The virulent global response to our struggle to defend our citizens against a cruel and evil foe confirms that Balaam’s biblical depiction of Jews as “the people that dwells alone” remains valid to this day.
Notwithstanding unprecedented efforts to minimize noncombatant casualties among enemies ruthlessly exploiting their own women and children as human shields, we were once again demonized. Diaspora Jews had to endure a new torrent of frequently violent anti-Semitism with demonstrators displaying placards proclaiming obscene messages like “Death to the Jews,” “We are all Hamas” and “Jews to the gas.” Even more shocking, purportedly respectable liberals joined in some of these murderous hate fests.
Despite being vastly outnumbered by Muslims (other than in the US) and enveloped in a violent anti-Semitic climate reminiscent of the 1930s, most Jewish communities maintained their support for Israel. The fact that this time Israeli spokesmen effectively articulated their case undoubtedly encouraged many of the traditionally more timid Jewish leaders in smaller communities to speak up.
American Jewry, encompassing the vast majority of Diaspora Jews, remained steadfast in its support. AIPAC, despite having been the target of a radical Jewish campaign seeking to discredit it, retained its standing as a responsible and effective lobbying group supported by the leading American Jewish agencies.
It was gratifying to observe that the highly vocal fringe groups like J Street, Israel Policy Forum and other left-wing clusters who had been urging the US administration to exert pressure on the government were marginalized and to date have been utterly ineffective.
ELSEWHERE, THE response of the smaller Diaspora Jewish communities was sometimes more problematic and largely determined by the attitudes of individual leaders. The vast majority displayed considerable fortitude and responded to the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic venom with public expressions of solidarity. Most Jewish community leaders were also attacked in the media for their support of Israel by people of Jewish origin, many of whose only involvement in Jewish affairs related exclusively to Israel bashing.
In Europe, the French under the leadership of CRIF, once again emerged as the most robust Jewish community. In the UK, even the Board of Deputies of British Jews which has a penchant for lying low and trying to avoid rocking the boat, responded to pressure from grassroots activists and endorsed public meetings expressing solidarity which were well attended.
Predictably, the obsequious Board of Deputies launched a major appeal for funds to provide medical assistance to be equally divided between civilians in “Gaza and in Israel” presumably to demonstrate that Anglo Jewry is no less distressed concerning the plight of Palestinians than about their own kinsmen. Supporting the humanitarian needs of Palestinians is, of course, commendable. Even residents of the South who endured Hamas missile attacks for eight years contributed aid to noncombatants in Gaza. However it is doubtful whether the “noble” sentiments displaying equal concern to both parties conveyed in the Board of Deputies appeal will impress anyone, including the general British public and certainly not the supporters of Hamas. One can imagine the response during the World War II Blitz had Anglo-Jews sought to divide funds raised to alleviate the suffering of British civilians with German noncombatants.
IN CONTRAST to the UK, the Australian Jewish community has a long tradition of maintaining a proactive approach. When prime minister John Howard, renowned for over a decade as one of Israel’s greatest friends, was defeated, there was considerable concern that Australia’s policy toward Israel could tilt toward the European model with its propensity to endorse moral equivalence. To the relief of the Jewish community, the new Labor Party Prime Minister Kevin Rudd unequivocally maintained his predecessor’s policy of friendship to Israel. However last November, his government stunned the Jewish community by endorsing a UN resolution which went to the lengths of accusing Israel of breaching the Geneva Conventions. The Jewish community rallied and protested in a robust but responsible manner.
Subsequently, when the Gaza war erupted, the Australian government again emerged as one of Israel’s few friends in the international arena and in the UN consistently justifying its right to take measures necessary to defend its citizens. This demonstrates how even a small Jewish community can have a positive impact if it is willing to stand up and be counted.
In that context, one must commend the courageous South African Jewish Board of Deputies which was not deterred from promoting the case for Israel despite the hostile environment surrounding it.
ON THE ORGANIZATIONAL level, the poor performance of the New York-based World Jewish Congress whose Plenary Assembly opens in Jerusalem today was highly disappointing. The raison d’être of this global Jewish body is to provide leadership and direction to the smaller Jewish communities, especially during periods of crisis. To his credit, WJC president Ronald Lauder did participate in the American Jewish Presidents Conference solidarity mission to Israel. Likewise, the European Jewish Congress, an autonomous offshoot of the WJC, did encourage its constituents to support Israel. But despite the global tsunami of anti-Semitism and its obligation to raise its voice in defense of Israel, the New York head office of the WJC has been virtually invisible over the past month.
Their incompetence is also exemplified by the ongoing Chavez fiasco. Last year, the WJC was criticized for groveling to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez after he had mumbled a few words about opposing anti-Semitism and signed a statement with the Argentinean and Brazilian presidents “condemning anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism.” Despite being aware that Chavez remained totally committed to Iran and had been facilitating the penetration of Hizbullah into Latin America, the WJC leaders lavished him with praise and predicted that the Venezuelan ambassador previously withdrawn from Israel would soon return to Tel Aviv.
When the war against Hamas erupted, Chavez accused Israel of inflicting a “holocaust” on the Palestinians, demanded that their leaders be charged with war crimes, expelled the Israeli ambassador and called on Venezuelan Jews to dissociate themselves from Israel. The head of the local Jewish community, Avraham Benshimol, courageously defended Israel and condemned Chavez.
Following this, WJC secretary-general Michael Schneider was urged to speedily issue an appropriate statement and delete the lead story on the World Jewish Congress Web site which continued extolling the virtues of Chavez. Yet, weeks later, after Chavez had already formally severed relations with Israel and virtually every major Jewish organization had condemned the Venezuelan government, the WJC statements praising Chavez remain the lead story. Hopefully the global Jewish body will get its act together after its assembly.
If history is to be any guide, one can expect that sooner or later there will be another upheaval that will again put the Israel-Diaspora relationship to the test. One of the prime tasks of the new government following the February elections should be to resurrect the ministry of Diaspora affairs which went into cold storage after the retirement of former minister Natan Sharansky. This ministry should become an essential instrument for the strengthening of ties between Jews everywhere in peace as well as in war.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post