THE GULF WAR will in all probability lead to a major realignment of Israel-Diaspora relations. There can be no ignoring the disappointment and frustration most Israelis experienced with a Diaspora which, in their perception, failed to respond honorably at a time when Israel was undergoing such great anguish.
Some of the criticisms voiced by Israelis were unquestionably justified. Israeli bitterness with Jews in the Diaspora originated soon after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait last August 2, when Jews simply stopped coming to Israel because they were frightened. The empty hotels in Israel, even during high season, testified to the cowardice of world Jewry. And the behavior of some international Jewish leaders, including Zionists, who failed to attend meetings during the early days of the war, was despicable.
The cynicism with which many Israelis viewed the 36-or 48-hour “solidarity missions” is also understandable. These brief stopovers were regarded more as a political than a personal demonstration of identification.
Israelis also stressed repeatedly that the generous financial contributions from the Diaspora were no substitute for personal involvement. The Israelis’ basic message was that when a family is under siege, relatives don’t send checks – they come home to the family.
Paradoxically, however, Israeli resentment and frustration with the Diaspora reached a climax precisely when Diaspora Jews were probably more worried about Israel’s future than anytime since 1967. Indeed, many Diaspora Jews actually felt guilty. They recognized that sitting 24 hours a day watching CNN, substantially increasing their donations to Israel and feeling genuinely distressed was still vastly different from sitting in a sealed room with one’s family wearing gas masks and sharing the terror of potential gas or chemical attacks.
Much of the Israeli criticism, however, has been emotional and not always logical. After all, those who came for “quickie” missions did so because they genuinely believed that they were identifying with Israel. And they were at least sending some signal that the Diaspora cared – even if the visits were hyped up and some of the participants assumed pseudo-heroic roles on returning to their communities.
And Jews who contributed beyond their normal commitments felt they were making a sacrifice to compensate for not being in Israel.
What did Israelis really expect from the Diaspora? To have hundreds of thousands of Jews coming into the country as tourists? Imagine heroic Jewish families from the Diaspora flocking to fill up the hotels in Tel Aviv to demonstrate that they wished to share the nightmare of undergoing missile attacks with their brothers and sisters. Would Israelis have been better off? Of course not.
YET, IF the Diaspora were composed of people who lived much of their life in Israel or had close relatives living there, many would have returned to be with their families and friends.
Here rests the crux of the problem. In the course of time all of us – Israeli and Diasproa Jews – have been taken in by our own hype. We have so frequently told ourselves that “We are one” that we began to believe it. During – and even more so before – the Gulf War that cliche was put to the test and found to be empty.
The sooner we adjust ourselves to a more realistic perception of the true relationship between the Diaspora and Israel, the less bitterness, frustration and guilt we will all feel.
Jews who live in the Diaspora will, one hopes, always share the warmest and deepest emotional ties with the people of Israel and will continue to advance their cause politically and materially. But this should not be seen as a substitute for living in Israel and being an integral part of the people of Israel.
Israelis, for their part, should stop Diaspora-baiting and take satisfaction with the support and love they enjoy from Jews everywhere.
As the years go by and as the financial contribution of the Diaspora becomes an ever smaller percentage of Israel’s total needs, Diaspora Jews will recognize that their moral and material support for Israel contributes more to their own well-being than to Israel’s.
Today we stand at a watershed in Israel-Diaspora relations. There is a need for a new Zionism that recognises that in the 1990s the fundamental ties between Israel and the Diaspora can be enhanced only by a more significant aliya movement from the West. Those determined to become fully identified with the people of Israel can do so only by going to live with them and by encouraging their children to do so – or at least not discouraging them.
This is not an unrealistic dream. In light of the miracle of the Soviet olim, many of whom continued to arrive even when Israel was under missile attack, it is not too difficult to envisage an increase in Western Aliya over the next decade from the paltry few thousand a year at present to tens or hundreds of thousands.
Accordingly, a redefinition is needed of Diaspora Jews as “Friends of Israel” or as Israel’s only reliable ally, rather than perpetuating the empty cliche of “One People.”
This will correspond with a new aliya spurred by antisemitism, but also drawing from the wells of a commitment to Judaism. It will not be an aliya of rhetoric, but one related to a closer appreciation of the reality of the Jewish condition.
Isi Leibler is a vice-president of the World Jewish Congress and a leader of Australian Jewry.