Israel-Diaspora Relations

The State of Israel, the Diaspora, and the Nation-State Law

By: Dr. Shlomo Fischer, Dr. John Ruskay

The State of Israel, the Diaspora, and the Nation-State Law

Judging from the quantitative and qualitative findings of this Dialogue, it appears that Israel-Diaspora relations are gradually assuming a new character. In earlier decades the relationship could be plausibly characterized by the slogan “We are One,” but this is no longer the case today. Diaspora and Israeli Jews are too aware of their divergent histories, experiences, and attitudes to simply agree with the notion that “they are one.” As noted, Diaspora Jews are also somewhat wary and suspicious of Israeli government motives and agendas. It is interesting to note that those who were more suspicious and critical of Israel were those who were more knowledgeable about the Jewish world and Judaism, and more engaged with them. Among the most suspicious and critical participants were the Jewish educators who were convened by the Jewish Educators Project and the Columbia Hillel. Columbia has an internationally renowned Jewish and Israel Studies program and has many Orthodox and Conservative students.

Yet as we have seen, Diaspora Jews also very much want connection with the State of Israel and with the people of Israel.

The slogan “We are One,” which emerged during the Yom Kippur War, was never meant to be taken literally. No one thought that the life of Israeli soldiers, then fighting in bunkers in the Golan Heights and along the Suez Canal, and American Jews living in relative safety had shared daily experiences. “We are One” reflected a recognition that despite different day-to-day circumstances, there was a shared world view among global Jewish leadership about what was required to secure Israel and the Jewish people.

We may term this sort of relationship “monophony” (one sound in Greek). This is a relationship populated by different people, but in crucial matters, there was great similarity between them, and hence they all speak with “one voice.” In a monophonic conversation the speakers share the same assumptions, perspectives, and goals just as in a monophonic musical piece there is one dominant theme or melody shared or served by all the voices or instruments. In contrast to this, polyphony consists of several voices each playing an independent melody. In successful polyphonic music, such as that of J.S. Bach, the different voices and melodies form a harmonic or otherwise pleasing sound. Hence in a polyphonic interaction or conversation very different perspectives, assumptions and goals encounter each other and interact.

What seems to be gradually happening (starting in the closing decades of the 20th century) is that Diaspora voices are becoming increasingly independent and separate from the Israeli voices. Our data point to this in various instances – from the nearly half of the participants who saw a “great distance between the Diaspora and Israel” to the sentiment, repeated again and again, that Israelis neither know a lot about nor understand Jews in the Diaspora, and they might not even care that they don’t. Similarly, while Diaspora Jews are aware of the advantages of Israeli involvement in Jewish education in the Diaspora and in strengthening ties between the two communities, especially in terms of funding, they are also wary of it. They are wary of Israeli governmental agendas and the strings it might attach to its support. They also wonder about where Israel might intervene in a productive way, and where such intervention could be problematic.

At the same time, the Diaspora participants in this Dialogue really do want have connection with Israel and Israeli Jews. They seek a personal connection that leads to friendship and “mutual understanding.” However, they understand this connection to be between two different communities that have different assumptions, perspectives, and goals. In other words, they envision a “polyphonic” encounter. Thus, Israel-Diaspora relations appear to be moving from a “monophonic” format to a “polyphonic” one. While having different goals, perspectives and assumptions could result in Israel and the Diaspora talking past each other, many dialogue participants seemed to hope that by achieving “mutual understanding”, they could achieve a fruitful, polyphonic conversation. These participants articulated that they see benefit in such an encounter; as a participant from New York put it: “All Jews are enriched by connection with the other, not just something that we should do but something we benefit from.”

Ultimately, the different perspectives of the North American Diaspora communities and Israel have been percolating for some time. The differences are rooted in the disparate contexts and circumstances of Jewish life in North America and Israel. These have been reinforced and amplified by the political developments we have mentioned – such as the continuing occupation of the West Bank and the increased North American familiarity with the Palestinian perspective. In the 2021 Dialogue, the differing perspectives and attitudes between the North American Jews and Israel was also reflected in how Diaspora Jews think that Israel-Diaspora events and programs should be conceived, organized, and conducted.

The Dialogue also demonstrated differences between Diaspora populations. The Diaspora is not monolithic, it includes different orientations and needs. With its relatively religious and right-wing orientation, the Melbourne community seems to be experiencing disagreements with Israel to a lesser extent than other communities. Accordingly, it did not place “mutual understanding” as the aim of Israel-Diaspora ties. Rather, a significant plurality of the Melbourne participants chose “mutual aid and support.” Similarly, the Melbourne group, in contrast to those in North America, did not choose “meeting those we disagree with” as a useful framework for promoting Israel-Diaspora ties. Instead, it recommended strengthening Jewish Peoplehood curricula. While for the liberal Jews of North America, achieving “mutual understanding” with Israeli Jews with respect to fundamental aspects of Jewish life and the Jewish future seems important, the Melbourne participants were more focused on concrete programs that express and reinforce Jewish solidarity.