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70 Years of Israel-Diaspora Relations: The Next Generation

This document is not meant to be a comprehensive history of Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry, but some background must be provided. In the coming paragraphs we will try to focus on a few of the issues that come up in the report and how they have changed over the years, if they have had or are likely to have an impact on the relationship.

From the dawn of the Zionist movement and the renewal of Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel, Diaspora Jewry was the primary source of economic support for the growing Yishuv. A small number of well-known philanthropists founded and provided backing for localities, neighborhoods, and settlement groups. A much larger number of Jews from all walks of life sent donations, large or small, in the framework of communal or national fundraising campaigns, without which life in Palestine-Eretz Israel would have been impossible. “For many years Israel-Diaspora relations were institutionally founded on a system of donations to the State of Israel. The needs were legitimate, and the young Israeli state, which struggled with existential and infrastructural difficulties, needed the assistance – which also gave Diaspora Jewry a means of identifying with, and taking part in, the struggle for their dream state’s establishment.”

The scholar Alon Gal has written that Israel was founded “thanks largely to Diaspora Jewry and the support of the democratic Western powers, foremost among them the United States.” However, due to the ideology that guided it and, perhaps, to prevailing circumstances, an attitude of negating the Golah, or “exile,” emerged within the Zionist tradition at the same time the Diaspora’s crucial assistance was being gratefully accepted. According to this approach, a substantive and purposeful Jewish continuity could exist only within the framework of Jewish national life in Eretz Israel and, later, the State of Israel. Israeli Zionism tended to assume that only life in Israel gives full expression to Jewishness. David Ben-Gurion embraced the position that only Israel gives meaning to Jewish life. He wrote: “There is no Jew in the Golah […] who can be a complete Jew, and no Jewish community in the Golah can live a full Jewish life. Only in Israel can Jewish life be lived fully.” The Israeli leadership assumed that Israel was the place where the fate of the Jewish people would be decided, and that “the people living in Zion” would therefore come to embody or represent the Jewish people as a whole. According to this view, the Israeli community is “essential,” while the Diaspora community is “incidental.” And even if this assumption is not explicit in Israeli public life, it is ingrained in Israeli culture. Sociologist Shlomo Fischer, a JPPI Senior Fellow, posits that this is one of the underlying reasons why Israeli government decisions tend to ignore the Diaspora and its needs.

This approach to Zionism was not, of course, consistent with the positions of many Diaspora leaders – not in the early days of Zionism, and certainly not later on, after the State of Israel was founded. The early Zionist period was marked by disputes within Jewish circles regarding the movement’s role. Some groups favored the idea of a sovereign Israel as a refuge from Jew hatred (Theodor Herzl). Others saw Eretz Israel primarily as a refuge from spiritual assimilation (Ahad Ha’am). Many saw no use for Zionism, preferring to strengthen the Diaspora Jewish communities (Simon Dubnow). There were those who vehemently opposed Zionism (Herman Cohen), some for existential reasons (dispersion is preferable to concentration in one place – a rationale that is being voiced with growing frequency today, when nuclear arms pose a threat to Israel’s security), others for reasons of national culture (the Jewish people has a mission that it can fulfill only when it is dispersed among the other peoples of the world). Thus, seeds of mutual disappointment were embedded in the relationship from the outset – alongside a shared desire to cooperate and strive for the success of a momentous national endeavor. Diaspora Jewry’s disappointment in an Israel that sees itself as superior and refuses to repay the Diaspora’s generous support with respect is mirrored by Israel’s disappointment when it finds that the broader Jewish public does not share its positions, and that most Jews, though they have chosen to support Zionism, still choose to live outside of Israel.

The growth and strengthening of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine-Eretz Israel and, later, the official establishment of the State of Israel, gave rise to another change in the relationship between the Yishuv and Diaspora Jewry. In its early years, the Yishuv was managed by the national institutions that emerged subsequent to the Zionist awakening; in this way, Diaspora Jewry had official representation that, in practice, was part of the Zionist movement’s leadership. But in a process that began during the early years of Mandatory Palestine and gained momentum as Israeli statehood approached, the Diaspora Jewish leadership was pushed out of most positions of influence in the Zionist movement, and the center of gravity shifted to the heads of the Yishuv. “This process reached its peak when the state was founded,” wrote the scholar Assaf Yedidya. Diaspora Jewry effectively lost its representation and its ability to exert an influence on the State of Israel. “The Zionist movement saw itself as representing world Jewry in its entirety, but the Jewish state, once founded, did not act to represent world Jewry within the state institutions; its representatives remained only those who lived in Israel itself.”

