Eli Birnbaum
Eli Birnbaum
Rabbi, writer, educator, dreamer, millennial, closet anthropologist

Israel-Diaspora Relations: 10 Points to Ponder

The ship 'Exodus' tied at dock, 1947 (The Palmach Archives/WikiCommons)

Last week, social media served up a buffet of stunning images featuring the national flags of the Diaspora projected onto the Old City walls in Jerusalem in a show of solidarity with communities across the globe who have suffered so much as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a beautifully choreographed message of hope and support. It also happened to be Tzipi Hotovely’s last official engagement as Minister for Diaspora Affairs.

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It goes without saying that arranging such a project in the midst of Israel’s lock-down would have been impossible. But the timing, at least in the UK’s corner of world Jewry, couldn’t have been better. Or worse; depending on which side of the fence you stand. Here’s how the last few weeks panned out in sunny Britain:

  • April 30th: Sir Mick Davis pens a passionate article, questioning whether the Israel British Jews have supported almost unquestioningly for decades has changed beyond recognition.
  • May 7th: Likud MK Sharren Haskel responds to Sir Mick’s piece with a fair but scathing rebuttal of his position.
  • May 11th: Close to 600 members of the British community put their signatures to a letter addressed to the Board of Deputies, protesting Israel’s decision to annex parts of the West Bank.
  • May 12th: In the wake of ‘the letter’, blogs and social media posts in the UK (and beyond) erupt in a frenzied give n’ take debating the state of British Jewry’s relationship with Israel.
  • May 12th: Accompanied by representatives of Israel’s major youth groups, Tzipi Hotovely sends a “big hug” to the Diaspora against the backdrop of the illuminated Old City walls.

A lot has been said about the annexation plans, and I am certain that there is lot still to come. As tempting as it is to wade in to that particular debate, all guns blazing, I would instead like to spend some time pondering 10 relatively apolitical and more importantly broader (i.e. global, generational and probably inevitable) ways in which Israel-Diaspora relations will change in the very near future. Most if not all of these changes are interlinked. To misunderstand or underestimate one could risk misjudging them all.

Before we begin, it is important to emphasize: change isn’t inevitably good or bad. It is entirely what we make of it.

1. Wizzair (et al.)

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Remember landing at the old Ben Gurion Airport? Ah, the good old days of disembarking on the tarmac itself to be greeted by a wall of humidity and the traditional stampede to get to the terminal building and passport control. There was a certain exotic mystique to it all. A true sense, for those who didn’t feel that they were in a Banana Republic (type of country, not the clothes store), that we had arrived somewhere utterly unrecognisable and different from home. The Promised Land. Barely two decades ago, travelling to Israel was a rare treat even for us Europeans. Sure, the ‘1%’ owned holiday homes there, and there were always a couple of kids per hundred who celebrated their Bar/Bat-Mitzvahs at the Kotel, but by and large the notion of simply jumping on a plane and hopping over to the Holy Land was unheard of. Don’t get me wrong, budget airlines are great. So is the new terminal at Ben Gurion. But with the ubiquity of cheap & easy travel to pretty much anywhere in the world, there is a risk that Israel will become ‘just another country’, even in the eyes of many of the world’s Jews.

2. Coronavirus

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Despite all of the above, it would be disingenuous not to mention the impact this deadly pandemic has had on tourism and aviation across the globe. As much as it is true that budget travel can rob a destination of its unique air of mystery, it is also true that it is impossible to build a relationship with a place or a culture without seeing it firsthand. The horrendous short term impact is clear: Summer vacation bookings are already down by over 60%, including countless youngsters who were due to visit the country through the Taglit-Birthright program. Meanwhile El-Al has furloughed 91% of its staff and is enmeshed in complicated talks for a government loan/bailout in the region of $400 million.  What remains unclear is the long-term impact the pandemic will have on an industry that represents a significant chunk of the nation’s GDP. Israel’s tourist sector had been on a near-relentless upward march since the flip-side of the 2007 financial crash. Not even three conflicts with Hamas could do more than cause a temporary plateau. COVID-19 hasn’t just thrown a spanner into the works; it has wrecked them entirely.

