A blueprint for Diaspora and Israeli relations

American Jews marching in New York with Israeli flags. How can we bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora? (photo credit: REUTERS)
American Jews marching in New York with Israeli flags. How can we bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After almost 2,000 years since the dispersal, the relationship between the Diaspora and Israel is unique, with no obvious parallel. Since the largest and most influential concentration of Jews is in America, this article will focus on the American Jewish Diaspora. This relationship has never been simple – witness the ambivalence and indeed opposition of members of the American Jewish establishment to the Zionist movement and the notion of American Jews making aliyah. This tension has continued to the present day, with disagreement over a wide range of issues: women’s access to the Kotel, intermarriage, conversion, definition of a Jew, the Iran nuclear accord and the status of the West Bank. These differences may never be bridged because of the vastly different cultures and preoccupations.
There is another reality – disturbing to some Jews, but not all – that as a result of intermarriage, secularism and American universalism, an ever-expanding proportion of younger American Jews feel little or no connection with their Jewish identities, Judaism and Israel, except in the most superficial terms.
This leads to the credible and oft-cited conclusion that within a generation or two the Jews will no longer exist as a distinct people within the Diaspora and the survival of the Jews as a distinct people will be determined by Israelis and Orthodox Jews. This article will focus on relations between Israel and the Diaspora.
If one accepts the premise that the continued existence of the Jews will predominantly be resolved by the fate of Israel, then this raises two questions: 1) How should American Jews who care about the maintenance of Jewish life treat Israel?, and 2) How should Israel accommodate American Jews?
On the first question, what are the rights and duties of American Jews with regard to Israel? Given the singularity of the relationship, what are we most akin to: “Shareholders?” “co-directors?” close friends? donors? advocates for Israel’s interests? Mishpacha?
I believe that since we have not made aliyah and since we are not living the day-to-day challenges of life on the front line, we are required to be judicious in our relations with Israel, and recognize that we have no right to try to impose “American” values. Taken to their extreme, such efforts are ignorant, self-righteous and culturally arrogant.
Instead, we should conduct ourselves with respect, sensitivity and trust: respect for the remarkable accomplishment of building a dynamic nation in the face of extraordinary obstacles by Jews from vastly different backgrounds, education and levels of religious adherence; sensitivity to the almost insurmountable challenges of creating conditions for a secure present and future; and trust in the vigorous democratic framework that enables self-critique and debate on all of the critical issues confronting the country.
How should the role of interested American Jews be defined? I believe that by virtue of our shared and uniquely compelling history, Diaspora Jews are entitled – metaphorically speaking – to a permanent seat at the table, but neither a vote, nor the right to impose our views. Instead, our role should be of devoted mishpacha – people who care deeply about the future of our people. This does not mean that we must be uncritical and should withhold our opinions, advice and even disapproval, as long as this is in the spirit of a family member with sincere goodwill and a desire to understand and help.
A discussion of the rights of Diaspora Jews should not proceed without stipulating their duties. We need to unreservedly embrace the conviction that the Jews are a unique people, that Western civilization is termed a Judeo-Christian civilization (in that order) for a reason, that history has shown that our continued existence as a distinct people can never be taken for granted and that if we take our historical responsibilities seriously we can still be “a light unto the nations.” This implies that each of us has a duty to support Israel in whatever way we can, in ways both tangible and intangible by abandoning reticence about our Jewish identities and by not perseverating on Israel’s shortcomings while discounting or ignoring the immense threats that it faces. Ultimately this requires an unequivocal embrace of the concept and reality of a Jewish state.
Conversely, what are Diaspora Jews entitled to expect from Israel? The obvious starting point is the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which unambiguously recognizes Israel’s responsibility toward Diaspora Jews (“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of exiles.”) and asks for solidarity and support (“We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.”) This incomparable unity of interests and obligations between a country and its brethren living in foreign lands is further enshrined in the 1950 Law of Return (“Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh.”)
The framers hoped that the ingathering would be complete, but no doubt were realistic, and understood – albeit painfully – that would most likely not occur. Nevertheless, in terms that could not be more explicit, they recognized that Diaspora Jews could and should play an ongoing role in the reborn nation. If ever there was a “special relationship,” this is it.
While there was no specific delineation of the parameters of that role, it is logical to infer that this could not be a one-way street and that Israel, in turn, has a duty to be attentive and respectful to the views of the Diaspora Jews who care about the best interests of Israel and Jews wherever they are, and who have the capacity to provide wise counsel and a diverse array of resources. After all, if we make the choice to see it this way, we have a profound common imperative: the continued existence of the Jews as a people.

David Bradlow is a San Francisco-based business consultant, trustee and receiver with a strong interest in Jewish and Israeli affairs.