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Israel & the Diaspora: It’s time we talk

It is not slogans of solidarity, but the Pandora's box of critique of the Jewish state that provokes engagement

“I want to welcome you to our homeland. This is YOUR homeland!”

“And the most important thing that I want to communicate with you is to tell you that this is your land. This is where it all started and this is where it all continues.”

“This is your future.”

These are a few quotes from a speech that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed to thousands of participants of Taglit-Birthright Israel in June of 2014. Having been in the audience for many similar speeches, I can attest to their power to move and inspire young Diaspora Jews visiting Israel for the first time. Most complete these journeys with feeling that their fates are now inextricably intertwined with that of Israel. In a column written in 2006, Yair Lapid discusses this connection between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry, “We Jews belong to each other, because at the end of the day what separates us [is] just a fluke of history. If we move the biographies of our forefathers and our grandfathers a half-inch right or left, I could have been you and you could have been me.”

Over the past nearly 70 years, this recognition has been a source of solidarity between the global Jewish communities. In recent years, however, Israel and Diaspora Jewry seem to be slowly drifting apart. Notwithstanding record numbers participation in short and long term Israel programs, a younger generation of Jews around the world do not see Israel as particularly relevant or important in their everyday lives. Despite the availability of English language news from Israel, I do not feel that Jews around the world are particularly motivated to seek this information out.

The problem is not that Diaspora Jews are abandoning Israel, nor is the it one of conflicting worldviews or political outlooks. The problem lies in the fact that the Diaspora has simply not kept up with Israel, and does not seem interested in doing so. While Israel is a dynamic and evolving young nation, Diaspora Jews are stuck in the miracle and awe of 1948 and 1967.

If you have been following the news over the past few weeks, I do not need to tell you that the Israeli media has been dealing intensely with Netanyahu’s recent cabinet reshuffle. Last week, I sat with my fellow shlichim in Australia, and we watched the newest episode of the popular Israeli satire show Gav Hauma. Hosted by Lior Shlein, Gav Hauma held nothing back, and put all of the frustration, critique, and anger of the Israeli public on the table. Along with a lot of laughter, there was a palpable sense of concern among our diverse group of shlichim.

Here in Australia, it is often easy to become disconnected with Israel. I admit that I am sometimes also guilty of letting things fall off of my radar. Recently, I asked one of the Jewish student leaders here if he knew what was going on in Israel. He answered, “Didn’t they fire the Defence Minister or something?” It is not something that Jewish students here are talking about or even seem concerned with, despite it being on the cover of last week’s Australian Jewish News.

For nearly two years, I have struggled to find ways to engage the students I work with on Israel. I was sent here with a clear charge: to support and strengthen the connection of Jewish tertiary students in Australia and New Zealand to Israel. In a community like Melbourne, with such a rich and strong tradition of support for Israel, I could not understand why I was struggling so much to get students to care, let alone advocate on campus. While anti-Israel or anti-Semitic incidents help to galvanize student and community support for Israel, it only lasts until the next big story takes their attention away. In the face of this, my work here has shifted to focus on exposing students to the complexities of Israel, while creating a safe space for them to grapple with and explore this part of their identities.

Looking back on my childhood and education in the United States, I can increasingly see myself in these Australian Jewish students. Younger generations of Jews across the world are struggling to reconcile the narratives of their schools, communities, and youth movements with the images and messages they are bombarded with daily over the news and social media.

As someone who grew up in the United States in the 1990s, I was taught the narrative of Israel’s success and survival in the face of constant existential threat. My childhood was in the period just before the internet and the 24-hour news cycle took over our lives. The basis of my connection to Israel was based on what I could learn at home and in the Jewish community. Just a baby during the First Intifada, a 7-year-old child during the Oslo Accords, and 9 years old when Rabin was assassinated, I experienced my adolescence in Milwaukee, while my Israeli peers were faced with the impossibility of trying to have a normal teenage life during the Second Intifada. This period became a turning point for how many Diaspora Jews of my generation engaged with Israel and Zionism.

