We Need a New Model for Israel-Diaspora Relations: Here It Is

By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

From the recent Western Wall controversy and Israeli Rabbinate’s alleged “blacklist” of rabbis to J-Street and Jewish Voices for Peace, Diaspora-Israeli relationships are in a deep state of crisis. To help mend this rift, a new model of Israeli-Diaspora relations should be considered. What worked once won’t necessarily work forever. To find a better approach it’s important to understand how we got to where we are and what made for support of Israel in the past few decades and what is driving the change in attitude to Israel.

What the Jewish people are experiencing is a generational change. This change is a change from the post-holocaust generation – a change from the generation which witnessed the founding of the State of Israel – to a second generation which does not have the same proximity to those events.

One deep, dominant, and all-encompassing ingredient that makes up the post-Holocaust generation’s attitude to Israel, is a deep messianic association of the State of Israel with a redemptive and messianic process. This deep messianic belief manifested itself in several ways across the Jewish religious and political spectrum. The most noticeable and identifiable way was among Zionists and Religious-Zionist who saw in the state of Israel a clear messianic development in which the state of Israel was either the Messiah himself – among secular Zionists – or was a precursor to, and the penultimate stage before, the arrival of the Messiah.

Secular support and incorporation of Zionism was not limited to practice i.e. vast financial and political support but was also incorporated into doctrine. A transformative idealization of the state of Israel and more importantly a rejection of the Galut – Exile – state of mind even by the most non-Zionist elements of secular Judaism had changed the way even most Reform Jews had observed their Judaism. Once the State of Israel looked like it was here to stay, no longer would even the most liberal and non-Zionists identify themselves as exile Jews; no longer would they speak or cultivate Yiddish and speak Hebrew the way it was spoken back in Europe. Terms such as Shabbos or Simchas Torah were quickly converted to the Sabra like Shabbat and Simchat Torah. Yiddish culture plays were quickly converted to Israeli culture shows and IDF images replaced much of the Ghetto nostalgia.

All this started changing in the year 2000 with the combined impact of generational change and a political change. The generational change was one seeing the generation that has seen or been through the Holocaust and their children begin to make way for the next generation of Jewish leadership. This generation did not see or experience firsthand the horrors of persecution and discrimination, nor did it see the redemptive and lifesaving qualities of the Jewish State.

With this change came the political change: the David vs. Goliath-role-reversal; Israel would no longer be seen as the David facing the Arab world Goliath, but rather as the Goliath oppressing the Palestinian David. Images of Israeli soldiers fighting Palestinian children were held as a trophy by the media and were flashed on front pages of newspapers around the world.

Suddenly standing by Israel in progressive circles came to mean supporting discrimination and being implied in the suffering of the Palestinian people. No longer was supporting Israel politically correct; in fact, it began to be politically incorrect.

This decline in Jewish nationalism and support for the State of Israel can also have deep post-messianic roots. The fact that no longer is the state of Israel seen as a messianic manifestation greatly impacts the way a wide spectrum of Jews relates to the state of Israel. First came the horror of the Holocaust, then came the State of Israel in 1948, then came a reunited Jerusalem in 1967, and then…. intifada and delegitimization. For many, consciously or not, it is hard to not see the anticlimactic nature of things. The messianic narrative was no longer a popular one.

Looking to the future it is imperative that the Jewish people begin promoting a post-messianic attitude for supporting the state of Israel. We need to reconstruct a more sustainable, durable, and dedicated attitude to the State of Israel. Add to this the rapid demographic expansion of ultra-orthodox Jews, a traditionally non-Zionist group, and it is apparent that a change of attitude is due.

How and what can be changed? Throughout the ages the Jewish people have been noted for their outstanding dedication to the well-being of one another; the concept of Arevut – mutual care and responsibility has always been something Jews have excelled in. We must emphasize our responsibility for all Jews, especially and including the largest Jewish community in the world, with 6.4 million Jews living in Israel today. We need not engage in theology, politics, and polemics – we must focus on our responsibility to one another. When the State of Israel helps save Jews living in Syria, Ukraine, South America, or anywhere else, it does not ask about their politics and policies, it recognizes our mutual responsibility for one another. We too should be ready to do the same.

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger. He is the president of EITAN-The Israeli-American Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.