Squabbling Siblings: The Israel/Diaspora Divide

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Viewing One Another From Afar
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

This week, on the occasion of Israel’s 70th year of statehood, thousands of pro-Israel advocates will gather in Washington for the AIPAC Policy Conference in order to reaffirm the special relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. In the context of this celebratory moment, we are observing an unsettling set of tensions between Diaspora Jewry and Israel. How do we overcome these deep divisions around the Jewish State?

Over the course of its history, Israel’s relationship with its Jewish world partners has undergone a series of transitions. We would remind ourselves that against the backdrop of the Holocaust during the middle years of the 20th Century, Israel’s “survivability” would be seen as critical to the welfare of the Jewish enterprise. “One people, one destiny” would be the dominant motif during the first 20 years of Statehood; during that era, Israel would indeed enjoy a broad degree of Diaspora support.

“Sustainability” would be the defining element for the next quarter of a century. Here, the nature of the Jewish partnership, symbolized by the UJA campaign appeal of the time, “We are One,” would rest on garnering and maintaining political, economic and military support vital to Israel’s standing. Over these past twenty-five years, Israel would be able to move away from themes that reflected its earlier vulnerable position to one that might be seen as “symbolic” or even as an exemplar of political and social ingenuity as Israel has emerged as a technologically accomplished nation state with a sophisticated economy and an advanced military. In this third phase Israel has emerged from its dependency role to become the dominant player in global Jewish matters, but this moment in time has also represented a fundamental disruption in its historic partnership with its Diaspora as a widening divide has unfolded with some of its former partners.

On a host of policy matters today, one can find deep divisions between the liberal-orientated attitudes of a majority of American Jews, who differ with the center-right views of the government in Jerusalem over such policy questions as settlements and human rights. More particularly, some Jewish Americans are uncomfortable with recent Israeli initiatives to remove African asylum seekers and proposals that seek to curb the free speech rights of BDS supporters or legislation denying admission into the Jewish State of individuals associated with specific anti-Israel movements. Just as American Jewish liberals defended the Obama Administration’s record on Israel, supporters of Donald Trump embrace his policies in connection with the Jewish State, creating in the wake of these disagreements a significant gap among Israel’s historic partners.

Israel defenders would argue on what basis should Diaspora communities have the right to publicly critique Israel over its policies and actions? Ought that “right” be left to the citizens of the Jewish nation? Responders from the Diaspora push back, challenging that assumption, noting that Israel was created as the collective expression of the Jewish people, and as such all Jews not only have the right to express their views but have an obligation to assert their ideas.

Beyond these internecine battles, the question of how the international community ought to engage Iran or the issue of what constitutes anti-Semitic behavior in connection with dissent around Israel remind us of other elements to this deep crevice that today defines these conversations.

In place of creative dialogue, one finds only disagreement and discord. For some American Jewish critics their arguments are framed in moral terms, suggesting that Israel ought to be held to a higher standard. In their minds Israel is failing at this point to live up to the Jewish values that have informed and shaped the State’s Zionist heritage. For Jewish Americans who express their disappointment or despair over Israel’s move to the political right, the State has lost their trust. Israel’s political establishment is either seen as being politically corrupt or operating around a set of deeply flawed assumptions. Adding to these divisions, as demonstrated by the most recent population studies[1], the declining levels of Jewish engagement with Israel, especially on the part of younger Jews, present another challenge to both Israeli authorities and to American Jewish leaders.

As these debates unfold, the opponents of Israel’s politics are dismissed as misguided or worse, undermining the Jewish State by their betrayal to defend and protect this historic experiment in nation building. Each side offers descriptions of the other seeking to minimize the political standing of their opponents. Terms such as naïve, foolish, destructive, and disingenuous are introduced to define the “other.”

Indeed, both Israelis and American Jews have their respective visions or images of the Jewish State. Some of these fixed notions are reflected by romantic perceptions of an earlier image of the State’s Zionist origins. Others might be described as political realists, as they focus on the multiple military and security threats that have defined the State’s history and remain its core challenges. Possibly, a third constituency could be defined as “bound by history,” where specific events, such as the Oslo Accords and its promise of peace, resonate as the pivotal moment in Israel’s diplomatic journey; for this cohort particular personalities or events have ultimately defined their vision of how the State ought to act.

Upon reflection, with its enthusiastic endorsement for Donald Trump, Israel symbolically might serve as an ideal “red state” base for this President; contrastingly, many American Jews might metaphorically represent a “blue state” constituency, with their overriding opposition to this White House along with their current discomfort with Israeli policies.

With the issue of “intersectionality” American Jews are often forced to choose between their social justice priorities and their Zionist passions. Maybe for the first time in American history, Jews are engaging with allies on specific issues where they find common ground, yet knowing that these “friends” espouse views that may be perceived as anti-Israel?

Political tensions are also prevalent within Israel itself, as evidenced by a host of domestic policy conflicts. These internal disagreements among Israeli citizens resemble a geopolitical war between “the state of Tel Aviv” with its secular, liberal orientation and “the state of Jerusalem” with its traditional religious and politically conservative perspective.

While many American Jews are experiencing great discomfort about their own nation’s current political theatre, Israelis on the political left are expressing concerns about the status of their democracy as scandal and corruption appear to be on the increase. Even as the issues that animate these communities’ angst appear to be vastly different, there exists an impasse, even a state of gridlock common to these two political systems. Both nations appear unable to rely on politicians or institutional elites to be able to change the status quo.

The question here is how we can find common ground, not only between Israelis and their American counterparts but also internal to our deeply divided societies. For effective communication and dialogue to unfold will involve a shared base of knowledge, a level of open reflection, and a culture of civility. We are dramatically reminded that this experiment in state building is a relatively new venture, hardly a significant period of time to develop a mature, sophisticated understanding of how a nation, its citizens or its Diaspora partners ought to behave and operate. Jewish history readily informs us that where our people remain in discord, the political outcomes have been profoundly problematic!

Without finding some common ground, the Jewish people in this the 70th year of the Third Commonwealth will find itself pulled further apart, as extremist voices will fill the center spaces where once consensus and shared responsibility held sway.

[1] http://www.jewishdatabank.org/Studies/downloadFile.cfm?FileID=3721

Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.