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

We opened this section of the Dialogue sessions with the following question, asked both in the written survey and in the focus groups:

What do you consider to be the primary objectives of strengthening ties between Israel and Diaspora Jews?

  • to strengthen solidarity
  • to strengthen capacity for effective Israel advocacy on the part of Diaspora Jews
  • to strengthen mutual understanding – Diaspora Jews of Israelis, Israelis of Diaspora Jews
  • to broaden knowledge of the other and the breadth of views in Israel and the Diaspora
  • to develop relationships among and between Israeli and Diaspora Jews
  • other

The option that received the most responses overall was “to strengthen mutual understanding.” It netted 38% of the responses among the entire group. Below is the breakdown of the responses.

  • North America – 42%
  • Israelis – 35%
  • MITF – 38%
  • Melbourne – 16%

As indicated above, with respect to a few survey questions, Melbourne was the outlier. The option that garnered the highest response among this group was “strengthening mutual support and assistance.” The Jews of North America, and especially in the United States, are aware that they have different views than the recent Israeli governments and many of the people of Israel. That seems to be a principal reason why they think that “mutual understanding” is a central aim of Israel-Diaspora ties. They hope that deepening “mutual understanding” will lead to enhanced awareness of the variety of perspectives on key issues and the reasons different views are advanced both among and between Diaspora and Israeli Jews. Given the Orthodox religious and relatively right-wing identity of the Melbourne participants, they might experience fewer disagreements with Israel. Hence, they place less emphasis on “mutual understanding” and concentrate more on the practical aspects of existing solidarity and therefore stress “mutual support and assistance.”

Another survey question asked if one thought that increased meetings between ordinary people from Israel and the Diaspora could enhance Israel-Diaspora ties. The following options were given:

  • It’s nice, but what really matters is cooperation and understanding between leaders.
  • I think that it can make a significant contribution.
  • This is what it is really about: regular Israeli and American Jews forming friendships and social ties of cooperation and solidarity.

The most-selected response was that it “can make a significant contribution” (44% overall). Thirty-eight percent answered that “this is really about: regular Israeli and American Jews forming friendships….” Together, both responses constituted 83% of the answers.

Finally, we asked: “What frameworks can most usefully promote Israel-Diaspora ties?” The answer that received a plurality of responses was “spending time with people that you disagree with.” In North America this response received 41% of the replies. One example of this would be having liberal Jews from Manhattan’s West Side spend a week or more in Kiryat Arba, a West Bank suburb outside of Hebron, or having Jews from Boro Park, Brooklyn spend two weeks in Tel Aviv. This question continues the same line of orientation we saw earlier – that Israel-Diaspora ties should encourage encounters between people who disagree and that the contending parties should get to know and understand each other in order to maintain good relations despite their disagreements. While it ought to be acknowledged that religious and political differences: secular/religious, hawk/dove, right/left, also exist within Israel and Diaspora communities, Israel’s democracy enables some to aggregate state power. This can accentuate policy differences (settlements, the Kotel agreement) as this cannot take place in the voluntary Jewish communities of the Diaspora.

Here too, the Melbourne responses were the exception. In Melbourne only 8% answered that the Jewish Agency or the Israeli government should promote visits between people who disagree with each other. At the same time, 41% answered that the Jewish Agency or the Israeli government should promote a Jewish peoplehood curriculum. Thus, for the Melbourne group it does not seem that disagreement between the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora is a major issue, an attitude that is unsurprising given their relatively religious and right-wing cast. They seem to take the frameworks of Jewish peoplehood and solidarity as a given and wish to enhance them.

The Melbourne group was quite small – 24 participants. It would be rash to draw hard and fast conclusions based upon it, even with respect to the broader Melbourne Jewish community. Nevertheless, it might represent a different “ideal type”1 – from the North American participants – more right-wing, more Orthodox religiously, and less at odds with the Israeli state and society. Further research is certainly needed to determine the extent and the social and geographic location of this “Ideal type,” as well as its characteristics.

1. a term created by the sociologist Max Weber, refers to an abstract model of a social phenomenon, which contains in pure form all its parameters. Ideal types are not empirical but are used to measure and analyze empirical phenomena. The word “ideal” does not at all entail a good/bad or correct/incorrect value judgement but rather designates a pure and complete model.

Responses to the survey questions were echoed in the focus groups. In the North American focus groups, too, many of the participants talked about mutual understanding as the goal of Israel-Diaspora ties. Thus, one Chicago participant pointed to mutual understanding as the goal, which he insisted has to work both ways – (the Diaspora’s understanding of Israel and Israel’s understanding of the Diaspora). Thus, missions and education have to function in both directions. Or as another Chicago participant formulated it: “There is a sense that the relationship between Israel/America is one telling the other what the right thing to do is as opposed to the mutual understanding and knowing each other well…. Getting to know one another 1:1 is most important part of that relationship.”
This insistence on the mutuality of understanding was repeated in many of the focus groups and seems to be related to the feeling many Diaspora Jews have that Israeli Jews do not know much about, nor understand Diaspora Jewry. As another Chicago participant put it: “[We] really need to focus on that to make sure Israel understands American Jews. We spend a lot of time trying to understand them and aren’t sure how much time they take to understand us.” Or in the words of a Cleveland participant: “Israelis need to understand more about the Diaspora, its creativity, what it does for certain different Jews.” Or as one rabbi from New Jersey bluntly put it: “We need to be teaching Israelis about the Diaspora.”

Some of the Israeli students agreed with this assessment. They said that for there to be a meaningful connection with Diaspora Jews they have to learn a lot more about them – who are they? What occupies them? What are their concerns? There were a few members of the Israeli group who indicated that that they would not actively participate in the discussion insofar as the subject of the Dialogue – Israel-Diaspora relations – does not speak to them at all. They know nothing about the subject and have never thought about it. They said that while they would not speak, they would be happy to listen. At the same time, a number of participants indicated that they had served as shlichim or shinshinim in Diaspora communities and took part in the discussion enthusiastically.

When participants discussed how in practice to put ties in place, they expressed themselves on different levels. Some participants emphasized abstract ideals such as “peoplehood” or “solidarity,” but most advocated personal ties and connections. “Personal experiences are the most powerful way to strengthen ties,” said one participant. Another elaborated, “One on one relationships are incredibly powerful.” A New York participant emphasized that “We need to be creative about the connection not only at the leader level but at the Jew on the street level.”

Many participants coupled the goal of mutual understanding to personal ties and connections: “Everything will stem from the understanding – it’s important to have that personal connection.” A woman from New Jersey said: “I am a believer that developing relationships between people will bring about everything else…. when we see each other in friendship we see each other for who we are.” Even those who started off by talking about peoplehood and solidarity contended that they are best achieved through personal connections and friendships among ordinary people.