Richard D. Zelin

Israel-Diaspora Relations: What’s Next?

The Netanyahu government’s judicial reform and other controversial proposals have not only ignited fierce debate about the future of Israel’s democracy, but also have sparked great concern about the future of Israel-Diaspora relations, especially with American Jews.

To gain a deeper understanding of the situation, as official celebrations of Israel’s 75th anniversary are soon about to occur, it is worthwhile turning to two recent books for some background and insights on the nature of the Israel-Diaspora relationship and the potential implications going forward. There’s no better place to begin than with Daniel Gordis’s We Stand Divided: The Rift Between America’s Jews and Israel. In this thought-provoking book, Gordis argues that in recent years a growing split has taken place between the two largest Jewish communities in the world, and it is because Israel and the United States are profoundly and fundamentally different kinds of societies: that America is a liberal democracy while Israel is an ethnic one. In his view, not only do they have differing visions undergirding their societies concerning the concepts of universalism and particularism, but also varying perspectives and worldviews on other critical values as well, including the very essence of Judaism. For Gordis, it is these differences, not Israel’s position on the Palestinian conflict and religious pluralism, that are the primary sources of the rupture in relations. As he boldly asserts: “The real issue that divides the world’s two largest Jewish communities…is not what Israel does, but what Israel is.” However, not everyone sees it that way.

Like Gordis, Eric Alterman thinks that Israel and the American Jewish community are no longer united as well. But in his recent book, We Are Not One, in which he calls out the American Jewish establishment for what, in his view, has been its uncritical support, he argues just the opposite: that it is not so much what Israel is than what it does that has contributed to what he views as an “unbridgeable gulf” in the relationship between the Jewish state and American Jews. In speaking about younger adult American Jews, he says: “Israel’s unquestioning defense [makes] little sense to those whose only experience of Israel [is] of an increasingly illiberal nation allied itself with the American right wing…that occupies another people’s land, denies these people the most basic political rights…and continue[s] to show virtually no respect for American Jewish religious practice.” Alterman is so troubled by these developments that he has decided to make a complete break with Israel and to focus his energies on the refashioning of American Judaism. As he is quoted as saying to a gathering at Tel Aviv University in a recent article in the Jewish Review of Books: “I’m sorry, I am abandoning you and your colleagues. I’m going to devote my attention to rejuvenating American Judaism.”

Upon reflection, there is probably something to each Gordis and Alterman’s arguments: that it is both what Israel stands for as well as what actions its government takes – and doesn’t take – that are at the root of the increasing divide. Indeed, there is no question that different visions, histories, and cultures are going to inevitably lead to deep-seated misunderstandings and disagreements, which have clearly happened in the past. At the same time, the recent unprecedented public outcry by mainstream Jewish organizations, as well as prominent Jewish leaders and philanthropists, over the Israeli government’s proposed reform efforts and what some see as its anti-democratic trajectory, is a perfect example that what Israel does has a clear impact on American Jewish opinion.

Painfully, one of the responses to the latest crisis may be that some American Jews will walk away, as Alterman has regrettably done. That may well happen, and if it does, it would be disturbing and unfortunate because it could have potentially serious negative consequences politically and philanthropically. But now is not the time to walk away. As the well-known Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi has said in an interview in the Forward: “We need American Jews in the conversation. When someone you love is in trouble, you don’t push them away, you draw closer.” Indeed, rather than walking away, there needs to be even more and deeper engagement, especially considering the newest events.

American Jews need to learn more about Israel than ever before. They not only need to learn Hebrew but also much more about Israeli literature, art, music if not ordinary Israeli life beyond the so-called conflict. Similarly, Israelis need to learn much more about Jews in the United States. They need to learn about the rich history and culture of American Jewish life, as well as its vibrant religious diversity and pluralism. In the past, there seemed to be much more emphasis understandably on the Israel education side of the equation – and the necessity of interpreting Israel to an American Jewish audience – but much more needs to be done in the years ahead so that Israelis themselves gain greater knowledge and appreciation of Jewish life in America to help improve, if not repair, current relations. A renewed and enhanced effort along these lines would be beneficial for both Israelis and America’s Jews.

In the Torah portion we just read last week Ki Tissa, God instructs Moses to collect a half shekel as part of the census of the Israelite community. We are told that this is to teach us that one person alone is not complete but by joining together we can become whole: that each of us is dependent upon one another. In a similar vein, the Jewish people can only be whole if the two sides of the coin – Israel and the American Jewish community – can come closer together in the future. With current relations at a near breaking point, this is of utmost importance.

About the Author
Richard D. Zelin, Ph.D., is a frequent contributor to various Jewish publications. He serves in a senior level Jewish communal position in the Chicago area. The views expressed are his own.
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