Will Israelis Consider Diaspora Jews When Voting?

Now that Israel is going for elections, will an Israeli party running for Knesset entirely dedicated to helping Jews in the Diaspora get 5-6 seats in the Knesset in this coming election?  Just three months ago, the shocking headline screamed “Only 4% of American Jews consider Israel most important voting issue”. The damning information was not about American Jews not considering Israel when voting—which most of us do— it was about us having selfishly sunk so low that only 4% would consider Israel the most important issue. Sadly, there are times it appears that not only are Diaspora Jews not on the minds of Israeli voters, but they are a political liability. At no time has this become as clear as during this past year.

One cannot expect Israeli-Diaspora relations should be symmetric. No one expects Israelis to be making donations to Jewish institutions in the US, nor does anyone expect Israelis to be sending care packages to Jews in New York. We get it. Despite its astonishing success and accomplishments, Israel is located in a dangerous neighborhood. No American Jew goes to sleep at night wondering if a midnight siren will force them and their children to the shelter or even kill them. Thousands in Israel’s South do. No American Jew needs to worry about an Iranian nuclear bomb; Israelis do. Israel is a smashing success in tech, medicine, and so much more, yet real hunger and poverty remain unaddressed. No question about that. Yet, there is a space between not asking for material help and complete indifference. 

As Marc Eisenberg, CEO of the French Jewish organization Qualita, noted, this past year, the outbreak of COVID-19 was the first time since Israel’s establishment that the gates of Israel were closed to Jews from the Diaspora. Jews who were in medical school in Israel, were Israeli citizens without passports, or stalled in the Aliya process due to closure of government offices worldwide, were locked out of Israel while Evangelicals strolled into Israel. Being Jewish was not the right card to pull off at this time. 

It is with great sadness that I have to agree with MK Eichler, who said:” for all the years the State of Israel took great pride in its bond with all Diaspora Jews in distress. And then, in the first time tested, healthy Jews with all the documentation were blocked. During this past year, the State of Israel has mistreated Diaspora Jews in a very painful way.” No one was asking for care packages, just to come in when they needed to most. 

Indifference to Diaspora Jews is not all related to the year of COVID.  

Israel’s entry policy during COVID-19 left many Jews locked out of Israel for the first time since the establishment of the state of Israel. Taken from official site https://www.gov.il/he/departments/news/border_closing_coronavirus_14062020

When Israeli MK Tehilla Friedman, a moral hero, dared to suggest that perhaps Israel should increase its investment — not by too much — in Jewish education in the Diaspora, she faced heavy backlash. After all, came the argument, investment must be made locally — a sentiment not reflected often among Diaspora Jews. She was not the only one to face backlash over her calls to increase care and investment in the Jewish Diaspora. 

When Rabbi Eliezer Melamed took the time to speak to an American reform rabbi during the first phase of COVID-19, he sustained a broad and vast assault inside Israel for doing so. Had those who attacked Rabbi Melamed offered their own version of any semblance of care for Diaspora Jews, one would be able to believe their attacks were principled and ideological; sadly, this was not the case — the cause of Diaspora Jews is not a particularly popular one. 

Sure, there is always sympathy for 100 symbolic Olim from India or Ethiopia. Yet when there is a real need to help thousands of American and French Jews who were unable to make Aliya this past year, the mass political will was is just not there. This tokenism may be why Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs found more time for special meetings about the fate of the 65 five Jews living in Bahrain but did not show the same interest in the 650,000 Jews living in Florida. Politics are always local, and when there is little political will, there is little political way. 

Yet perhaps most offensive of all are the comments coming from a select group of Anglo Jews in Israel who are always “concerned” for us. This concern is akin to the way extremist progressive American Jews feel “concerned” for Israeli democracy — tough love, they call it. These are the people for whom American Jews always should be doing more for them yet are never seen in our time of our adversity; those who heard loud and clear 80% of American Jews being described as “disloyal” and other denigrating names, and sort of agreed. 

 

The ones who write column after column about the “isolated,” “abandoned,” and doomed American Jews who are shameless enough not to do more for Israel are hard to come around when it comes to showing basic human care for what we are going through. The ones who constantly educate and remind us to “just step back,” yet somehow don’t understand why we aren’t doing more for Israel. The Israeli version of Jewish Voices for Peace, the ones who are constantly worried about our moral fabric, but are just not to be found in times of crisis. An example that comes to mind is an outspoken Anglo figure in Israel who, when COVID was hitting New York with more than 800 fatalities a day, found it most appropriate to post “call me crazy, but Jews belong in Israel,” reminding me of the gracious souls who during intifadas and wars in Israel don’t understand why Israelis can’t just relocate to New York. Are these examples of the mainstream? Of course not. They are, however, a testimony to the disinterest and indifference towards Diaspora Jews. 

Nothing reflected a rapaciously narcissistic, self-centered approach towards the “disloyal” American Jews like the comments of former MK Ayoob Kara following the US elections, whose comments went noticed by many yet uncondemned by any. 

