Unavoidable questions

The following article was published in 'The Jerusalem Post' in December, 1982. More than 30 years later, Edgar Bronfman’s reflections on Israel and on Diaspora relations, seem equally relevant to today – as well as sometimes invoking a strong sense of déjà-vu.

Edgar M. Bronfman and Pope John Paul II  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Edgar M. Bronfman and Pope John Paul II
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Zionism throughout history has meant different things to many different Jews. The Zionism of Herzl, Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir or Menachem Begin has never been an unchanging, abstract, static philosophy.
Zionism has never been a fixed work, like a piece by Shakespeare, Beethoven or Matisse. It is a dynamic concept, more like the theories of such different geniuses as John Stuart Mill, Marx, Freud or Einstein. Today the philosophy of Zionism demands the recognition of new challenges and new realities.
The new realities flow from two related wellsprings. At the source is what is going on inside of Israel. Israelis are concerned about the directions of their society. They are asking what kind of people are we and where are we heading? What, in fact, is a Zionist in 1982? Jews outside of Israel are asking the same questions, both privately and publicly, but the non-Israeli Jew has a different dilemma, Jews of the democratic free world, citizens of the countries where they live, have their own agenda, which has different priorities and needs. Whatever their heart’s connection to Israel, whatever their love for Israel’s creation and their desire for its security and flowering, they must define their relationship to their own communities, their own governments, to their own Jewishness.
This is not made easier by their great need also to define their relationship to Israel, which is itself searching for its own new directions.
Let me digress to make an intensely personal point. I do not express these views, wringing my hands and wailing. I advance them with a sense of solidarity. I recognize and embrace many new strengths that we – the Israeli nation and the free Jews in the world – possess.
Those strengths are impressive. For the first time in the history of the state, Israel’s borders are secure. The IDF had become not only one of the major military powers in the world, but it also has the most disciplined and humane of military forces.
They are virtually invulnerable to defeat by any other Middle East force.
THE MILITARY back of the PLO has been broken. In a Middle East torn by conflict, irresolution and Khomeinism, Israel remains the one and only reliable democracy.
It even formally investigates, for the whole world to see, and by the rule of law, serious criticism of its own government.
Furthermore, the war in Lebanon, whatever the argumentative rights and wrongs of it, demonstrated that the Soviets cannot be counted on as an Arab ally.
It also exposed the fact that not a single Arab nation would seriously rally to the cause of the PLO. Yet, even in defeat, the Arabs have still not come together to step forward to offer a peaceful initiative to their double problem of rampant Moslem fundamentalism and undeniable Israeli military superiority.
So, in many respects, Israel is more secure than ever in its history. Then why the anguish? Why the questions? What is the problem we today must consider above all else? The central problem before us as Jews is the condition of Israel itself and its relationship to the Diaspora communities.
What kind of Israel do we want? Are we headed on a course that will lead us to a bi-national state, to an Israel diminished in its Jewish quality? And what could this mean to its relationship to the Diaspora? Would it become one based primarily on the Land of Israel and not its Jewish substance? Are we willing to cede some land and authority if that would lead to peace? Are the government settlement policies in the territories an impediment to the peace process? Secondly, how must we confront the extremely low rate of Aliya? What does this do to the Zionist dream? Why can we not commit ourselves, at the very least, to stimulating a much greater proportion of world Jewry to visit the Land of Zion? Why do we not commit greater resources to having our children, at least, visit and possibly gain education there – for without them, there may be no future for the Jewish people or for Zionism itself.
There is a third area where the Jewish world is questioning itself. What are we to make of the debasement of that valuable and traditional Jewish right to dissent, of the Jewish tradition of justice, fairness and open-mindedness when such expressions as “traitor,” “fascist,” “blood-libel,” “enemy of the Jews,” “anti-Semite,” “Jewish self-hatred,” or “new Holocaust,” are bandied about by Jews and about Jews in the heart of Israeli politics, in discussions on such important questions as expanding settlements, U.S. aid, relations with Western Europe, not to mention relations with the Jews in the Diaspora? To take only one example, I have supported in principle, President Reagan’s Middle East peace initiative, not as a blueprint, but at least as a possible framework to add momentum to the peace process once again. And to have such valuable and traditional friends of Israel as Henry Kissinger, and the valiant former senator, Jacob Javits.
INDEED, TO my certain knowledge, there are few, if any, American Jewish leaders who do not find some merit and certainly the best intention, in President Reagan’s efforts to break the deadlock.
At the same time, we are deeply aware, and constantly repeat that it is up to the Arabs to enable King Hussein – and it is up to Hussein himself - to provide the opportunity for Israel to seek new paths to peace.
Are Jews in the Diaspora, as well as many Jews in Israel, to be excommunicated for holding and expressing these views? We must also consider the Jewish attitude toward general global problems of which we are part. Are we to sacrifice our commitments to human rights and support tin-pot dictators for the sake of political expediency? Do we make alliances with religiously intolerant groups, and even fanatics, for passing and transient reasons? Must we really abandon the humanist essence of Zionist ideology in the face of soulless pragmatism? I raise these questions to deal with reality and ask how we in the Diaspora can help Israel and help ourselves in our new internal and external problems? I am not sure I have the answers to these questions. But I know they need to be asked and I know that the year is 1982 and not 1938, when some 80 percent of world Jewry lived in a climate that was inhospitable and indeed, turned out for six million Jews to be cataclysmically fatal.
Today stands in striking contrast and the situation is exactly reversed. Fully 80 percent of world Jewry lives under conditions of freedom, opportunity and self-expression.
They enjoy a liberty as Jews in most countries as great as, or greater, than other minorities. As individuals in a group, they are commonly recognized to be pre-eminent contributors and accomplishers in the countries where they live.
As a result, the old Zionist formulas, responses and programs for action may be just that – old and out of date. The challenge for Jews and Zionists today is to find new strategies to confront new conditions.
First we must realize that Jews in the democratic world are not weak. We are no longer the uninvited guests of history.
Most important, neither is Israel. Our entire circumstances have changed.
The Jewish outlook no longer needs to be either primarily survivalist or defensive.
Not that we do not have enemies – and not just in the Arab world. There is, above all, the deplorable condition of two million Soviet Jews.
From our new position of strength, we must ask how we can be peacemakers and an inspiration to the world, not just successful warriors. How can we restore our reputation for helping other minorities, who have shared our Jewish experience of oppression? For two millennia, we fought for freedoms, including the freedom of expression.
Should we not question the censoring of speech in the territories, even if it is polemical and behind it may be the aim to destroy? Are we not in danger of a more fundamental destruction by denying those basic freedoms to anyone? The ties between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora – as permanent as they are – are more strained today than in any time in the history of the Jewish state. To deny this is to bury our heads in the sand, thus leaving our backs exposed.
The reality remains: the strains result from deep differences. While we may be gaining land for Jews, we are in danger of relinquishing our own proud Jewish values and an as a result, our Jewish position in the world.
Perhaps we have always set our sights too high. Perhaps we Jews ask too much of ourselves and no doubt, Diaspora Jews ask too much of Israel and Israelis. But I remain deeply moved by the thought expressed by the Minister of Education, Zevulun Hammer that, “there cannot be a Holy Land without a Holy People.”
We can choose to dismiss these questions.
But I believe that if we do, we will be doing the State of Israel and the Jewish People, a great disservice.  At the time of writing, Edgar Bronfman was President of the World Jewish Congress.