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How Much Should Israel Value Jewish Interests Over its Own?

The crisis with Russia surrounding the Jewish Agency raises the question again: what price is Israel willing to pay for solidarity towards Diaspora Jewry?

The true nature of the current Jewish Agency crisis with Russia is unclear. Russia claims its basis is legal: the Agency has violated local procedures governing the operation of foreign organizations on its soil. In Israel, however, the cause is thought to be political – that the crisis is Putin’s way of expressing his dissatisfaction with Israel’s conduct in the Ukrainian arena (Lapid’s pro-Ukraine stance), in the Syrian arena (IDF activity within the territory of the Russia-sponsored regime), or in the arena of Jerusalem real estate (the promise to transfer ownership of Alexander’s Courtyard to Russia remains unfulfilled).

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Kobi Richter TPS

This quagmire is a wake-up call for the State of Israel to conduct a systematic, thoughtful examination of the proper balance between the “Israeli interest” and the “Jewish interest” when tension emerges between them. In the present context, assuming that aggressive action by the Israeli government would help preserve the Jewish Agency’s standing as a promoter of Jewish identity in Russia, and as a vehicle of Aliyah for Russian Jews, would it be appropriate to take such action even if it would exact a real price from the state? It is possible, for example, that in response to aggressive Israeli measures, Russia might choose to sell advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Syria (it was previously reported that Russia is considering this), thereby intensifying the risk to Israeli Air Force planes operating over Syria.

The question of whether, and to what extent, Israel should take into consideration the interests of Jews who are not its citizens arises in many contexts – military, political, economic, and others.

In the military context, the dilemma arose in connection to the IDF operation to assassinate Abbas al-Musawi, Secretary General of Hezbollah, 30 years ago. To avenge his death, Hezbollah carried out terror attacks against the Israeli embassy in Argentina and the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (the AMIA – a Jewish community center). The result was shocking: 111 people murdered in retaliation for the IDF’s actions. The then-head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, General Uri Sagi, admitted, in retrospect, that had he been aware of possible reprisals against Jews abroad, he would have reconsidered the decision to launch the operation. Is he right? Should Israel’s hands be tied out of fear for the security of Jews around the world? When an Israeli operation in Gaza sparks antisemitism internationally, and an anti-Jewish wave on US campuses, should Israel reconsider its actions?

The Diaspora march in Jerusalem. Photo: Esti Dziubov TPS

And in the political context: Should Israel’s prime minister take into account the sensitivities of a large segment of Diaspora Jewry on issues of religion and state – such as the Kotel compromise or the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions – when he sets policy, even if he will be required to pay a political price in front of potential coalition partners? In the past, I was asked by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs to examine the legality of having a certain percentage of Knesset seats allocated by law to elected representatives of Diaspora Jewry. In so doing, some claimed it would guarantee that the voice of Diaspora Jewry would be heard in the legislative processes of the Jewish nation-state. Is this appropriate?

And in the economic context: For many years, Diaspora Jewry provided massive support to the State of Israel and its society, which faced daunting economic difficulties. That support continues to this day. However, in recent years Israel’s flourishing economy has drawn a different picture: Israel is no longer the poor nephew of a rich American uncle. Has the moment come for Israel to return the favor to Diaspora Jewry, where necessary? Would it be appropriate to establish a two-way, equal relationship through the flow of Israeli resources, funded by Israeli taxpayers, to benefit Jewish interests outside of Israel, such as subsidizing Birthright Israel or financing aspects of Jewish education in the Diaspora?

Although each of the above examples differs from the others, they all raise the question Vladimir Putin has put before us: To what extent is the Israeli nation-state responsible for members of the Jewish people who are not citizens of Israel? Most Israelis support solidarity with Diaspora Jewry. But are they willing to pay a price for this – militarily, politically, economically, or otherwise – and to what degree?

The Basic Law: Israel The Nation-State of the Jewish People imposes a constitutional obligation on the state to ensure the safety of members of the Jewish people who are in straits and in captivity due to their Jewishness and to work to preserve the heritage of the Jewish people among Diaspora Jewry. In its narrow sense, the law does not oblige Israel to go to the mat with Putin: the Jews of Russia are not currently “in straits and in captivity.” The Iron Curtain has not slammed down again and atheistic Communism is not the law in the Russian Federation. Russian Jews can emigrate as they wish and are not prevented from realizing their Judaism through organized religious, national, or cultural activity in their homeland. However, even though the Nation-State Law does not directly apply under present circumstances, its spirit is extremely relevant. Its intent is to task the Jewish state with the responsibility to act on behalf of its brethren in the Diaspora. Putin’s intransigence is pushing the Israeli government to consider the extent of its readiness to fulfill that responsibility, by weighing broader Jewish interests against internal Israeli interests.

Prime Minister Lapid. The new policy will have a price. Shalev Shalom/TPS

This is not a simple question: the sovereign statehood enjoyed by today’s Jews is the most important Jewish innovation in 2,000 years. Sovereignty distinguishes between a citizen, Jew or non-Jew, and others – even if they are Jewish. Any seemingly “normal” country would prioritize its civic interests under any circumstances. Thus, the celebrated late writer A.B. Yehoshua believed that Israel need not consider the interests of Diaspora Jews. They could choose to be Israeli and would be welcomed as promised in the Law of Return, but if they prefer to remain in the Diaspora, the State of Israel owes them nothing. This, however, is a minority opinion. The vast majority of Israeli Jews feel that, because Israel is not only a “democratic state” but also a “Jewish state,” it must give significant consideration to the interests of those who belong to the circle of Jewish identity, even if they stand outside the circle of Israeli civic identity – and even if this comes at a cost. Menachem Begin famously said, on the night he was elected Prime Minister of Israel, that he saw himself as the Prime Minister of the Jewish people.

A principled discussion regarding the correct balance between the Israeli interest and the Jewish interest must be conducted. But it is important to remember that even if the State of Israel may pay a real price for standing by the Jewish interest in the current crisis – for example, raising the risk level of air force operations in Syria – this is a short-term cost. In the long term, the equation will be reversed: translating the vision of Israel as a “Jewish state” into a set of actions – such as extending its hand, through its support of the Jewish Agency, to the Jews of Ukraine and Russia – is the realization of our raison d’être. Indeed, the Jewish interest, at the end of the day, is an Israeli interest.

First published in The Jerusalem Post