Israel’s Role toward the Diaspora

Israel as a Jewish and democratic state has already become the center of world Jewish life, and its population growth and vitality will make that role even more important as it passes from 75 to 100 years old. It must, given its military prowess and growing economy, take its rightful place among the democratic states in what used to be known as the Western alliance or the ‘free world.’ And it must reach out to the Diaspora communities not to seek help but to offer it.

Relations between the Jewish state and the Diaspora are a new phenomenon in Jewish life, covering only 75 of the last two thousand years. As Jews in both places think through what it means for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic, we must ask how its relations with the Diaspora will or should be affected by the meaning of the two terms.

Israel has become the true center of world Jewish life only as its population surpassed the Jewish population in the United States and as it emerged from deep dependence on diaspora economic and political support. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and not only because smaller Jewish communities are dependent on Israel for economic help and as a possible refuge. As the American Jewish community debates the meaning of “peoplehood” and wrestles with cohesion and continuity, Israel has become an increasingly important source of its vitality. Nothing seems to work better for American Jewish youth as an injection of Jewish enthusiasm and solidarity than time in Israel — a gap year or college semester, a summer, even a brief Birthright visit.

For Israel to succeed in its new role with respect to the world’s Jews, it must fully recognize how much has changed. In 1921, Lenin’s famous question “who/whom?” asked who will overtake whom in the global and class competition. Today we can see who won the Jewish version of that question: Israel has overtaken the Diaspora and that result is permanent. This gives the Jewish state special responsibilities. For much of the 20th century, the Yishuv’s and then Israel’s fundamental interest in the Diaspora was as a potential source of Aliyah. With the end of the Russian Jewish exodus and the unlikelihood of a similar one from the United States, the Jewish state must rethink the role it should be playing.

That means, first, that a good deal more effort should be invested in relations with Diaspora communities. Whatever Diaspora parents want, Israel should want a direct relationship with as many of their children as possible. If local communities cannot (or in any event do not) provide all the needed funds for visits, Israel should do so, to the best of its ability. If it is impossible to fully understand and participate (even as a visitor) in Israeli life without Hebrew, Israel should be working on ways to increase the study and mastery of Hebrew in the Diaspora. Because tens of thousands of young Israelis travel after their army service, the state should guide them toward countries with Jewish communities instead of Tibet or Thailand.

And that means, second, that Israel must be the center of all Jewish life rather than what might be called Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox life. This does not mean asking Israelis who follow traditional religious observance (in essence, what was meant by “Judaism” until the last two centuries) to change their practices. But it does mean accepting that the world’s only Jewish state and center of Jewish life must be inclusive, in a sense similar to the Law of Return. Israel should seek a relationship with all the Jews of the world and not only those who pass stricter tests of affiliation. It is, after all, a state, not a synagogue. Had Israel existed in the 1930s it would not have imposed a religious test on those whom it was trying to rescue, any more than the Zionist movement did then or Israel has done through the Law of Return since 1948. Today and tomorrow, Israel must still seek to rescue Diaspora Jews in danger — not of physical annihilation but of communal weakness and individual disaffiliation.

But what then of Israel as a democratic state? Here there are two aspects, its internal politics and its foreign policy. Were Israel a nasty dictatorship like Egypt or Russia, it would be almost impossible for it to win the affection and support of Diaspora Jews — almost all of whom now live in Western-style democracies. Of the world’s perhaps 15 million Jews, with the sole exception of Russia there are no more than a few thousand living in a non-democratic country anywhere.

There will be continuing debates over the nature of Israel’s obligations as a part of the democratic world. Surely its record of jailing both a prime minister and a president suggests that the rule of law is strong. Debates over matters such as the role of the Israeli Supreme Court do not, however passionately one may feel about them, reverberate in the Diaspora as a fundamental test of Israeli democracy. Treatment of the Arab minority does, and the entrance of an Arab party into the coalition government that ruled in 2021-22 suggested that Arab-Israeli voters have a greater role in their nation’s politics than is true in almost any Arab state. That matters.

