Don’t take the Diaspora for granted

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There are alarming indicators suggesting that the erosion of the Israel-Diaspora relationship is reaching an all-time low. The extent of this downturn is minimized by exaggerated media exposure of enthusiastic statements of support for Israel by a few Jewish organizational leaders.

The reality is that the vast majority of Diaspora Jews, young people in particular, are no longer inclined to regard Israel as pivotal to Jewish life. For today’s emerging leadership the Shoah and the struggle to create a Jewish state have become dim memories. They are exposed to a cultural environment and media that tend to demonize the Jewish state and encourage them to pitch in with the anti-Zionist chic which is socially more acceptable these days.

The situation is compounded because a large proportion of Jewish young adults are not conversant with the case for Israel and are increasingly brainwashed by negative media caricatures portraying Israel as an oppressive occupier. Many fail to appreciate that the Arab delegitimization and demonization of the Jewish state are simply new manifestations of anti-Semitism.

Over the past two years there has been a major effort to revitalize pro-Israel campus activism. Yet even now the vast majority of Jewish faculty members shy away from confronting the aggressive and triumphant Left liberal Arab coalition, and in some cases they themselves lead the anti-Israeli pack. Thus, albeit with some impressive exceptions, the majority of Jewish students in North America and Europe appear to be either indifferent or lack the courage to stand up and fight back.

What makes the alarm bells ring louder is that in recent months mainstream Jewish leadership groups have also begun to criticize Israel’s defense policies, even mocking Zionism’s most hallowed creeds.

Take for example the resolution questioning the government’s disengagement policy carried at the Convention of the US Reform movement – America’s largest denominational group. It was followed by a letter from Rabbi David Saperstein, a key Reform spokesman, to US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Interspersed with motherhood statements condemning terrorism, Arafat, and the impact of Arab carnage, Saperstein urged Powell to pressure Israel to return to the negotiating table, as if Israel was being deliberately delinquent. He also urged Congress to take account of Israel’s human rights violations and “the troubling conditions of the Palestinians.”

In the past those in the American Reform movement have been critical of Israeli policies, and it is not unusual or unreasonable for them to position themselves as Left-wing liberal critics, though many rank-and-file members of the Reform movement surely cringe at such expressions by their politicized rabbinical leadership.

Yet apparently there was not even a ripple within the Israeli government. At the very least, the foreign minister could have instructed one of his diplomatic representatives to publicly challenge Saperstein to explain the obvious: How is Israel to sit down with representatives of a group still controlled by a corrupt and unreconstructed Arafat who continues to stoke the fires of terror?

Such negative outbursts are not the sole domain of the North American Reform movement.
A few weeks ago the London Jewish Chronicle carried an article by Rabbi Pini Dunner, a charismatic young Orthodox rabbi, who until recently officiated at the trendy Saatchi Synagogue. With a reputation of having been a public defender of Israel, Dunner now writes he is discomfited by Israeli policies – not out of enmity, God forbid, but because “we have a tremendous compassion” for the Jewish state.

This compassion leads him to bitterly condemn Ariel Sharon’s appeal to French Jews to emigrate to Israel. This Dunner defines as “but the latest example of Zionist hutzpa,” accusing Sharon of “pouring oil on the flames of an already tense situation and interfering in matters which were none of his business.”

So here we have it: A leading Orthodox rabbi complains that anti-Semitism is not the business of an Israeli prime minister.

Dunner’s plaint is that “old habits die hard” and that Zionists should stop exploiting persecution and Jewish suffering. His judgment, which he seems to express with perverse satisfaction, is that most Diaspora Jews, including Zionists, would never contemplate making aliya.

And he extends his diatribe by stating that the last place unhappy French Jews should contemplate moving to would be Israel. Indeed, adds our Orthodox rabbi, “If I were a Jew nervous for my safety, I might just move from Israel to France. Because what the past 50-odd years have proven beyond doubt is that Israel offers no solutions for anti-Semitism – and it probably never will.”

This outrageous Jewish Chronicle article, combined with Saperstein calling on Secretary Powell and the US Congress to be more evenhanded, exemplifies an undermining of the most hallowed central pillars of Israel-Diaspora relations. If we ignore these trends we do so at our collective Jewish peril.

Such trends have been percolating for some time and a good measure of the blame rests on the shoulders of our own leadership.

Israeli governments have been guilty of accumulated neglect ever since then deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin declared open season and welcomed Diaspora criticism of every facet of Israeli life. In a further step, bound to destroy bridges with the Diaspora, he instructed Israeli diplomats to dispense with the services of politically influential Jewish leaders in promoting the case for Israel at all levels.

Prime Minister Rabin then told AIPAC and other activist Jewish organizations that they had become superfluous and should leave the advocacy of Israeli policies to the Israeli government.

It was all part of the Oslo euphoria. If we were engaged in an “irreversible peace process,” why bother with PR?

The Foreign Ministry all but closed down its hasbara division. And so today we reap the disastrous consequences of that policy.

What can be done now? President Katzav and Diaspora Affairs Minister Natan Sharansky are making valiant efforts to reverse the tide by opening up new channels of communication with the Diaspora leadership. The possibility of actually creating a formal Diaspora consultative body to liaise with the government is being considered.

But such initiatives can only succeed with the active cooperation of other government organs, especially the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Education Ministry. A coordinated effort in this direction could create a new atmosphere among Diaspora leaders which could percolate down to grass roots.

The tide can be reversed because, deep down, most Diaspora Jews realize that their Jewish identity is meaningless if the role of Israel is trivialized. In the long term a determined effort by the Israel government will strengthen Jewish identity, bring about a greater awareness of the need for Jewish education and ultimately strengthen bridges with Israel.

But the time for action is now!

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