Under the Lens: Israel-Diaspora Relations

by Abigail Pickus

With over 4,000 people assembled in Jerusalem from across the globe for the 2012 Israeli Presidential Conference – one third from outside of Israel – it was only fitting that serious consideration was given to Israel-Diaspora relations.

The Fourth Israel Presidential Conference ‘Facing Tomorrow’ was held from June 19-21 in Jerusalem. Through discussions, panels and plenary sessions, the conference focused on examining ways to foster a better tomorrow for the international community, Israel and the Jewish world.

In what could have been a loaded panel, titled, “What Does World Jewry Expect from Israel?” featuring American Jewry’s current enfant terrible Peter Beinart, alongside the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, this age-old question was re-examined for a new millennium.

Foxman, ADL’s National Director, began by taking issue with the question itself.

“I have a problem with the way the question is framed,” he said. “I don’t believe the role of world Jewry is to expect anything from Israel.”

In presenting his traditional view, he argued that it is not up to American Jews to dictate Israel’s policies.

“I, and other millions of Jews, are living comfortably in America while Israelis continue to live on the frontlines every day. Israel’s democratic system must do what it has to do to protect the country – not to please us,” he said. “We in the Diaspora need to respect a different reality that Israel faces as opposed to what we face.”

Foxman went on to say that his “ … support and love are unconditional” and are not dependent upon an “idealized view of what Israel should be.”

“That is my Zionism and it is not in crisis,” he said.

Foxman’s remarks were a not so subtle reference to Beinart’s controversial book, The Crisis of Zionism. The former editor of The New Republic made headlines when he published an essay titled, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in The New York Review of Books. His 2012 book fleshes out the article’s case that today’s American Jewish leaders, in their support of Israel’s current policies outside the green line, risk alienating a younger generation of American Jews who do not have an inborn connection to Israel.

Not surprisingly, Beinart, and his book, have been the target of much publicly leveled criticism by many American Jewish leaders and thinkers, including Foxman, as well as by Leon Wieseltier, another panelist and long time literary editor of The New Republic. Yet, if there was tension among these three men, there was no evidence of it on the panel. Instead, in a measured and deferential tone, Beinart began by agreeing with his ideological opponent. “Like Abe, I am tempted to say the question is the wrong question. It doesn’t really matter what we expect from Israel,” he said. “We have the right to give our opinions, but we don’t have the right to expect that Israeli leaders make decisions about Israeli policies based on what is best for us.”

Instead, Beinart argued, the question should be: What does American Jewry think of Israel?

It was here that Beinart presented his case, which he described as the “slow decline of the Zionist consensus” in America.

“I think of it as a tragedy as I am a Zionist,” he said.

Yet, in contrast to his generation, who grew up on the Free Soviet Jewry movement and the airlifting of Ethiopians to Israel, today’s younger generation of American Jews feel very little connection to anything Jewish.

It is not “realistic,” Beinart argued, to expect from a generation alienated from Judaism itself to feel a connection to the Jewish State. “Jewish tribalism doesn’t transfer very well from generation to generation,” he said.

The fault lies in the American Jewish community, which needs to “instill joy and fascination with Judaism, as well as a strong Jewish education,” according to Beinart.

Of this, he is in agreement with Foxman, who blamed the American Jewish community for not educating its youth. “We have failed as a Jewish community,” he said. “In truncating the education of our children at the age of 12 and 13, they then get to college and we start bemoaning, ‘How come they are not Jewish? How come they do not defend?’”

Yet, Beinart differentiated himself from Foxman’s “unconditional” love and justification that “Israel has the right to defend itself.”

“It’s common for people to say they can’t criticize Israel when it comes to security but it’s ok to criticize Israel when it comes to society,” said Beinart. “But the problem with that is Israeli security and Israeli society cannot so easily be disentangled. It’s ironic to say that we can criticize inside the green line but not outside it.”

For his part, Wieseltier concurred that the “Problem with the centrality of Israel to the American Jewish identity is a deep one to the extent to which American Jewish identity has always been vicarious. The weakening of affiliation with Israel among American Jews is real. The moment of truth is arriving for American Jews: We will see just what Judaism will be without the crutches of the past.”

Wieseltier also addressed Diasporic Jews’ unconditional love for Israel.

“Is my love for Israel unconditional?” he asked. “Conditional love is a much higher form than unconditional love because unconditional love is always infantilizing. My love for Israel is unconditional and is also conditional.”

One unequivocal point among panelists is that the Diaspora cannot look to Israel to solve their internal identity crises.

Pierre Besnainou, President of the Foundation of French Judaism and, except for the Israeli moderator, the only non-American on the panel, talked of how the Toulouse Jewish community turned to Israel for support after the March terrorist attack that claimed the lives of four people. It was Israel, he said, who brought the bodies to Jerusalem for burial.

In an interesting twist, Foxman’s concluding remarks seemed to put the onus back on the American Jewish community to support their own community – instead of Israel.

“It’s been easier for American Jews to raise money for Israel and not for education,” said Foxman. “Since Israel has its own philanthropic institutions, why not say to the American Jewish community, ‘Over the next five years let’s raise money for the infrastructure and scholarships for Jewish kids to become Jewish to guarantee the future?’”

What wasn’t said but deserves some consideration is whether in a changing Israel-Diaspora dynamic there is room for Israel to reciprocate by sending monetary support to Jewish communities abroad.

The topic of Israel-Diaspora relations was examined further in another panel titled, “To Be Jewish: The Challenge of Being Jewish in the Diaspora.”

“Anti-Semitism, delegitimization of Israel, assimilation and intermarriage,” said moderator Steve Linde, a South African Israeli and Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Post. “Many communities are thriving, others are struggling. How can we ensure a healthy Jewish life in the Diaspora and does Israel play a role?”

The wide-reaching panel featured representatives from Jewish communities in Italy, New Zealand and Mexico – as well as America. Among the issues facing these communities are indifference and apathy to Judaism and Israel, dwindling populations and creating sustainable leadership.