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Israel and the Diaspora: The state of a fractured union

On the troubling cracks in the bonds between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry reported in a new JPPI study

The world Jewish agenda for the next 10 years just arrived in my inbox.

No, it isn’t a briefing on the Iran Nuclear Deal, which will dominate our communal discussions at least until Congress votes on the pact and probably for months after.

It’s a report by the Jewish People Policy Institute, the Israeli-based think tank that acts as a quasi-official adviser to the Israeli government on Diaspora affairs. This year, in the wake of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, JPPI conducted more than 40 seminars in Jewish communities around the world — open-ended discussions about the war and how Diaspora Jews viewed its ethics, its outcome, and its impact.

The report on these seminars, titled “Jewish Values and Israel’s Use of Force in Armed Conflict: Perspectives from World Jewry,” reflects this narrow topic, but the conclusions have the potential for a much broader discussion on the relationship between Israel and the rest of world Jewry.

The good news for Israel is that Diaspora Jews mostly approve of Israel’s use of force in last year’s conflict, despite the inescapable pictures of flattened Gaza homes and schools, and the drumbeat of negative media commentary about “disproportionate” use of force and Israel overreach. Most felt the IDF’s claim to “Jewish values” was intact, despite the asymmetrical violence.

But the researchers — led by journalist Shmuel Rosner and Brig. Gen. (Res.) Mike Herzog, both senior fellows at the institute — found cracks emerging as the discussions broadened. It found that “many in the Jewish world are critical of particular Israeli policies that lead to the use of force” and that “many Jews doubt that Israel truly wishes to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians, and few believe it is making the necessary effort to achieve one.”

Hawkish Jewish organizations tend to downplay that sort of dovishness by saying it represents a minority opinion, or that many of the “Jews” included in such studies have weak or eroding ties to the “community,” or that they put Democratic politics ahead of Yiddishkeit. And yet, as the debate over the Iran deal is showing, rarely if ever have the views of the Diaspora majority and the Israeli government been so divergent. It’s not just that the Netanyahu government has so actively courted the Republicans. Like President Obama, who has spoken nostalgically of the Israel of “kibbutzim, and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir,” many Jews have a longing for an Israel that may no longer exist.

Younger Jews, meanwhile, have no memories of the kibbutzim and Golda Meir. Their Israel lurches from crisis to crisis, with no end to the Palestinian conflict in sight. As a result, writes JPPI, “they have less faith in Israel and its policies.”

JPPI also writes of a “sense of crisis” in many Jewish communities, and how “it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to discuss Israel because of the bitter political disputes these discussions spark.” That bitterness is not only divisive, but could lead to something worse: “the exclusion of Israel from Diaspora community agendas.” Rabbis here already complain that they’d rather not raise the topic of Israel in their shuls, lest they invite discord.

The report also returns to that chestnut of Jewish communal politics: the right of Diaspora Jews to criticize Israel or be consulted on its actions. In the past, this demand could be dismissed with a curt, “If you don’t play the game, you don’t make the rules.” But, in perhaps its most startling conclusion, JPPI notes that what happens in Israel does not stay in Israel. “Many Jews around the world feel that their lives are directly affected by Israel’s actions in the security sphere,” according to the report. “Some feel physically threatened in the wake of Israeli actions, but even those who do not may still feel that Israel’s actions affect them on many levels, from Jewish intra-communal relations to their interaction with the non-Jewish world.”

Israel insiders have always resisted making this linkage — between, say, last summer’s Gaza war and attacks on Jews during street protests in Paris. But JPPI doesn’t hesitate to go there, recommending that “Israel should pay more attention to the possible effects of its security-military decisions on Diaspora Jewry. This consideration should not necessarily be dominant in all cases among other Israeli considerations; however it should be represented and expressed during decision-making processes.”

The best news contained in the report is that “[m]any — most — Jews still feel close to Israel, are concerned about Israel, want the best for it and to see it succeed.” And yet the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is not just strained but at a breaking point (and JPPI didn’t even probe disagreements over religious pluralism).

The report sums up the Diaspora attitude toward Israel this way: “sympathy and concern on one hand; growing internal and external discomfort on the other.”

For those who care about Israel, the agenda is difficult but clear: Nurture that sympathy and concern, while acknowledging and addressing that discomfort. To do so, we will all have to face the hard truths contained in this troubling report.

About the Author
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He was previously editor in chief and CEO of the New Jersey Jewish News and managing editor of the Forward newspaper.
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