Sherwin Pomerantz
Sherwin Pomerantz

Israel and the Diaspora: Convergent or Divergent?

To understand and address the angst that has developed over the last two weeks between Israel and the diaspora, it might be instructive to look at the dictionary definitions of convergence and divergence.

Convergence is defined as a merging of opinions, interests and wishes while divergence is defined as a conflict of opinions, interests and wishes.

When one looks at both communities it seems abundantly clear that the opinions and wishes of the two communities can almost never converge.  First of all, with just two Jews, as the saying goes, you will have three opinions.  With millions of Jews here and equal numbers abroad, the number of opinions grows exponentially so convergence is simply impossible in that realm.

The same is probably true with wishes.  What one desires is generally significantly affected by where one lives, the characteristics of life that are unique to place, and the fears and concerns that present themselves differently in each community.  So, as with opinions, there is little chance for wishes to converge.

At the end of the day we simply have to accept the fact that this is the way it is.  We will disagree about how we think about things and what we want from life.  Once we recognize that and come to terms with it, we can go on with our lives with less discomfort about the relationship.

Where convergence is possible is in the realm of interests.  So, for example, on the political level it has always been in the best interests of both Israel and the United States, to cite one example, that Israel be strong militarily and have the ability to defend itself when it is under attack.  That is why in 1973 then President Nixon overrode the advice of his Jewish Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, and sent armaments to Israel to assist in the Yom Kippur war.  The interests of both nations were aligned.  It is also why then President Truman overrode the advice of Secretary of State George Marshall and his associates in the State Department, and was the first to recognize the State of Israel.  Our interests were aligned and the opinions and wishes just did not matter.  Even last year when former President Obama agreed to a 10-year $38 billion defense package for Israel he did so because of the alignment of interests even though many people here thought he was not a president friendly to Israel.  But the opinions did not matter, only the interests.

Frankly, it is sad that our rabbinic leadership does not understand this point.  Historically, it seems that the lack of understanding of the confluence of “interests” is what causes the rabbinate here to do things that help destroy the underpinnings of those interests.

So, for example, in December 2015 Chief Rabbi David Lau criticized Education Minister Naftali Bennett for visiting a Solomon Schechter (i.e. Conservative) School in New York during a visit there where parents are paying upwards of $20,000 a year for their children to get a Jewish education.  In Rabbi Lau’s words:  “To speak deliberately with a specific community and to recognize it and its path, when this path distances Jews from the path of the Jewish people, this is forbidden.  If Minister Bennett would have asked my opinion before the visit I would have said to him explicitly, you cannot go somewhere where the education distances Jews from tradition, from the past, and from the future of the Jewish people.”

That, indeed, could be Rabbi Lau’s opinion.  It also could express his personal wishes.  But is it in the best interests of Israel which remains dependent on many aspects of diaspora support to castigate the Minister of Education for the visit?  Did Bennett’s visit to the Schechter School have any negative effect either on Israel or Rabbi Lau’s constituency?  What undoubtedly did have an effect was on the attitudes of at least some Jews in the U.S. who were offended by those remarks and then perhaps altered their support for the cause of Zionism and the State of Israel.

This is one example of many but it illustrates the point.  Sometimes it is important to keep quiet for the good and welfare of the country

To bring the issue to today, David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Dov S. Zakheim, Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Under Secretary of Defense in the G.W. Bush Administration, 2001-2004 (both of whom are Orthodox Jews) penned an opinion piece in Ha’aretz which posited that:

“The crisis with U.S. Jews is a national security issue for Israel. The current crisis emanating from the Israeli government’s decision to freeze an agreement enabling non-Orthodox services at the Western Wall and renewed attempts to refuse recognition of conversions conducted by many Modern Orthodox and all non-Orthodox rabbis has been framed as a clash between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. This is an accurate but insufficient characterization. In fact, these developments represent a national security issue for Israel that should widely resonate inside the country.”

“One cannot assume that such support (i.e. of American Jewry for Israel) is a given in the years ahead. Challenges unanticipated today could put considerable strain on the U.S.-Israel relationship. To add to that strain religious issues of access and conversion is nothing less than foolhardy, especially given the ongoing attenuation of American Jewish ties to Israel amid a generational decline in affiliation to Jewish institutional life.”

There are those who have said to me:  “Once again it all boils down to money, that we should exchange our beliefs for political support and financial aid.”  But that begs the question.  Putting it in those terms moves the issue to the divergence of opinions and wishes but fails to recognize the convergence of interests.  It is only when the discussion is based on the convergence of interests that the leadership can stay away from statements that separate the two communities rather than unite them.

To paraphrase the late Italo Calvino: A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions, but through an act of will and love on the part of two people whose connection is based on shared interests. Distancing ourselves from the diaspora in the name of protecting religious fidelity is at best shortsighted and, at worst, simply destructive.  When it comes to Israel and the diaspora all that is important is acting on shared interests and keeping opinions and wishes to ourselves.  That is how we will mitigate the threat of divergence.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 29 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, regional entities and Invest Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Immediate Past Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a Board Member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.