In any case, this process, which continued and intensified as Israel gained economic and political strength and had less need of major assistance from the Diaspora, bore the seeds of mutual frustration. Diaspora Jews sometimes felt that they were being excluded from decisions on issues of cardinal importance to the future of the Jewish people as a whole. Israeli Jews, for their part, came to lose their sense of direct and unmediated connection with the heads of Diaspora Jewry. Accordingly, they felt disappointed by events and processes affecting Diaspora communities they were unable to decode.

These slow, ongoing processes were periodically interrupted by dramatic events that muted them. The urgent and immediate need to care for the survivors of the Holocaust pushed aside nearly all disputes. An instinctive desire to see the State of Israel established and able to overcome the annihilation attempts that immediately followed, left no time for secondary coordination of expectations issues. Israel’s founding filled Diaspora Jews with pride, which was redoubled when the fledgling state proved capable of overpowering its enemies and surviving in its hostile surroundings. They regarded it as a source of solidarity and a target of vigorous activity, which also aided in consolidating Diaspora Jewry around a shared goal. They helped Israel absorb those Jewish communities not fortunate enough to be situated in hospitable Western countries – Jews of Arab and Middle Eastern lands and, later, those emigrating from the Soviet bloc.

At the same time, processes of demographic, military, and economic reinforcement, along with cultural developments, made Israel the strongest community in the Jewish world. This is supported by much empirical data and was also the view of the Dialogue participants, a large majority of whom (81%), both Israelis and non-Israelis, agreed with the statement: “Israel is the center of the Jewish people.” “Israel influences everything that happens to us as Jews,” as one Australian participant put it. “Whether they like it or not, Jews are affected by Israel’s behavior. Israel doesn’t understand that what happens in Jerusalem has repercussions here as well, and not always positive ones, to which we are exposed,” noted a Delaware participant. “Israel was also founded for me, so it’s also doing things in my name,” asserted a Brown University student. Of course, not everyone agreed with these statements. An Australian participant said that she has “no emotional connection to the concept of a center for the Jewish people. Maybe if I were from someplace where it’s hard to be a Jew I’d need Israel.” One Brown participant said: “Being Jewish is very important to me, but Israel isn’t a meaningful part of that.”

But even those for whom ties to Israel do not constitute a major element of identity know that Israel, as a successful political entity, has more organizational might than any other community. Alongside the problems intrinsic to managing, maintaining, and protecting a state, especially in a hostile environment, Israel enjoys a cultural coherence that spares it many of the challenges faced by Diaspora Jewry – the difficulty of maintaining a communal identity in a universal world, the loosening of ties to religious communities in a secularizing world, the change in consciousness arising from accelerated integration in general society, at both the social-economic level and at the more intimate familial-communal level.

Seventy years is a long time, and many different events have garnered attention, but in contrast to what is commonly thought (and written), a few of the main trends that have characterized Israel-Diaspora relations have not changed substantially over the past seven decades. In the early 1950s, in the set of understandings known as the Ben-Gurion-Blaustein Agreement, one could already discern several points that would eventually become stumbling blocks in the relationship’s management. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was asked to affirm, and did affirm, that Israel would not demand political loyalty from Jewish citizens of other countries. He agreed to declare that Aliyah be based on the choice of individual Jews, not an obligation for all Jews. The then-president of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein, communicated the desire of Jews to see a thriving Jewish state, but also conveyed their discomfort with the idea of Israel assuming a role of leadership and overall responsibility for the Jewish people writ large. In reality, Israel constantly interfered in Diaspora political affairs, and expected Diaspora Jews to work on its behalf on a variety of levels. At the same time, Diaspora Jews found themselves identified with a state that was not their own, and with policies they did not always support, and that sometimes put them in conflict with their own governments or environs. “We, the Jews of Europe, are hostage to Israeli foreign policy,” said a young German participant. “When Israel changes its policy and escalates the situation, I feel less secure in America,” noted a Brown student. Participants in Dialogue seminars were asked to jointly reformulate several of the main Ben-Gurion-Blaustein understandings, and it was interesting to see that on many of the issues presented to them (political loyalty, Aliyah, mutual commitment and the like) they tended to reiterate the agreements reached almost 70 years ago.