The Palestinian question also matters to many Diaspora Jews, though it is not strictly speaking an issue of internal politics. Does “the occupation” undermine support and affection for Israel in the Diaspora? This is a complex question, but there is good evidence that “the occupation” and the associated sins and crimes alleged to go with it are ex post facto justifications for disaffiliation from Israel and Diaspora Jewish life rather than their source. That is, as a generalization the greatest concern about and involvement with Israel is found among Jews who are otherwise involved in Jewish life — for example, in that they are married to a Jew, raise their children as Jews, attend or belong to a synagogue, and/or observe Shabbat or the holy days in some fashion. Support for Israel is part of their identity as Jews, and that identity will not be weakened by the Palestinian issue even if they oppose the way Israel is handling it. For Israel this means that it is wise to promote Jewish identity and community cohesion in the Diaspora, rather than to formulate or adopt policies on the Palestinian issue with the hope that they will appeal to Jews living in other countries.

And what of Israel’s relations with other governments? Here the issue is not really its relations with the countries in which most Jews live, for as noted above they are (with the exception of Russia) democracies. The warmth of relations with countries such as the United States, Australia, Canada, and the EU member states will rise and fall as elections change their leadership, but as always among democracies they will not become hostile. When there are problems, Israel has many ways to explain its conduct and promote its interests, not only working with local Jewish communities but also with national governments and legislatures such as the European parliament or U.S. Congress.

The problem is found in Israel’s relations with the worst regimes, especially Arab states in its own neighborhood and the cases of Russia and China. In the past, Israel’s international isolation and relative poverty justified fully its grasp at any outstretched hand, but it is today neither isolated nor poor — and it is a part of the democratic world. That means that as the center of world Jewish life, and with the world’s Jews almost all living in democracies, the Jewish state cannot be indifferent to democratic values in its foreign policy. They must be a factor.

Every democracy wrestles with this issue, and every democracy maintains working (and sometimes quite cooperative) relations with autocracies. Some are powerful, some rich, some both. The freeze between most of the Western democracies and Russia in 2022 was a reminder of how warm relations had actually been in some cases. And Israel was caught: it was one of the countries that had a good working relationship with Putin’s Russia, justified in part by its security interests in Syria and in part by the Russian-origin population in Israel and the Jewish population (of perhaps 175,000) in Russia.

Yet that relationship was inevitably damaged when the major democracies supported Ukraine in the face of Putin’s aggression, and Israel’s early effort at neutrality soon gave way to more help for Ukraine. It paid a price in relations with Russia, but the alignment with Western democracies — and against the invasion of a democratic country by a hostile neighbor — was unavoidable.

The Arab case is different, there being no real Arab democracy. Still, there is a great difference between a murderous despotism like Syria and legitimate, responsible monarchies such as Morocco or the Emirates. The argument here is not that Israel should seek to impose its values on other states or dismiss realism from its foreign policy. Rather, the point is that as a democracy Israel should be conscious at all times that it is part of the Western camp.

And that raises the question of relations with China. That relationship has caused bruising arguments with the United States. And it may again, because China is the main enemy of Israel’s main ally — and a gigantic market for Israeli goods and important investor in Israeli companies. Israel has been slow to reach the conclusion of its Western allies: that economic dependence on China (or, for Europe, on Russia as well) is dangerous. And it has been slow to make the institutional arrangements that are necessary to limit Chinese investment in sensitive areas such as artificial intelligence and other forms of high-tech that may have military uses. But it must, as a democratic state whose key allies are democratic states. That is realism, not idealism.

Israel as a Jewish and democratic state has already become the center of world Jewish life, and its population growth and vitality will make that role even more important as it passes from 75 to 100 years old. It must, given its military prowess and growing economy, take its rightful place among the democratic states in what used to be known as the Western alliance or the ‘free world.’ And it must reach out to the Diaspora communities not to seek help but to offer it. Increasingly, the most effective part of that help will be to arrange for Jews everywhere to experience and to know Israel — as visitors or as students at least. For observant Jews, Israel’s place at the center of their prayers is clear. For non-religious Jews, the fading of ethnic solidarity and the lures of assimilation mean that a tie to Israel will be one of the few, perhaps the only and very likely the strongest, sources of Jewish identity as Israel approaches its centenary.


Elliott Abrams is a Jewish-American diplomat and foreign policy commentator. He served in senior foreign policy positions in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump.