The challenge in the Diaspora will be to reinvigorate the Zionist ideal in all its manifestations. The writer is chairman of the governing board of the World Jewish Congress.
The demonization of Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon by his opponents as a maniac committed to unleashing a war, combined with offers to the Palestinians to surrender the Jewish people’s most hallowed religious and national sites, has stunned Diaspora Jews.
It has further destabilized communities already grappling for many years with problems relating to Jewish identity, assimilation, and snowballing intermarriage.
Israel undoubtedly still remains the principal element maintaining Jewish identity. But for the younger Diaspora generation, memories of the Holocaust and the struggle to establish the State of Israel have diminished, and many now take the existence of Israel for granted.
In recent years, most Jewish communities were inclined to concentrate more on domestic non-Israel-related issues, such as a commendable greater emphasis on Jewish education, as well as antisemitism and interdenominational activities. By and large, Israel remained on the sidelines.
Since the intifada began, Israel is once again perceived as the ugly occupier, now headed by a man depicted as an inflexible warmonger and tyrant. With the electronic media’s continuous portrayal of Israeli soldiers indiscriminately killing Arab children, it is not surprising that Jewish communities around the world are facing a new onslaught of antisemitism.
Until recently, when Israeli leaders began discouraging Diaspora activism on their behalf, Jewish leaders instinctively defended Israel whenever their governments displayed anti-Israel bias or hostility. Now, they will once more be urged to resume their traditional role. But they will not only have to battle on behalf of a somewhat tarnished image of Israel. They will also face an additional complication of coping with Jews who are no longer inhibited from public condemnation of Israeli governments, and in doing so, unleash divisive debates within their communities.
In these circumstances it would not be surprising if some Jewish leaders were tempted to take the easy way out by distancing themselves from activities associated with Israel.
If Jewish communities falter in their support of Israel at this crucial time, it will undoubtedly have a very negative impact on those governments closely monitoring the situation, which have always been accustomed to Jewish support for Israel, particularly during times of crisis.
THE DIASPORA has not experienced such a destabilization since the establishment of the state. But today, Israel, at bay and under siege, must once more assume absolute priority on the Jewish international agenda and new terms for the Israel-Diaspora relationship will need to be considered.
That will not be easy. It is a long time since Diaspora Jewish leaders were ideologues in relation to Israel. They became accustomed to responding to requests from Israeli ambassadors. They became adept lobbyists and creators of institutions – educational, welfare, and religious. Yet today, ideological concerns may once again become important if the fragmented and confused Diaspora is to retain a meaningful relationship with Israel. So Israeli and Diaspora leaders will need to discard the outdated cliches and superficial declarations of the past, and concentrate on creating a new covenant between the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
The challenge in the Diaspora will be to reinvigorate the Zionist ideal in all its manifestations – in particular, the almost “outmoded” concept of maintaining Israel as the centrality of Jewish life and strengthening the bridges between Israel and the Diaspora. It is not an insurmountable challenge, but it will require careful planning by a combined Israel and Diaspora leadership group.
In the short term, there is also a need to shore up Diaspora support for the new government. Sharon was democratically elected with an unprecedented majority. When Menachem Begin was first elected, he ultimately received the full backing of world Jewry. But that was almost a quarter of a century ago, before post-Zionism and defeatism had penetrated the Jewish world. And, in contrast to the Begin victory which surprised everyone, the demonization of Sharon was far more intense, because his opponents had a much longer lead time to carry out their propaganda campaigns.
There are immediate steps that should be taken. The first should be for the government to organize a massive solidarity rally in Jerusalem, under the auspices of the prime minister. Participation should be solicited from a wide range of international Jewish leaders from all political streams, as well as Jews prominent in the arts, commerce, industry, and technology. Such a rally was successfully organized by Ehud Olmert during the course of the Shamir national- unity government.
A similar international Jewish solidarity gathering would convey a clear message to the world that, in these times when Israel is under siege, Jews everywhere can be counted upon to unite and rally to her support.