Israel, War and The Diaspora

How should Jews in the Diaspora (those who themselves are not under threat, as in some cities in Europe) respond to Israel’s needs, and what specific activities should they engage in?

by Stephen G. Donshik

This time, just like every time there is an armed conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors or the indigenous Palestinian community, there has been a strong response from Jewish communities around the world.

In some cases, as in a number of European cities during the last two weeks, the Jewish community is being forced to defend itself. We have witnessed stronger displays of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel behavior than we have seen in years. There is a thin line between anti-Semitism and the anti-Israel sentiments expressed by Moslem citizens and Arab and Palestinian expatriates living in these European cities. Last week’s demonstration outside a synagogue in Bastille Square in Paris was frightening to all of us watching it on television, and we can only imagine how the people inside the synagogue felt. This scene has repeated itself in other European cities, although not in so threatening a manner as in Paris.

In many cities in North America, there have been both anti-Israel demonstrations against the war in Gaza and pro-Israel demonstrations sponsored by various Jewish organizations. The national Jewish organizations have certainly responded in supportive ways and have been making heroic efforts to counter anti-Israel propaganda and defend Israel in spite of the damaging news footage of the destruction in Gaza. Of course, it is easy for news reporters to compare the damage to Israeli property and citizens with the damage to the cities in Gaza. We have heard too often how the Hamas missiles are no match for the rockets fired from Israeli jet planes.

The fact that Israel disseminates notices 24 hours before bombing a building or launching an air strike on a neighborhood falls on deaf ears around the world – as does the fact that Hamas uses citizens as human shields to hide their missiles and rocket launchers. That the world has forgotten about the fighting and loss of lives in Syria or Iraq and has decided to focus instead on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not caused anyone to think about the real reason there has never been peace in the Land of Israel.

Given this situation, the real questions are, how should Jews in the Diaspora (those who themselves are not under threat, as in some cities in Europe) respond to Israel’s needs, and what specific activities should they engage in? These questions are asked every time there is an armed conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors or the Palestinians.

Sending “solidarity missions” – groups of community leaders who want to demonstrate their support – to Israel is almost a knee-jerk response. Yes, this is an important sign of identification with Israel; however, such missions must be organized and implemented in a respectful and appropriate way. In the week following the incursion into Gaza, a group of American Jewish leaders arrived in Israel and toured the areas that were under missile attack. One key leader was described as wearing a tee-shirt and shorts much like a tourist on vacation would wear. What message did this give both to the Israeli public and to the Israeli politicians, military leaders, and opinion makers that the leadership group met during their few days in the country?

I would speculate that this person would not have worn the same attire when making a site visit to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina or to New York after the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. There is a strong lack of respect evident in the way that some North American Jews rally to support Israel. Coming to the country is not in and of itself sufficient: there has to be a modicum of respect when coming to show solidarity and meet with influential Israelis.

In addition, there is always an expectation among the participants in these solidarity delegations that they will have access to the higher echelon of political and military leaders. Interesting, no? The country is in the middle of a war, and yet people who come from abroad in a desire to support the country still expect to meet with its leaders – those deeply involved in a crisis situation and making life-and-death decisions.

Perhaps instead of having their sights set on these meetings, it would be better for these mission participants to spend their time meeting with those ordinary Israeli citizens and the families of the brave Israel soldiers in areas affected by the conflict. By so doing they could demonstrate their support for the people who are living on the frontlines or who have to send their children off to war to deal with the terrorist threat that Israel is continually facing. This kind of engagement between the leadership of Diaspora communities and Israelis can provide the visitors with valuable information and insights they can take back to their communities.

After returning home they can engage in a number of important activities. It is very important for them to share what they have seen and heard, as well as their insights and perspectives on the situation in Israel, to counteract anti-Israel propaganda and demonstrations. They should write letters and op-eds to their local newspapers about what they observed on their visit. And certainly they should write articles for the local Anglo-Jewish press and for synagogue bulletins.

Last but not least is the message that is communicated through fundraising efforts. I would caution my colleagues in the organized Jewish community and the Jewish Federation system about using the conflict as a springboard for a fundraising campaign. Instead of the fundraisers acting independently to raise funds for the causes that they think are important, this is a perfect opportunity for the organized Jewish community to work with Israel philanthropists to jointly decide on the country’s priorities and on the nonprofit organizations that should be assisted and then to raise the funds together. Doing so will strengthen both Israeli philanthropy and the Israel-Diaspora relationship. Unfortunately, this opportunity seems as if it will be squandered as the system falls back on its bad habits, with a myriad of organizations from JNF, Magen David Adom, the Federations, and others each launching “emergency campaigns” on their own. Please forgive my cynicism, but organizations seem to be taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes.

A crisis affords many opportunities, and among them is the chance to change the way we conduct business. We are faced with the challenge to support Israel not only in terms of the political situation and the accompanying public relations efforts but also in terms of its philanthropic needs. Let’s not waste another opportunity. Let’s create a new response to this situation that may signal a change from doing business as usual.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.