Revolutionizing Diaspora Ties (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 2, May 12, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. From a Zionist perspective, Israel-Diaspora relations during the first 60 years of the state have been a great success. But success in the past does not assure thriving in the future and, in a rapidly changing world, it can even be a reliable recipe for failure. Many countries maintain contact with their ex-citizens and descendants living abroad, but the relations between Israel and Jews living in other countries are unique. For centuries, the Jews were dispersed throughout the world without a state of their own. The establishment of the state was an extraordinary and singular endeavor of Diaspora Jews, a radical break in the historic continuity of the Jewish people, motivated by historic and religious ties to the Promised Land and Zionist ideology. Never mind that the relationship has been unequal. Israel has constantly criticized the Diaspora, denying its right to exist and, following Ben-Gurion's lead, also denying the Diaspora the right to criticize Israel or influence its choices, even in cases when these choices impacted on the Jewish people as a whole. Israeli governments and the public viewed the Jewish state as the "obvious" center of the Jewish people, which the Diaspora is duty-bound to accept and support ardently. And indeed, until very recently, with rare and insignificant exceptions, Diaspora support for Israel has consistently increased, and the Diaspora has mobilized political, moral and economic resources to help meet the imperatives of the initial years of state-building. Shared campaigns, such as the campaign for Soviet Jewry, have led to great achievements. But this is not going to continue, and the many symptoms of radical shifts in Israel-Diaspora relations are very apparent to anyone who is not blinded by past experience or outdated dogmas. During the first 60 years of the state, the main factors that colored Israel-Diaspora relations were: the wars of survival that encouraged largely uncritical and often nearly automatic support for Israel; mass aliya, mainly, but not solely, from countries where Jews had suffered; and the widely accepted image of Israel as a moral and virtuous state. The Shoah served as the essential informing background and provided deep emotional grounding for much of the relationship. Those basic features of the relationship are now attenuating, and the strength of Israel-Diaspora relations is declining. The factors causing the change include the passing of generations, so that what were profound emotional experiences for the older generation are "history" for the next one; changes in Diaspora conditions, since most Jews who lived in hostile environments have already migrated to Israel, leaving the vast majority of Jews who live abroad living in the United States and other Western countries, where they feel fully at home and living more securely than they believe they would in Israel. At the same time the subjective feeling of what it means to be a Jew is evolving into increasingly different paradigms in Israel and the Diaspora, and this difference is accompanied and exacerbated by the differences in socioeconomic structures. Add to this the widespread lack of knowledge among Israelis, including the leadership, about Jewish communities abroad. And perhaps the most important dissimilarity of all is the radical differences in macro-structure between a Jewish state and the loose networks formed by voluntary communities in the Diaspora. If one adds the increasing Diaspora disenchantment with Israel and its policies to the picture, together with the paucity of overall Jewish spiritual and political leadership, then it is likely that, in the absence of cataclysmic events or radically innovative policies, the process of attenuation will continue and the distance between Israel and large and increasing segments of the Diaspora will grow. This will take different forms in Orthodox and non-religious sectors. And there will be many exceptional communities, groups and individuals who will continue to identify strongly with Israel. But the overall outlook is dire. The growing distance between Israel and the Diaspora will gravely harm the chances for the Jewish people as a whole to thrive and will undermine the core meanings of Jewish peoplehood. Israel's Jewish identity and security situation will be weakened, and assimilation processes in the Diaspora will intensify. A bleak scenario goes like this: Israel will be regarded less and less as the center of the Jewish people; there will be no large-scale aliya and agencies that focus on aliya and classical Zionist activities, such as the Jewish Agency, will break down; Diaspora communities will resist aliya and will shift resources to their own needs rather than supporting Israel; Jews abroad will increasingly have doubts about Israel and its policies; and Israel will be more and more blamed for the new forms of anti-Semitism. True, these are but emerging trends, and the traditional features of Israel-Diaspora relations are still strong, especially among the older generation who still set the dominant tone in Jewish-Diaspora formal organizations. But the future dynamics are already clear. Yet these pessimistic scenarios, looming on the horizon, are not inevitable. Jewish history provides many illustrations of movements that have successfully battled against powerful negative currents. But to do so requires robust and innovative intervention. And this is very difficult, because the Israel-Diaspora relationship is overloaded with hidebound ideologies, images, opinions, organizations and increasingly obsolete policies. No matter how painful, there will have to be a lot of creative destruction. It is crucial that we reach a realistic understanding of the relevant dynamics, that we creatively craft innovative grand policies; and that, in a determined manner, we implement measures that contradict widely accepted views and go against diverse interests. All this adds up to nothing less than a conceptual, institutional and policy revolution. As an essential first step, we must abandon some of the basic assumptions that have dominated Israeli attitudes towards the Diaspora for the past 60 years and replace them with a new ideological and conceptual base. Israel should no longer regard the Diaspora condition as temporary, pathological and dangerous. Instead, Israel must accept the Diaspora as a permanent and fully legitimate part of the Jewish people, essential for Israel's future and the future of the Jewish people as a whole. Yehezkel Dror is founding president of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (established by the Jewish Agency) and professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Extract of an article in Issue 2, May 12, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.