Howard D. Gerson

Time to Revamp Diaspora-Israel Relationship

Israel’s unique ethno-liberal democracy – a balancing of liberal democratic ideals and principles of Judaism, is drifting toward a state of affairs in which a minority – the ultra orthodox and far right religious Zionists, would foist a narrowly conceived “authentic Jewish identity” on the majority of a mostly liberal population, and at the same time, repudiate rights of other minorities, notably of the LGBTQ community, and all expressions of non-orthodox Judaism.  There would be a tightened definition of who is a Jew for purposes of immigrating to the “Jewish State life-raft” for victims of Anti-Semitism, or for Jews exercising a right of return to their ancestral homeland, which amounts to a “purity test”. The existing “ethno-religious” component of Israeli democracy would be entrenched and expanded, including, that the clergy of Reform and Conservative Judaism, representing more than 90% of North American Jewry are not permitted to perform marriages or conversions; that Jews and non-Jews cannot marry, nor can same sex couples; and that mixed male-female prayer at the Kotel is restricted. Restrictions on women’s rights, including to bar them from certain roles in the army. Settlement building will accelerate, eliminating self-determination for 2 million West Bank Palestinians, who as non-citizens do not vote in Israeli elections, which will further undermine Israel’s democratic character. 

Israel’s election has produced an unrepresentative coalition government empowering a fanatical illiberal and fundamentally undemocratic minority. That minority intends to weaken the rule of law as a precursor to delegitimizing all non-orthodox Judaism in Israel which will create a schism between Israel and diaspora Jewry. If the project is successful, it will impose a tyranny over majorities and minorities within the Jewish world, affecting secular Israelis (a majority in Israel), Diaspora Jews (about half the world’s Jewish population), members of minority non-orthodo

Jewish movements (minorities in the state), women, LGBTQ and others.  Quite apart from this agenda, the conduct and public statements of coalition members and the religious authorities aligned with them, reflect values that are repugnant to most Israeli and Diaspora Jews, and to the vision of Israel’s founders who sought to establish an inclusive Jewish homeland, including by denying to religious authorities the power to define who is a Jew. Coalition member, Itamar Ben Gvir, who is national security minister, celebrates Israeli-American terrorist, Baruch Goldstein. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich self-describes as a “proud homophobe” and calls for a “halachic state.”  Deputy prime minister, Aryeh Deri, is a convicted fraudster. National missions minister Orit Strock, says religious physicians should not have to treat the LGBTQ community. Avi Maoz who opposes Reform and Conservative Judaism, and insists on an orthodox definition of who is a Jew, will influence education and immigration. This coalition, if unchecked, will erode Israel’s liberal democracy, impugn Israel’s moral authority as a Jewish state, and this calls for a serious re-assessment of the Diaspora Israel relationship.

Indeed, the marriage preceding the present coalition government was already unhealthy for the Diaspora. Following Israel’s independence in 1948, Jewish communities put Israel and Zionism at the centre of Jewish life, encouraging (and subsidizing) Jewish youth to visit Israel, to attend Zionist summer camps, and to act as Israel advocates. Jewish voters are influenced by a candidate’s policies toward Israel when voting.  Israel’s flag is displayed in synagogues alongside the Canadian flag. Hatikvah is sung at the close of synagogue services, and there is strong messaging from community leaders that Israel is critical for the vitality and safety of diaspora Jews. But was that true, and if it was, does it remain so? The ultimate act of Diaspora allegiance is for its members to make “aliya” or “ascend” by moving to Israel, abandoning the Diaspora community altogether. Jewish nationalism, characterized by an almost unconditional commitment to Israel, has supplanted traditional Jewish learning and practice for many Diaspora Jews. The Diaspora’s commitment to Israel is unreciprocated, and the ideology underlying the relationship undermines  Diaspora Jewish life. Israelis (and Diaspora Jews to a degree), are taught that fully authentic Jewish lives can only be lived in Israel, and that the Diaspora is a demographic dead-end whose Jews should make aliya to help build and defend the state. Israelis living in the Diaspora are referred to as “yerida”, a derogatory term meaning to descend. And while it is acceptable for Diaspora Jews to serve as human, political and economic resources for Israel, it would be considered tantamount to a sin against God and man, were Diaspora Jews to encourage Israelis to emigrate to the Diaspora. The character of the existing relationship is inconsistent with the goals of nurturing a healthy and vibrant Diaspora Jewish community.

While the status-quo was problematic, recent events  highlight the pressing need to reassess the relationship with Israel. In the context of the Diaspora’s fight against rising Anti-Semitism, Israel’s intolerance toward fellow Jews and minorities, brings directly into question its moral authority to act as leader and protector of world Jewry. How might Diaspora Jews rework the relationship and what would it entail? It does not mean abandonment but rather a change in posture toward Israel – after all, a majority of Israelis share liberal values and oppose the current government. However, given the depth of the historical relationship, Diaspora Jews should clarify, that Israel’s government represents Israelis alone, and not Judaism or Jews living beyond its borders – that it is a temporal state, not the embodiment of Judaism. The funding of projects in Israel can be redirected toward strengthening Jewish education and practice at home, with a curriculum and posture that de-emphasizes a Jewish nationalism that has been hijacked by fanatics, that gives Diaspora voices little weight, and that refuses to recognize the legitimacy of most Jewish practice in North America. 

Howard Gerson is a Canadian lawyer

About the Author
Howard was born and raised in Montreal and attended McGill University where he studied political science focusing on political theory, graduating in 1986 with a B.A. Honors Political Science. He attended Osgoode Hall Law School of York University in Toronto and was called to the Ontario Bar in 1991.
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