How did I perceive the images constantly broadcast on the news? I wondered what could drive a human to undertake an act like a suicide bombing, which represented such violence, rage, and pure evil. As a teenager, I tried to make sense of something that is on a certain level nonsensical. Along with those images of destruction and terror on the streets of Israel, on TV I was exposed to images of desperation in the West Bank and Gaza. I looked for a more nuanced approach, one that reflected the conflicting messages I was receiving, and struggled to find one within my own community. With a rabbi as a father, my provocative questions were often answered with more questions. I was allowed to grapple with these tough issues in a supportive environment, reach my own conclusions, and ultimately reconcile again with Zionism. Unfortunately, some of my peers were never able to come to a similar conclusion. They are now amongst some of the most outspoken leaders of Jewish Voices for Peace, and other pro-BDS and anti-Zionist organisations in the US.

We can lament and argue that this is a failure of their families or of our communities to “save” these young people from the appeal of the “other side.” I do not feel that the blame can really be placed on any single institution, education, or ideology. While I see that some newer Zionist groups succeed to appeal to those Diaspora Jews who find themselves at odds with the “mainstream” Zionist ideology, I believe that they have also contributed to the further polarization within the Jewish community surrounding the topic of Israel. Meanwhile, these groups are ostracised and condemned by the community as being traitors for trying to relate to Israel in a way that they can engage with and embrace.

Israel is a country with a vibrant and rich civil society. The non-profit sector in Israel, known as the “Third Sector,” is considered one of the largest in the world in terms of contribution to the nation’s GDP. There are nearly 25,000 organisations employing over 230,000 people working in the non-profit sector. These organisations work in all areas and populations of Israeli society to address a vast range of issues. In a similar vein of self-improvement, Israelis are often their own fiercest critics in the media, and publications from both the left and the right have been known to give their brutally honest and critical opinion of leaders and the government of the day. Israelis are fearless and steadfast in their pursuit to make their country a better place.

Much of the Diaspora is unfamiliar with this deeply entrenched desire of Israelis to improve their society, let alone the scale of the Israeli non-profit sector. Because of the appreciation and love that is fostered for Israel in Jewish communities across the world, there is a great fear of opening the Pandora’s Box of critique. Rather than fear this, why don’t we start to expose Diaspora Jews to the rich and complex civil society which thrives in Israel? Yes, with this might come lead to critique, but it seems unconscionable that Diaspora Jews continue to be out of the loop on such a central aspect of Israeli society.

Coming back to Netanyahu’s words at to Birthright participants, most of us want Israel to be a place that global Jewry can call home and feel a part of. At the moment, we see increased distance and disillusionment between Israel and the Diaspora, and this is certainly not sustainable. The change in approach and attitude must come from both sides.

I’m sorry Israel, if you want to continue encouraging Jews to feel a part of Israel, then you cannot argue that living in the Diaspora automatically negates the ability for them to critically understand your country. You need to be willing to have the same discussions with your American, Australian, or European friends that you would with your friends in the army or at the pub. Let them know what you care about, what upsets you, and what you want to change. The Jewish ideal of tikkun olam is a universal one that can actually create a stronger bond between our communities.

Similarly, I charge Jewish Diaspora communities to undertake a shift in how it relates to Israel. It is time for you to catch up with Israeli society, which is currently engaged with its own challenges and struggles. If we are asking the world to recognize Israel as a nation like any other, we must be willing to do the same. This cannot be seen as a failure to support Israel. This is simply rising to the level of engagement and critical thinking as most Israelis do on a daily basis. Diaspora Jews are a part of this nation, Am Yisrael, and do have say in its future. The information is out there and easily accessible; you simply need to make an effort to consume it, grapple with the complexities and conflicts you may find, and decide why it’s ultimately important to you.

Later in his column, Yair Lapid emphasises, “I could have been you and you could have been me because we belong to something. All over the world, people spend their entire lives trying to be part of something.” As Jews, we have the distinct privilege to be part of something bigger, and it is time for us all to take some ownership over this ‘something’, rather than continuing to take it for granted. Taking ownership is not just about pride and solidarity, but also about exploration and wrestling with tough issues. The world and Israel is changing at a lightning pace. If we want to preserve any semblance of unity as a global Jewish community, we need to start to face the new realities and challenges of Israel, and we will only succeed if we do this together.

About the Author
Rachel currently serves as the National Shlicha (emissary) with the Australasian Union of Jewish Students for the Jewish Agency for Israel. Since making aliyah in 2009 from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Rachel served for two years in the IDF Ground Forces Foreign Relations Branch, and worked with visiting Taglit-Birthright Israel groups. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a BA in Hebrew, Political Science, and International Studies.
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