Israeli and Diaspora Jews are not equal partners

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Despite soothing statements of support from Jewish leaders there are serious problems looming in the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

Anti Semitism and demonization of Israel have encouraged committed Jews to intensify their support of Israel but the reverse applies to the majority of less involved Jews, some of whom one suspects, publicly criticize Israel to avoid being treated as social pariahs.

This is aggravated by the inclination of all Israeli political parties to export criticism of government policies to the Diaspora. Hence, whereas a decade ago it would have been highly unlikely for a mainstream Jewish leader to publicly criticize security policies, today even the most provincial leader considers himself expert enough to publicly excoriate Israeli behavior not to his liking.

In such an environment, the Jewish Agency’s respected think tank – the Jewish People’s Planning Policy Institute (JPPPI) – is to be commended for elevating the Israel Diaspora relationship to a top priority in its comprehensive and well executed report on the condition of the Jewish people in the year 2004.

However its Chairman Dennis Ross may have lost the plot somewhat by endorsing an extraordinary proposal to create a global Jewish consultative body in order to provide for the participation of Diaspora Jews in Israel’s decision-making process. This recommendation underestimates the complexities and crucial differences that distinguish Israel from the Diaspora and I would submit that the very notion of such a bizarre joint consultative body would be a prescription for division, conflict and ultimate chaos.

Even the very act of selecting representatives has the potential to ignite a war of the Jews. In most communities, the lay leaders are part-time volunteers and the majority of their fellow Jews are not even engaged in organized Jewish life. Many Jewish communal roof bodies lack status and are frequently regarded with disdain by the elitist inclined philanthropists, businessmen and professionals.

Besides, who would choose the participants for such a body and by what criteria? It certainly could not be restricted exclusively to so-called “communal leaders.” What about representation of professionals, academics, the creative arts, politicians, philanthropists, and other do-gooders – truly a minefield replete with frenziedly competing agencies and personalities!

But let us assume that despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, some form of a representative body for Diaspora Jewry were to emerge. What then?

Dennis Ross recommends the creation of a standing committee with which the Israeli government would consult before undertaking any initiative which could impact on the standing of Diaspora Jewish communities. The head of the research committee for this report, Della Pergola, a highly respected Hebrew University demographer, suggests that the Israeli Government should begin to consider the Diaspora and Israel as one entity, and the Diaspora must in future be consulted before Israelis initiate actions that could impact on them. Although noting that Israel should be entitled to make the final decision, he goes so far as to define the extra-judicial killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin, as the kind of issue that would necessitate prior consultation.

When such palpable absurdities are expressed in the context of a reputable “think tank” it is time to speak plainly. To indulge in soothing rhetoric about “partnership” and “We are one” is fine in promoting a sense of common cause. Indeed it is axiomatic that Jews share a common history, heritage, and destiny and Jewish history is also a proud record of mutual responsibility and support.

However having dwelt in both worlds, I can testify that those who live in the Jewish state and those who live as minorities in the Diaspora cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered as representing one people sharing the same burdens for the Jewish future.

There is obviously no symmetry between an elected government of Israel and Jewish communal organizations. In Israel elected representatives make decisions that impact directly on livelihoods and physical security – frequently on life and death. Every day Israeli youngsters are placed in harm’s way as soldiers of the IDF.

In contrast, Diaspora Jewish leaders are neither necessarily representative of their constituencies nor democratically elected. In most cases they serve in a voluntary part-time capacity. Their decisions rarely, if ever, materially impact on the lives of their community, except in marginal ways. Never do they make vital decisions determining the life and death of their members. Not even the most extreme anti-Semitic confrontations would compare to the brutal confrontations Israelis face daily.

There is simply no symmetry of leadership responsibility between these two segments of our people. That is why from the time of Ben Gurion onwards, Israeli leaders have been sensitive in drawing a line between our shared dreams and the harsh existential realities of the Jewish state. To cross that line would create false expectations and self-destructive confrontations.

Could anyone seriously suggest that Israeli citizens be exposed to danger in order to protect the “image” of Diaspora Jews? The very idea of Diaspora leaders being consulted on actions against terrorists is grotesque.

Yet there is no disputing that Israeli governments must be sensitive to the genuine needs of the Diaspora. By and large they have been. I know from experience that over the decades Israeli Prime Ministers have always opened their doors to Diaspora leaders, in a de facto machinery of private consultations. That door is open now.

Moreover, President Moshe Katsav is investing considerable efforts to enhance the Israel Diaspora dialogue earning the respect and appreciation of many overseas leaders. Indeed the President and the Minister for Diaspora Affairs, Natan Sharansky, are presently consulting on the creation of a body by which Israel would interface even more broadly with Diaspora Jews. One can assume that such a forum would have a wide agenda – barring one issue: consultations bearing on the security of Israeli citizens.

International Jewish bodies like the World Jewish Congress and other Diaspora groupings must for their own healthy relevance invest more of their activity on Israel. Aliya must be a top priority, not only because Israel will benefit from high quality Western olim, but because it ensures that the links between Israel and the Diaspora will be vibrant. What better way of maintaining the centrality of Israel in Jewish life than by creating additional living bonds between olim here and their families and friends in the Diaspora? Aliya in the years to come will continue to represent the ultimate litmus test of a genuine partnership between the Jewish state and the Jewish Diaspora.

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