In his gracious wisdom, Ayoob continued to lament the “betrayal” of American Jews against Trump being especially distasteful since a “strong state of Israel is the only guarantee for the security of the Jews in Israel and in the world!!” The irony of those words being written even as the gates to Israel were effectively closed by means of bureaucracy to Diaspora Jews at the time could not be overstated. The fool says aloud what the wise man thinks, goes the saying. The fact that no one chose to condemn those words is sad. 

All this leads me to three critical points I would like to convey to my English speaking brethren in Israel:

First, if you do think that at least 4% of Israelis politically support the Diaspora in any way, shape, or form, make that known. Let your candidates know this is important to you and that you will vote on this. I have personally seen Blue and White’s MK Tehila Friedman and MK Penina Tamano-Shata, as well as Yemina’s MK Ofir Sofer show genuine desire to help Diaspora Jews and a moral recognition of that bond. MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh of Blue and White and Yossi Taieb of Shas also did a phenomenal job in helping those who made Aliyah, making sure there was someone fighting for them in the Knesset. Let those members of Knesset know you appreciate it and that it makes a difference to you when you consider whom to vote for. Ask candidates running how much Diaspora Jews matter to them and for their plans for strengthening Diaspora Jews and the bond between us.  

Secondly, care. The reason for the disconnect between Israeli Jews and diaspora Jews is likely not because of issues special interest groups tell you about, such as orthodox conversion, non-orthodox services at the Western Wall, or even the West Bank. It is most likely that they haven’t heard from you in a few decades. It is probably the fact that a young Jew in Michigan whose Hillel House is attacked probably never got a phone call from Israel asking: “are you okay?”. It is probably the fact that when reading the Israeli press, I hardly see a mention of the fact that 300,000 Americans lost their lives to COVID-19. Maybe it is that most Israelis don’t realize there are more Jews in California than there are in Russia, Argentina, Australia, and the United Kingdom—combined, or that there are more Jews in Connecticut than there are in Italy, Belgium, and Austria— combined. Israel’s relationship with diaspora Jews will not be determined by the Knesset, Supreme Court, Jewish Federations, or the Ministry of diaspora; it will be determined by the phone call log in the cell phone of every Israeli. If most Israelis do not have a phone number of individuals and communities in the diaspora, no one should be surprised when we see movements like JStreet, Jewish Voices for Peace, or just Jews who just don’t care—why should they? No “common destiny” proclamation can replace the grassroots level disconnect and low levels of caring, which need to be addressed. Declaring a common destiny without it existing does not change reality. Shared destiny is found through at least a minimal level of familiarity and care. 

Meghan Markle brought to the world’s attention the power of asking, “are you okay?” and the pain of lack thereof. Saddest in the divide between Israeli and Diaspora Jews is the issue of care. For those who did not bother asking us over this past year and are still wondering, the answer to “are you okay?” for Diaspora Jews is a resounding no.  

Earlier this year, as COVID hit Diaspora communities, Yesha and several other Israeli communities sent almost daily messages of sympathy, love, and solidarity. No one cared if we had any political differences. The bonds of solidarity created during that time will never be undone. It did not take a budget, a trip, or an airplane. Just a smiling kid in Beit El holding a sign saying, “We love you and are thinking of you.” My eyes still well-up thinking of the power of that solidarity. While there is definitely an increased awareness among Israelis to the shifting dynamics between Israel and the diaspora, much to the credit of journalists like Zvika Klein and Sivan Rahav-Meir, yet it is far from being as widely regarded as it should. 

Finally, to all those preaching to or about American Jews: you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Either advocate for increased support for Jewish education, show solidarity in times of adversity, condemn hate directed against us even if it comes from someone you like or don’t say anything. If you hear a headline saying “Only 4% of American Jews consider Israel most important voting issue” or a headline about assimilation often used to dismiss us as doomed and irrelevant, just yawn and move on to the next headline. I want to say “not your honey nor your sting”, but really all that is needed is not your sting. If you do ever decry American Jews for not being supportive enough of Israel, now is your time to show you are not just endlessly self-serving. 

For me, nothing mentioned above will weaken my support for Israel. Why? Because it is part of what it means to be a Jew, to be an American, and to be an American Jew. I will continue to stand with Israel because of the people I see in Israel when visiting its bus stations, hiking trails, outdoor markets, synagogues, and libraries. I do it because of the lone soldier from South America I met who came to build a life in Israel, the mom from Ethiopia playing with her children in the Sacher park, the French Jews I ate pizza with in Netanya, the Dutch children riding on a bike in their new home on a Yishuv, the Jew from Denmark I met on the NYC Subway who is tired of searching for new places and is moving to Israel, the Iraqi family who forced me into their home to eat Kubbeh and hummus, and so many more amazing people I meet when I go visit the real people of Israel–not just organizations and representatives. My prayer is that Israelis realize that while things can get tough in the Middle East, it is no longer 1948 or 1973. They are in a position to help. They are in a position to care. They are in a position to lead. 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments