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

There is a significant difference between Israeli Jews living in a Jewish state where religion is a public matter and American Jews who live as a minority in a diverse population that considers religion a personal choice. Furthermore, in Israel, the Hebrew language and Jewish-Israeli culture constitute the dominant cultural frame, while Jews living as minorities in the United States and other Diaspora communities often live in cultures defined by other faiths and identifying as a Jew is voluntary. It stands to reason that these different contexts would produce widely differing understandings of what it means to secure the Jewish future. Despite this, the “We are One” slogan expressing the core ethos of North American Jewry, as captured in Jonathan Woocher’s 1985 book Sacred Survival, prevailed as the dominant communal mantra until the late 1990s. This was fueled by the Jewish leadership that emerged shortly after the Shoah, which having witnessed, from near or far, the powerful formative experiences of Israel’s first decades and the events of l967, fell in love with Israel.

That paradigm began to weaken during the 1990s and has accelerated recently for multiple reasons – Israel became more self-reliant economically and as a result, North American Jewish philanthropy became less significant; North American Jewry remained liberal as much of Israel’s leadership was increasingly perceived, particularly over the last decade, as embracing policies considered by growing numbers as illiberal: settlement growth, continued occupation, the prospect of territorial annexation, and the Nation-State Law itself, among others. The suspension of the Kotel Compromise (2017) and continued discrimination against the liberal streams of Judaism further solidified this illiberal image. Those tensions, those trends – discussed in numerous studies, articles, and the subject (in various ways) of prior JPPI Dialogues – have deepened in recent months.

Various spokespersons of the Israeli government under former Prime Minister Netanyahu (such as the former ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer) made it clear that the Netanyahu government increasingly turned to Evangelical Christians for support of its policies rather than the liberal mainstream of the American Jewish community.

Despite this, it is not clear that this paradigm shift is occurring equally in all Diaspora populations. In regard to several questions, the Melbourne group’s survey answers differed significantly from those of the North American respondents. It is very difficult to form conclusions on the basis of such small samples, nevertheless, this difference is suggestive, and we offer some ideas below as to what it might mean.

In accord with these concerns, as background to the discussion regarding the Nation-State law, we wished to gauge how participants viewed Israel- Diaspora relations in general and the extent to which Israeli and Diaspora Jews identify with one another and feel the sense of shared history and solidarity. Thus, in the survey we asked two questions relating to these issues:

Q7 Being Jewish in the US and Israel takes different forms. In the US, Jews are a minority, in Israel a majority. In the US, religion is private and voluntary; in Israel, it is public and embodied in the state. Reflecting upon these distinctions, do you think that:

  1. Despite these distinctions, in essential matters all Jews are similar and can identify with each other.
  2. There is a great distance between American and Israeli Jews.

The majority of older participants, who were more connected to federations and Jewish organizations, answered that “in essential matters all Jews are similar and can identify with each other.” (North America, 60%), (Melbourne, 58%). Similarly, the majority in this age cohort answered that despite the differences listed in the previous question, “Diaspora and Israeli Jews share history and solidarity to a great extent.” (North America, 53%), (Melbourne, 66%). As can be seen, the Melbourne participants answered along the same lines as the older federation participants. Given their more religious and right-wing identity and orientation, this is not surprising.

In the breakout groups these participants referred to the foundational events of Jewish history and the Jewish religion, such as the giving of Torah on Mt. Sinai and the shared history of persecution. These, they indicated, provided the basis for the ability to identify with other Jews and the sense of shared history and solidarity. One participant from Chicago thought of the shared history of the Holocaust: “We as a people were almost wiped out and now we owe it to each other to have unconditional love and support….” A participant from Northern New Jersey stated, “we do have a shared history that goes back thousands of years. We all came from somewhere and we have all been Diaspora Jews at some point…” In the New York session one of the participants remarked, “my thought on shared history goes back to when we all stood on Sinai together.”

By contrast, 55% of participants in the English-speaking younger groups (MITF and Columbia) indicated that there was “a great distance between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.” Among the Israelis, 52% agreed. Similarly, 60% of the English-speaking younger cohort said that Diaspora and Israeli Jews shared history and solidarity only to “a certain extent.” Among the Israelis, the percentage giving that answer was 71%.
In the breakout groups, these young participants provided their rationale. They said that although there was, in the past, certainly a shared historical experience, in the last two generations the experience of various Jewish communities has differed sharply. The Israelis have had the experience of establishing their own nation-state and that has included unique, particular experiences such as military service. At the same time, the experience of the American Jewish community has been of living as a minority in an advanced post-industrial society and democracy. Thus, one MIFT participant said: “History way back is shared but individual Jewish histories are no longer shared which may affect solidarity.” Similarly, a participant in Cleveland said that he does not “feel history in the same way… I know that there is shared history, [I] connect more on issues. I don’t feel the same shared history.”

The data here are in line with many articles and studies that have explored generational changes in the American Jewish community. What emerged in the small focus groups can perhaps provide additional insight. The Jewish identity of the younger age cohorts is less primordial and “mythic” – less “in the kishkes.” Hence, it does not only reference the foundational and “mythic” events of Jewish history but refers to the Jewish history that was experienced during the lifetime of the participants or during that of their parents. It is more rational and more dependent upon empirical data, such as the actual differences in the respective life experiences of young Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Among the Israeli students, there were some who spoke about the asymmetry of the relations – that the Israelis lack empathy for Jewish life in the Diaspora and that Israel does not afford any place to the Reform movement in Israeli life. They asserted that the Israelis expect money and political support, but they do not give anything in return.