The Diaspora Dilemma

The Iran Deal…I’ll confess, I don’t know what the right side is and what the wrong side is. I don’t know if it’s a good deal or a bad deal. In such a complex agreement, with so many possible outcomes, I think anyone who comes and talks about how certain they are that things will turn out one way or another is, at least lying to themselves. I am surely no expert on these kinds of things nor are the vast majority of people commenting.

But that is not the question that is foremost on my mind today. I am worried that the threat of a nuclear armed Iran might pale in comparison to a threat that is emerging right now. It is a threat to different Jewish communities around the world, manifesting in different ways. At the core of the issue is the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. What are Israel’s responsibilities to the Diaspora? What are the Diaspora’s responsibilities to Israel? Do we automatically assume that the good of Israel outweighs the good of the Diaspora communities? Should a Diaspora community put aside its own feelings on an issue in deference to Israel’s position on an issue? These have always been important questions in the relations between Israel and the Diaspora.

Israel has used members of Diaspora communities around the world to spy for Israel throughout its history. Jews in Diaspora communities around the Middle East were used during the 50s, 60s and 70s until the number of Jews in those countries became completely insignificant. Mind you, I am not suggesting the reason for the dwindling number of Jews in Arab countries is the result of Israel using them as spies from time to time, I am not. These countries were and are hostile to Jews, Israeli or no, and I would imagine the result would have been absolutely the same spying or no.

During the Mandate and War for Independence, American Jews were used to help smuggle weapons and money to the Haganah and the new Israeli army in 1947-48 in violation of International Embargo. In fact, I have heard stories of Jewish Summer Camps being used as storage and shipping points for weapons smuggling to Israel during that war. The question of what was offered and what was requested is unclear, but very important. There is a significant difference between a Diaspora community volunteering to put Israel’s interests ahead of its own and the Israel requesting, or demanding, or brow-beating a Diaspora community into it. I don’t know the truth of what happened in the Mandate and during the War for Independence, I would say it was probably a mix of the two, but the American Jewish community was so clearly and vocally in support of the Israeli position at that time that even if Israel hadn’t asked, Americans would have done everything they could, law or no to help. Again, the outcome would have been the same either way.

There are many more cases throughout Israeli history of Diaspora Jews being used by Israeli intelligence to facilitate operations. I would imagine the most famous of which would be Jonathan Pollard. I would also imagine that Jonathan Pollard wasn’t the only American, hell, I would imagine he wasn’t the only Diaspora Jew to be paid by Israel to break the laws of their country. It is fairly well documented in books by former Mossad operatives that there is a maintained network of paid assets in Jewish communities around the world. Is this good, is it bad? Is it right, is it wrong? Is it moral, is it immoral? I have no idea. Is it necessary for the security of Israel? It definitely was in the past, it probably still is today. But at the end of the day, all of this history seems to show that in the past, the good of Israel was put ahead of the good of the Diaspora communities. (There is definitely an argument to be made that what is good for Israel IS what is good for the Diaspora, but that might lead to too much of a digression here.)

There is a difference now though. Maybe it is because Bibi is so utterly American in some ways. Maybe it was high school outside Philadelphia and his clearly Philadelphian English accent? Maybe it was the time he spent in the States at MIT and Harvard, or at the Boston Consulting Group or his years as Israel’s United Nations Ambassador in New York? Whatever it was, Bibi seems at times, more American than Israeli. It shows through in many ways. His economic policies look more like what you would see from a moderate Northeast Republican than what had ever come before him in Israel. He is more free market, anti-socialist than any Israeli Prime Minister in history. Menachem Begin would not recognize Bibi’s economic plans.

He also engages in international diplomacy in a bombastic way, much more American in style than Israeli. This style has helped Bibi raise Israel’s international clout to all time highs. Under Bibi’s watch, Israel has turned into a real international diplomatic power. This comes with positives and negatives, but Israel’s international profile has exploded under Bibi’s Premiership. Most though, Bibi plays American politics better than any Israeli Prime Minister before him. He plays American politics better than most American politicians, possibly the reason GOP leaders look at him with stars in their eyes, wishing they had someone like him. Polls at times have shown Bibi to be more popular with Americans than with Israelis.

For whatever reason, it seems Bibi is more comfortable taking risks when it comes to America than in any other aspect of his political life. While it is true that both Obama and Bibi have responsibility for the animosity that has grown between the two of them, Bibi should really understand that Israel needs the United States much more than the United States needs Israel. A deterioration in relations would hurt Israel much more than it would hurt the United States, in fact some would argue that breaking of such close ties with Israel would actually help America’s status in the world, I disagree, but the arguments are out there. Add to that, current polling shows most American Jews support the deal. With all of this on the table, why would Bibi continue this Sisyphus-like task of fighting against the deal? Why would he not, like other world leaders against the deal, but who realize it can’t be defeated, lower his rhetoric and accept the generous security packages and guarantees the U.S. is giving out to countries around the Middle East? Why is he so comfortable taking these risks?