3. The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs

Incoming Minister for Diaspora Affairs, Omer Yankelevich (WikiCommons)

At first glance, this probably looks a somewhat strange talking point. Given the fact that barely fifteen nations across the globe maintain a dedicated ministry for their expats, Diaspora Jews are relatively blessed in this respect. But here’s the thing: The appointment of MK Omer Yankelevich – a rising star in the Knesset, hand-picked by Benny Gantz to give his party a broader appeal to religious and center-right camps – raised a few eyebrows. Granted, Israel’s electoral system is such that it is never clear which cabinet positions are given to the best person for the job versus which are makeweights in coalition talks, but that doesn’t change an emerging pattern: Following Naftali Bennet and Tzipi Hotovely, Yankelevich is the third incumbent whose political and/or religious views do not align with or appeal to the vast majority of Diaspora Jews. Bennett and Hotovely in particular, and I say this with the greatest respect to them both, are light-years away from where that majority now stands. As a member of the Jewish People’s Caucus, Yankelevich may yet surprise, but a caricature of the ‘perfect candidate’ for the post should probably be: politically center-left, religiously secular but with a healthy respect for tradition, and ideally having spent a significant period of time living and working in said Diaspora. Yankelevich ticks that last box. So did Bennett. In the absence of a Minister of Diaspora Affairs possessing a thorough, almost innate understanding of the communities comprising said Diaspora, do we risk further fissures similar to the melee of last week?

4. Secularization

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It’s an obvious point, I know. But one that is still sorely underestimated by communal leaders. As per the promise above, keeping this as apolitical as possible doesn’t magic the problem away. The widely-held belief is that secular religious views go hand-in-hand with left-wing political opinion, and since the latter has in recent decades become virulently anti-Israel in many quarters, QED the more secularized Jews become, the further they will drift from wanting to maintain a meaningful connection with Israel. This theory certainly holds water, but the reality is probably and perhaps surprisingly far less nuanced and can be distilled down to one fundamental problem: Other than unexplained subconscious, metaphysical feelings of vague empathy, what compels the average Jewish youngster today – irrespective of their political views – to invest in a relationship with the Jewish homeland? We’ll explore this issue further down the list in items 5 and 6; but for now, it is worth pointing to the fact that short of solving secularization in its entirety (which no-one is going to do), the only other option (and it is equally unlikely) is that proposed by Ehud Barak in 2008: “Jews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world. The real test for us is to make Israel such an attractive place…that even young American Jewish people want to come here. This is a real problem.” But how to solve that test is the billion-dollar question. Initiatives such as Mosaic United work within the ethos that increased Jewish identity through education will increase identification with Israel as the Jewish homeland. Others, such as Taglit-Birthright, take an approach that is more of a sprint than a marathon in taking thousands of young Jews every year to cram in as much of the country as 10 days will allow. Both organisations maintain annual budgets in the hundreds of millions, a level of investment that still cannot keep pace with the clock that is ticking ever faster on Jewish continuity.

5. The Holocaust’s Fading Embers

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I will present this point as delicately and sensitively as possible, and will premise it by saying that over the past seven years I have been blessed to staff six Holocaust education trips from the UK to Poland – the most recent of which attracted the largest group of students from a single school in recent memory. Ask those ‘in the know’ and they’ll tell you: Holocaust awareness and education among Jewish youngsters has never been stronger. And this, no doubt, is to a large degree due to the painful fact that it is unlikely children born beyond this decade will experience the unfathomable privilege of meeting a survivor of that nightmare. ‘Where next for Holocaust education?’ is another question entirely. For now, it is worth pondering the importance played by the Holocaust in the backdrop of securing statehood in 1948, casting its shadow over the Declaration of Independence itself: Israel would be a safe haven, guaranteeing Jews from across the globe a place to seek sanctuary if the gates of hell should open again. That Declaration was written at a time when crematoria’s embers still glowed, at the end of an era that lurched from the Pale of Settlement, to Dreyfus, to Auschwitz.  But as that era’s embers slowly fade, and as the fear of state-sponsored genocide of Jews fades with it, it is valuable to reflect on the fact that the overwhelming majority of Diaspora no longer see Israel as the necessary safe haven it was unanimously and understandably presented as in 1948. Perhaps given the global rise in anti-Semitism, this position comes across as hopelessly naive. But make no mistake: the solution to grassroots anti-Semitism in the Diaspora is not, or at least should not be making Aliyah. The solution is to solve it there and then, working hand in hand with authorities and governments who are more accommodating and supportive of their Jewish populations than at any other period in history. That the majority of world Jewry no longer lives in constant existential fear is a cause for celebration. But celebrating that progress while working to reinforce and advance it further comes at the expense of stripping Israel of one of its founding fundamental appeal points.

