The Relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry as a Matter of National Security

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 22 – “Israel@70: A Peoplehood Perspective” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Talia Gorodess

Recent events which rattled Israel-Diaspora relations, such as the blacklisting of Rabbis, interrogations of Diaspora Jews at Ben-Gurion Airport and the detention of a Conservative Rabbi by Israeli police are mistakenly considered by many to be merely issues related to Jewish pluralism in Israel or tensions in Israel-Diaspora relations. It is time to recognize these incidents as issues at the nucleus of Israel’s national security.

Israel’s security is meld with the prosperity of Jewish diaspora communities and thus, with the quality of its relationship with these communities. This relationship has mutual influences in terms of both physical security as well as national security:

  1. Guaranteeing the physical survival and well-being of Israel and diaspora communities the special relationship between Israel and diaspora communities influence the level of protection and ability to address physical and/or political threats;
  2. Realizing Israel’s historic Zionist vision.

Despite the fact that Israel’s national security and that of the Jewish people are intimately linked, historically, the vast majority of attempts to produce a formal national security doctrine in Israel did not include an explicit mention of Diaspora Jewry. In other words, Israel’s national security doctrine suffers from a blind-spot vis-a-vis the vital place of its relationship with world Jewry, where many recognize the importance of this issue but no single office or individual has formal responsibility over it.

Meanwhile, a conceptual gap keeps growing between Israel’s original mission, which is to serve as the nation-state of the entire Jewish people, and the changing reality, in which this mission is being increasingly depleted of meaning. Left unaddressed, we predict that similar developments to the ones we have witnessed recently will continue to occur, spanning new arenas – be it the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration, around Jewish ceremonies, or the Ministry of Public Security.

In previous decades, there was a high correlation between the Zionist project known as the establishment of the State of Israel, and the empathy and support expressed by many Jewish communities around the world – so there was no pressing need to revisit the place of Israel-Diaspora relations in general, and in the context of Israel’s national security doctrine in particular.

Today, however, when both Israel and world Jewry are relatively safe and prosperous, and Israel is no longer the “poor nephew” of Diaspora Jewry, time is ripe to grapple with questions surrounding Israel’s purpose as the nation-state of the entire Jewish people. This task will require, among other things, a fresh look at its national security doctrine, both oral and written.

The prevalent mindset of the Israeli security community, to the extent that it devotes time to think about this topic, is that (1) Israel’s job is to provide protection to Jewish communities around the world that are in distress or danger; and that (2) the importance of the relationship with the Jewish people stems from the Jewish community’s ability to influence the world’s biggest power, the United States, in Israel’s favor.

The trouble with this is that reality challenges this mindset. First, Jewish diaspora communities are probably safer than ever before, and in many places are also quite prosperous. The era of distressed Jewish communities that need rescuing is essentially over. Second, current dynamics in arenas mentioned above lend themselves to an emerging reality where Israel’s soft power is eroding, its ‘strategic depth’ in the form of a global network of committed Jewish communities is being compromised, and its fundamental legitimacy as the state of the Jewish people is eroding. In other words, increasing tensions between Israel and world Jewry wear away Israel’s unique, international assets – and with them, the security and prosperity of the entire Jewish people.

The lack of a relevant mindset among Israeli leadership regarding these trends and their implications will continue to lead, in the short term, to additional ‘surprises’ in the form of collisions in various crossroads between Israel and the Jewish people. These collisions will continue to erode one of the unique assets Israel has: a meaningful relationship with Jewish communities around the world. In the medium-term, present isolated incidents of Diaspora Jews cutting ties with Israel may reach a point of no return, where major institutions, leaders and philanthropists decide to cut their ties with Israel. In the long run, Israel’s impressive national security achievements may experience difficult setbacks such as:

  1. The gradual erosion of Israel’s fundamental legitimacy may bring about a gradual collapse of the Balfour Declaration – when Jewish communities turn against Israel itself (as opposed to criticizing its policies), Israel may be perceived as a state which does not legitimately represent the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. This may cripple Israel’s international standing as a sovereign state in the long run. In this sense, the Balfour Declaration may ‘self-collapse’ if the legal basis for the state’s actions, regardless of the government, will not be perceived as legitimate.
  2. A State of Israel that serves as a source of weakness to major Jewish communities compromises the prosperity of the entire Jewish people – the Jewish people established the State of Israel in order to serve their security and prosperity; they did not develop and survive throughout history in order to serve the State of Israel, despite its significance to the people’s collective identity. Israel’s lack of willingness to acknowledge the influence of what it perceives as domestic actions and policies over established and organized Jewish diaspora communities, brings to mind a famous quote by Theodore Herzl: “Entire branches of Judaism may disappear, break away; the tree lives.” Israel must acknowledge the fact that it is not the tree, so to speak, but a branch – even if a very meaningful and central one. Historically, the Jewish people have shown they are not afraid of shedding branches they perceived as endangering the tree. Unfortunately, we presently see incidents exemplifying a similar dynamic.

Naturally, the special relationship between Israel and world Jewry has tremendous instrumental value but more importantly – intrinsic value. Together, this relationship provides Israel with a unique form of soft power, which is essentially unmatched in the international arena. More importantly, it upholds the prosperity and security of both the Jewish people and their nation-state. It is time for the Israeli security community to form a new agenda that will reflect the prominence of this relationship.

Talia Gorodess is the former Managing Director of Reut Institute, independent consultant and PhD Candidate in Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. This article is part of an R&D effort carried by Reut’s team, led by Naama Klar/