But, the risks of Bibi succeeding may be even worse than if he fails, I am not talking about the rockets on Tel Aviv that Obama thinks about. I am thinking about the status of Israel and Bibi in Washington after having gone to unprecedented lengths to scupper one of the American President’s signature policies. But it wouldn’t have started with the Iran deal. Bibi has made clear moves to put himself alongside the Republican Party in the United States. It is easy to see why he would do that. Clearly his politics make him a kindred spirit, but as to paraphrase Rubi Rivlin, there are three pillars to Israeli foreign policy, first, our relations with the US, second, our relations with the US and third, our relations with the US. One of the things that has made that relationship so durable is that it has been bi-partisan. It didn’t matter who was living on Pennsylvania Ave in Washington or who was living on Balfour St in Jerusalem, the relations between the US and Israel were never a topic of political fighting in the US or Israel.

This has changed. Obama has publicly criticized Israel over several issues. This is nothing new. American Presidents, both Democrat and Republican have criticized Israel on a variety of issues throughout Israeli history. What is new though, is that Bibi has spent his time cozying up to one American political party. From his ties to Sheldon Adelson and in turn Adelson’s role as a King Maker of the Republican party, to making a Republican political operative, Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, to getting himself invited to address congress without any notice to the Administration, Bibi has pursued a partisan policy when it comes to the United States, creating a significant risk to Israeli foreign policy.

This risk comes not only from the idea of a deterioration of relations with the United States, a relationship that has insulated Israel from UN condemnation and has enabled Israel to maintain a qualitative military advantage over its neighbors, but also a deterioration of the relations with the American Jewish community. Israel’s Jewish population has been estimated at between 6 and 6.5 million, making it the largest Jewish community in the world. The U.S. Jewish population has been estimated at about 5.5 million making it the second largest Jewish community in the world. Between Israel and the United States, about 83% of world Jewry is represented. What could be worse for World Jewry as a whole than a schism between the Israeli and American Jewish communities?

Now, we are far off from that, but decisions that are being made today will have a long term impact of the relations between the Israeli and American Jewish communities, among others. And it’s not only the Iran deal, which it seems American and Israel Jews have very different opinions. The dominant stream of Judaism in Israel is Orthodox, while in the United States the dominant streams are Reform and Conservative. While this does nothing to harm Israeli Jews religious acceptance in the U.S. Jewish community, it has severe effects on American Jews feeling acceptance in the Israeli Jewish community.

How does this connect to Bibi you ask? When Bibi’s Religious Services Minister makes a comment in reference to Reform Jews like “I can’t allow myself to say that such a person is a Jew” and is allowed to keep his job, it sends the message to the largest stream of American Judaism that it is not welcome in Israel. David Azoulay is hardly the only offender on this count in Bibi’s governments. This highlights a problem facing Diaspora Jews, they are expected to give Israel unwavering political, social and financial support, when the people who they are supporting treat them with utter disdain.

It’s not just American Jews that are being put in a tough situation by Bibi’s machinations. American Jews, fortunately for them, unfortunately for other Jews, have a comparatively secure and protected life in the United States. Thing are not as secure for other Diaspora communities. Throughout Europe, Jews are being targeted in violent, anti-Semitic attacks. Here as well, Bibi’s tactics may be exacerbating the risks to Jews in these communities.

After the attacks in Belgium and France, Bibi called on the Jews of Europe to “come home.” While a wonderful sentiment and the purpose of Israel at the end of the day, the comments also serve to drive a wedge between Jews in Europe and the rest of the population. The answer is not to work toward a better nation, it is a call to abandon their nation of citizenship and come to Israel. It blurs the lines. What is the intersection between Jew and Israeli?

Bibi blurred the lines even further just a few days ago with the appointment of Fiamma Nirenstein as the new Israeli Ambassador to Italy. Nirenstein was a journalist, MP and candidate for the leadership of Rome’s Jewish community. She made Aliyah in 2013, just two years ago and is already being appointed an Ambassador. Clearly it is not the work she has done since making Aliyah that has gotten her appointed to such a prestigious post. It must have been the work she did as a member of Rome’s Jewish community, representing Israel’s interests in Italy. This appointment has made some in Italy’s Jewish community very uncomfortable. They feel it makes the whole Jewish community more vulnerable to attacks based on claims of dual loyalty.

The intersection of all of these issues is the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. This relationship has become more and more strained. In the past, Israel’s use of Diaspora Jews has been covert, and Israel put a premium on protection of those Jews. That is not how Bibi works, he is too much of a communicator, too much of a politician, that doesn’t play to his strengths as a leader. But it seems like Natan Sharansky is the only leading Israeli figure who sees the possible threat of the erosion of the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. Sharansky smartly pulled the Jewish Agency out of a program that was being taken over to find another way to reinforce the idea that Israel is superior to the Diaspora when it comes to knowing how to be a Jew. Right or wrong, I hope Bibi has taken the time to consider the consequences of his policies for Diaspora Jews, and for Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora.

About the Author
Michael Hilkowitz holds degrees in History and Secondary Education from Temple University and is a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for International Affairs. He is currently a Masters student in Security and Diplomacy Studies at Tel Aviv University. Living in Israel since 2012, he formerly served as the Chief Content Office for The Israel Innovation Fund, a 501.c.3 working to promote Israeli culture, art, and humanities innovation abroad.
Related Topics
Related Posts