Non-Israeli participants in particular produced statements similar to the original understandings. “Ultimately it’s not a bad place to start from,” summed up the view of one participant in the Washington discussion and those of her interlocutors. Ben-Gurion said that “the State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of the Jews who are citizens of any other country.” Similarly, one U.S. participant said, “I don’t want Israel to speak for me,” while another maintained that “Israel has no right to represent me politically.” A third participant noted: “Sometimes it’s annoying when the Israeli prime minister presumes to represent all Jews – he doesn’t represent me, and he has no right to say he does.” The question about Israel’s leadership role vis-a-vis the Jewish people will be discussed at length below, but it is worth mentioning here that it is one of the questions that has plagued the Israeli [national] project from its beginnings. The tension between two poles is nothing new: the desire of some Jews to see Israel in a leadership role, and Israel’s pretension to lead – versus the desire of other Jews to shake off Israel’s leadership pretensions, and Israel’s tendency to shirk leadership when inconvenient. It takes different forms according to particular political and social events (French anti-Semitism, the Kotel crisis), but it is fundamentally the same tension.

Over the past few decades, a number of processes emerging in tandem have underscored practical differences and gaps of consciousness between Israel and a substantial part of Diaspora Jewry, beyond such trivial facts as geographic distance or the lack of a common speaking, reading, and writing language. Israel has become more conservative politically, at a time when many Jews around the world self-identify as liberal. Israel has become stronger and, accordingly, there have been calls for it to address what many Diaspora Jews see as a flawed approach to the dynamics between religion and state. Israel has responded with opposition, due to political power struggles and its own domestic priorities. At the same time, major political differences have erupted between Israeli Jews, most of whom have lost faith in the peace process with the Arab world (especially the Palestinians), and many Diaspora Jews who still support and believe in the peace process. Many feel that the current lack of progress on the peacemaking front is due largely to Israeli policy, and they see this as a major blow to the state’s Jewish identity and to its ability to represent a Jewish culture with which they want to identify. At times these views manifest in resounding interrogation of Zionism’s legitimacy by Jewish opinion-makers in the Diaspora.

These developments have engendered successive crises between Israel and Diaspora Jewry – as well as interminable discussion of the supposed “distancing” of Jews from Israel. Crises surrounding legislation on the “Who is a Jew” and conversion issues. Crises relating to Israeli policy on peace and war. Crises touching on the status of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. Crises over the way in which Israel regards Diaspora communities and the probability of their survival. Largely, these crises reflect the divergent agendas of Jews living under different circumstances and the development of Jewish identities whose components, accordingly, differ. A Judaism oriented toward universalism and liberalism in the Diaspora; a Judaism with national and tribal characteristics in Israel. In the Diaspora – a Judaism that is in frequent and substantive contact with a non-Jewish environment. In Israel – a Judaism that lives in relative cultural isolation from the non-Jewish world. The Israeli national identity is mediated by religion/tradition, while the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, especially the primary U.S. community, are elitist-cosmopolitan with a secular orientation. This situation constitutes a change vis-à-vis the early decades of Israeli statehood, when both Diaspora and Israeli Jews tended to hold liberal-socialist views.

To all of the above may be added the structural gaps between Israel and the Diaspora Jewish communities, gaps whose results have become evident as the years have passed. “How can you compare a country, whatever its problems, with a collection of communities between and within which disagreements abound, and that are, ultimately, very weak entities to which most Jews have little or no commitment?,” was the provocative question posed by one Minnesota participant. Israel creates, for its Jews, a Jewish environment that relies on political power, feeds it and is fed by it. A Jewish environment that has the power to impose itself, that has a need for legal definitions on certain issues, that has control over the population’s composition, and that has orderly processes for resolving and deciding on controversial matters. In the Diaspora, by contrast, there is a voluntary Jewish community that can exist in a state of conceptual/organizational ambiguity and vagueness with regard to identity – a community that is strongly influenced by social trends within the non-Jewish majority. These gaps hinder productive dialogue between Israel and the Diaspora, both at the conceptual level (how a state speaks to communities) and at the practical level (who speaks with whom, on what issues, and for what purposes).