6. The Post-Zionism Dilemma

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Directly flowing from the talking point above, the second major underlying raison d’etre behind Political Zionism (of the secular variety) was that throughout the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, the waves of enfranchisement and equality that swept across Europe barely lapped at the toes of brow-beaten Jews standing hopefully but cautiously on the sands of civilization’s indifference. To Herzl, Zionism would provide Jews with the space in time to flourish and grow, away from the whims and prejudices of ‘civilized’ European society, before reintegrating therein as equals. For Nordau, it actually went a step further: a permanent parting-of-ways with Judeo-Christian Europe to go on alone, free of any ties anchoring it to centuries of relentless alienisation and persecution that was Europe’s hallmark. Both theories agreed: it wouldn’t be possible for the Jew to achieve cultural, economic and professional parity with his non-Jewish peer without the breathing space to do it. Israel – especially in the wake of the Holocaust – was seen throughout the Diaspora as an essential means to an essential ends; a place to flee exclusion and start over. That is no longer the case. While it is true that anti-Semitism is rising at alarming rates across the world, to suggest that Diaspora Jews are less enfranchised or empowered than our parents and certainly grandparents is farcical to the point of insult. Is Zionism still as essential a means as it always used to be?

7. Millennials (Oy, vey!)

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Ah, that yoga-pants wearing, avocado-on-toast munching, Starbucks slurping, climate change protesting, wifi seeking generation who-do-things-so-differently. From one moment to the next, Homo Sapiens born between the early 80’s and late 90’s go from being slammed as ‘pretentious, insincere, molly-coddled and attention-seeking’, to being praised as ‘versatile, diverse, tolerant and creative’. Let’s be honest, we’re a complicated bunch. Probably the result of entering the world at the nexus of the Cold War ending and the internet beginning. It isn’t that we’re lazy, we’re just too busy checking Snapchat right now. Jokes aside, it is important to highlight the pretty vast differences between Millennials and Boomers/Gen X. For starters, being connected to everything, everywhere and all the time makes a huge difference to one’s worldview. It at once fuels the passionate desire for inclusivity/diversity that is the trademark of this generation, but also the perceived ‘herd mentality’ that can lead to the self-righteous, indignant online uproars that can simply overwhelm other users of internet fora. In this regard, Israel toes a very fine line. The middle-east, is a complicated place. And Millennials tend to deal with complicated things in one of two ways: use social media and search engines to explore the root of the complication, digging up the finer details of the story within moments; or give in to lethargy and simply jump on the bandwagon with the most likes and shares. The problem with both of these paths is that they often do not lead to an wholly positive view of Israel. The former will inevitably uncover swathes of anecdotes, facts and indeed fiction about the past and present of the Israel-Palestinian conflict – much of it negative. The latter will inevitably lead to only viewing that conflict through one prism. And it isn’t the Israeli one. Israel’s social media content – especially the IDF’s – has improved exponentially in recent years. But there is a long way to go. As the start-up nation knows better than most, staying ahead of the curve is crucial in the big, muddled online PR battle.

