Jerry Isaak-Shapiro

What’s in a name? Plenty

I genuinely thought that I had read it wrong. When my wife forwarded me the JPost piece announcing the change in Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry, I was (unsuccessfully) trying to multitask – which led me to re-read the article to find out where I had clearly misunderstood the gist of what had been written.

Unfortunately, I was wrong about being wrong. Along with strengthening Jewish identity and enhancing the connection between Israelis and those Jews living outside of Israel’s borders, the Ministry has always understood one of its central purposes as combatting antisemitism. But its recent decision signaled a radical departure from its earlier mission. The “Diaspora Affairs and Combatting Antisemitism Ministry” isn’t simply an inelegant and cumbersome choice for a governmental department; it’s tangible and blatant evidence of an Israeli insistence on seeing life outside of Israel through a distorted lens. Not every Israeli, to be sure, but representative of far too many who stubbornly attach themselves to a model that supports a self-serving hypothesis.

Anticipating one or two epithets screamed in my direction, I’ll share that I’ve spent considerable time and energy in preparing Jews of all ages to stand strong against antisemitism wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head – through the inculcation of Jewish pride, itself bolstered by serious Jewish knowledge. I can cite the stats of the rise in antisemitism as so many Jewish communal professionals and educators can, and while I detest pressing the they’re-out-to-get-us button too readily, our history demands that we not bury our heads and pretend that hate doesn’t exist when it so clearly does.

But re-naming the Ministry as one that indelibly links the Diaspora with antisemitism is tantamount to insisting on seeing Israel only through the prism of its wars. How many college (and Jewish Studies!) courses outline Israel’s modern history with chronological shorthand: 1948 to ’56 to’67 to ’73… – From the War of Independence to the Sinai Campaign to the Six Day War to the Yom Kippur War… Throw in a Lebanon War or two and whatever-they’re-called in the South and in the North, and there you have it: a reductive “history” of Israel seen only through battles and destruction and loss.

Of course it’d be derelict of any teacher of Israeli history not to include those dates – and what preceded them, and what followed them and the larger context in which they occurred. Not to include them or not to delve deeply into their causes and their aftermath would be educational malpractice; to solely focus or even primarily focus on those moments would do a disservice to Israelis, to Palestinians, to the Arab and the larger Muslim world. Doing so all but precludes an appreciation of a more complicated situation in which Israel finds itself. As a cherished Logic 101 Professor told us (often): understanding Israel through knowledge of its wars is necessary but insufficient.

The same is true with an Israeli mis-read of the Diaspora – appreciating the (very real) danger of antisemitism is absolutely necessary – but it’s entirely insufficient. Foolishly leaping headlong into the rabbit’s hole of the comments section, I was quickly mired in the quicksand of you’re-all-going-to-die arrogance and you’re-not-worthy-of-saving ugliness. Before I pulled away, there were a few seemingly well-meaning come-to-Israel-we’ll-save-you comments, but even those were tainted with severe galut-ignorance.

At a time when the chasm between Jews living in Israel and those living beyond its boundaries has increased, “Diaspora Jews” don’t need to see one of Israel’s essential Ministries conflate life in the Golah with combatting antisemitism. Insisting on such a narrow and parochial view isn’t merely inaccurate; it’s simply a cleaned-up version of shlilat ha-golah (the “negation” of the Golah), the professing of which got Ben Gurion (and plenty of others) in Jewish hot water.

Overlooking or under appreciating the vibrancy of Jewish life in Israel because of the (legitimately) loud noise of war and conflict leads one to miss the real story of the Third Jewish Commonwealth. To be mesmerized by the very real fight against antisemitism such that one is blind to the extraordinary life (not mere survival) of Jews in the Golah also misses the mark.

About the Author
Jerry Isaak-Shapiro has a Masters's in International Affairs, specializing in Middle East history and U.S. Foreign Policy. He has been a teacher, madrich, camp director, head of school and a mentor/coach, and is convinced that nearly everything can be seen through the lens of leadership. He's a lifelong Zionist and has a hard time choosing between Sondheim, Motown, Dylan and Kaveret.
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