the proposal by Justice Minister Yariv Levin to overhaul the justice system, if enacted, would include an override clause effectively removing any check on legislative action. Among other interests, this would serve the agenda of those in the governing majority who wish to pursue retroactive legalization of settlements or other steps in the West Bank, such as demolitions, upon which the courts have previously served as a restraint.”
For the Diaspora criticism is one of the few practises that provide an empirical connection with Israel on a regular basis.
To return to Dr. Ilan Azi Baron. In his paper he states:
“While Diaspora criticism of Israel is largely ineffective in influencing Israeli policy, it is nevertheless exceptionally important for Diaspora Jews for a very simple reason. Criticism is one of the few practices that provide an empirical connection to Israel on a regular basis.”
“The act of debating Israel is to connect with Israel and emphasizes the meaningful authority that Israel offers which is then challenged or defended in the act of critique.”
In his conclusion, he states:
“Debate or critique about Israel is often contentious because Israel provides a grounding on which to understand contemporary Diaspora identity. To question Israel is to undermine an authoritative grounding of contemporary Diaspora Jewish identity because Israel provides a form of authority that is otherwise absent.”
“Israel offers a form of authority for Jews and for Jewish peoplehood that is impossible to ignore (to do so would be to ignore Jewish biblical history). The challenge is to discover a form of Jewish connectivity with Israel that does not subscribe or is even sympathetic to the kind of macho-Jewish Rambo fantasy but instead seeks to learn from the lessons and experiences of Diaspora.
“In order to answer the question I started with, “What does Israel provide ideationally for Diaspora Jews that serves as the basis for Diaspora/Israel relations and justifies the importance of Israel for Jewish identity?” it is imperative to appreciate the hermeneutic phenomenological element of how Israel contributes to Jewish senses of identity and to seek out in Diaspora life political lessons that are not self-defeating.”
Hermeneutic phenomenology stresses that every event or encounter involves some type of interpretation from an individual’s background and that we cannot separate this from an individual’s development through life.
The comments I have received regarding views on the current Israeli political situation, for the most part, fit closely with their individual background, past or present that comes into the equation.
The creation of Israel provided a haven for Jews who survived the Holocaust and extreme oppression in Europe. However, we cannot acknowledge that history is at the expense of Mizrahi Jews nor of, for example, the actions taken against some 3,000 Dutch Diaspora Indonesian Jewry persecuted during WWII while living in Japanese-controlled Indonesia. The community suffered greatly in concentration camps under Japanese occupation.
As pointed out several years ago by Hen Mazzig, an Israeli writer and activist of Iraqi and North African descent, editor-at-large at the J’accuse Coalition for Justice.
“Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, was not established for just one type of Jew but for all Jews, from every part of the world — the Middle East, North Africa, Ethiopia, Asia and, yes, Europe. No matter where Jews physically reside, they maintain a connection to the land of Israel.”
It is this connection, between Diaspora Jews and Jews residing in Israel and the fact the Diaspora Jews have no direct say in Israeli politics is causing angst within much of the Diaspora, especially the older community.
Yes, I put it to you, caring about Israel in its present political climate is essential to what being Jewish means today. But, not just for Jews. Caring also reflects how non-Jews see us. Overall, that is a scary concern for many Diaspora Jews irrespective of where one lives.♦