8. Back Seat Drivers

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“You know what your problem is?” said the taxi driver. “No”, I replied, delighted that God had placed in my path that day a font of wisdom who would reveal life’s deepest mysteries to me for the unbelievably low price of 1.8 NIS per minute. “You chutznikim sit there, telling us what to do. But you don’t actually do anything to help the country.” It was the end of a rather heated debate which all started because the driver couldn’t place the Diaspora accent hiding in my vastly improved (see point 10) Hebrew (he guessed South African, and I told him he wasn’t even on the right continent. He didn’t like that jibe.). The irony was that we had just parked alongside a huge building that formed part of the Shaarei Zedek Hospital. ‘Donated by the Maurice & Vivienne Wohl Foundation’, read a large plaque next to the cab. I chuckled to myself as I got out. But plainly, this is no laughing matter. Tzipi Hotovely (see Item 3) infamously opined in a 2017 interview: “People that never send their children to fight for their country, most of the [American] Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers…Most of them are having quite convenient lives. They don’t feel how it feels to be attacked by rockets, and I think part of it is to actually experience what Israel is dealing with on a daily basis.” It is an oft-evoked sentiment among many Israelis, and a valid one at that. Hotovely, later (ironically) appointed Minister of Diaspora Affairs, is far from being alone in holding it. Last year’s AJC surveys (here and here) painted the picture with stark statistics: A colossal 74% of Israelis feel that a thriving Diaspora equals a secure future for the Jewish people, but 63% would much prefer it if that Diaspora minded its own business. This stands in obvious contrast to the 57% of American Jews who feel that it is certainly appropriate for the Diaspora to take a more active role, influencing and guiding Israel’s policy whenever necessary. The tension created by these diametrically opposed viewpoints needs careful consideration. It goes to the very core of why Sir Mick’s statement was met with such a forceful response by MK Haskel. The issue is a Catch-22: The overwhelming majority of Israelis want Diaspora Jews to feel a close relationship with Israel. Meanwhile, the clear majority (62% – although this demographic is plummeting) of Diaspora Jews still view Israel as an integral part of Jewish identity. But where do we draw the line? What should that relationship look like? Is it one-way? Reciprocal? Some, like Dennis Prager, argue that the most noble function of the Diaspora Jew is to support Israel come what may, irrespective of ruling party or policy. Others struggle to come to terms with the perception that the Diaspora should contribute as much as possible in donations and advocacy, but shouldn’t expect a seat at the discussion table without- as Hotovely invoked – having lived and fought there. Not too different from appointing a Minister of Diaspora Affairs who has barely set foot in the Diaspora then. #micdrop

9. Gal & Netta

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The Hollywood A-list actress and Eurovision winner have introduced the world to a new Israeli export: star power. The impact and influence of public figures like Gadot and Barzilai cannot be understated. Gadot in particular is simply a level above the likes of Uri Geller and Dana International, a de facto ambassador for the country who fully understands the scope of her ability to sway public opinion. With an Instagram following pushing 39 million, it comes as no surprise that Gadot was recognised, ahead of political figures Nikki Haley and Hillel Neuer, as the ‘top pro-Israel influencer of 2020’. For swathes of youngsters – Jewish and otherwise – she is quite literally Israel’s voice, while Netta is its song. Beyond this, the ‘Netflix Phenomenon’ and its scope to stream series such as Fauda and Unorthodox to millions of devices across the globe is a game changer, plain and simple. In years to come as proudly Israeli celebrities become globally ubiquitous, it will be intriguing to see how Israel and the stars themselves ‘manage’ the unique link they can create between their homeland and the Diaspora. The potential for rich dividends is enormous and should not be underestimated or ignored.

10. We (Diaspora folk) Can do Better. Much Better.

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Maybe I betray my own personal experience here, but I graduated after fourteen consecutive years in Jewish day schools with what I can only describe as a painfully poor grasp of Hebrew. That I graduated with an A-level in Biblical Hebrew and GCSE in Modern Hebrew helped raise me above a frankly atrocious global average, but also served to underline the embarrassing chasms in my intellectual and academic connection to Israel. I could recite the principle catalysts of World War II by heart and compose a detailed synopsis comparing the British electoral system with that in the US. I knew the history of Soviet Russia, the Roman Republic and even the Balfour Declaration. But not what it led to. My knowledge and awareness of Israeli history was appallingly scarce. I get it; no state-aided school is going to prioritize teaching a relatively (globally) ‘useless’ language, nor the ‘history’ of a country younger than many of its teachers. But would it have hurt to dedicate at least one lesson per week to developing language skills concurrently with a thorough understanding of the background of Zionism as a movement and subsequent major events in Israel’s relatively brief existence? And the sad truth is that my experience is very much not atypical of the average Jewish student in the Diaspora. When all is said and done, and I do feel that I have been too harsh on Israel in this blog, so many of the divides and misunderstandings that exist between it and the Diaspora are self-inflicted by the latter. We can and therefore must do better. Much better.

About the Author
Born and raised in London, England. I spent six years in Talmudic College before studying for Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. I hold a BSc in Criminology & Social Psychology. I am fascinated by pretty much everything, but nothing more so than exploring current affairs through the kaleidoscope of Jewish continuity in the 21st century. I currently oversee Aish UK's educational and published content. (All views expressed are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of Aish UK).
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