‘What’s Bibi thinking?” Unfortunately, too many American Jews ask this question with a triumphalist I-told-you-so tone, oozing with what-do-you-expect-from-those-primitive-Israelis condescension.
Two weeks ago, many Australian Jews asked me the question, heartbrokenly, with surprise, concern and frustration. Most Kanga-Jews are staunch Zionists. Many have long supported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They dislike criticizing Israel – but are shocked at how quickly and self-destructively Netanyahu has threatened so many of his economic and diplomatic accomplishments.
Australian Jews, like North American Jews, instinctively understand the need to separate executive, judicial, and legislative powers – while distributing power widely too. As a federation of six states, with two self-governing territories, Australia fragments power, avoiding the hyper-concentration in prime-ministerial hands so many Israelis justifiably fear.
A thoughtful statement
That insight shaped the Zionist Federation of Australia’s (ZFA) thoughtful recent statement defining the community as “deeply Zionist” – but worried. From this “position of unconditional love and connection,” the ZFA expressed “serious concern” that the coalition was pushing its judicial reforms “with undue haste and in the absence of broad-based public support.” The statement wisely supported President Isaac Herzog’s mediation efforts.
Despite this anxiety, looming like one of those perpetual clouds over the Melbourne sky, my week-long pre-Pesach visit to Melbourne and Sydney was inspiring. Australian Jewry is thriving in these two urban strongholds by the Indian Ocean. Even more impressive than their infrastructure – epitomized by their popular, high-quality, Jewish day schools on majestic campuses – is their unapologetically Zionist, deeply Jewish, worldview. So many conversations began with someone mentioning “my brother in Baka,” “my sister in Ra’anana,” “my son – or daughter – serving as a lone soldier.”
It’s a pleasure to visit a community that uses the Z-word comfortably and proudly, and was happy to talk about “Identity Zionism.” Often, when I speak in the US, after I describe how Zionism can inspire alienated young people with our sense of community, history, and destiny – the questions invariably go political – from the Palestinian issue to, now, the judicial reform.
In Australia, while asking about current challenges, many listeners, young and old, happily explored this deeper, more existential approach, which doesn’t just see Israel through today’s black-and-white lens of headlines and headaches. Instead, it invites us to see Israel through a blue-and-white prism of identity and possibility, of achievements and dreams, not just asking what we can do for Israel – but what Israel can do for us.
More Catholic than Protestant
The Australian Jewish community’s vitality is partially sociological: so many remain defined by their direct or one-generation-removed Holocaust traumas. Waves of equally Zionist and proud South African exiles have reinforced the resulting resilient, delightfully-tribal, Jewish literacy and patriotism.
There’s another key to these Kanga-Jews which bears debating, although it’s controversial. As in Israel, South Africa, and Montreal, these Jews are more Catholic than Protestant: even if they don’t go to synagogue, the synagogue they don’t attend is Orthodox. Rather than constantly updating Judaism, most Aussie Jews preserve traditional Judaism – choosing how much to observe or not.
Each approach generates its own dangers. Liberal Judaism risks becoming so in-touch with non-Jewish sensibilities, it waters-down Judaism. Orthodox Judaism risks becoming so out-of-touch with non-Jewish sensibilities, it suffocates Judaism. Still, sidestepping questions about God and truth, as a survival strategy, Australian Orthodoxy – reinforced by strong ties to Israel among Orthodox and non-Orthodox – works. An estimated 10% of Kanga-Jews hop over to Israel forever, 70% have had some formal Jewish education, and only 20% intermarry.
REGARDING THE burning question of the moment, I offered two messages. First, while criticizing the judicial reformers’ speed and violence, I reassured everyone I spoke to that Israel will survive. All this catastrophizing says more about the catastrophizers than about Israel. Two-thirds of Israelis seek compromise. Few Israelis are the take-no-prisoners’ civil-war-threatening extremists from far Right and far Left who keep monopolizing the conversation.
My optimism was vindicated on my first day in Melbourne, as we watched the drama around Netanyahu’s misfiring of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Contrary to the doom-and-gloomers, the protesters avoided violence – and the government avoided chaos by wisely freezing the reforms and starting negotiations.
My second message concerns Zionism – and Israel-Diaspora relations. As a constructive liberal-democratic form of nationalism, Zionism does not need Zionists turning off our brains to fill our hearts and souls. Patriotism, I keep saying, means loving your country because of its politicians sometimes, and despite its politics… always.
Diaspora Zionists shouldn’t be blind, deaf, or dumb. Just as friends don’t let friends drive drunk, Zionists should speak out thoughtfully and lovingly, when necessary.
Traditionally, we’ve emphasized how shared interests and shared values bind Israel with Diaspora communities and fellow democracies. By adding a third pillar, “shared challenges,” we welcome more voices. We stop cheerleading and start understanding that all modern democracies are trying to figure out how to have constructive discourse in our age of toxic polarization.
We can also explore how it is that things have never been so good in democracies – yet so many keep fearing we are on the edge of disaster – especially when the wrong party is in power.
So let’s enjoy a Passover break from politics. Let’s keep demanding successful presidential negotiations.
And, while building toward Israel’s 75th anniversary, let’s learn from Rabbi Leo Dee’s tear-stained words, eulogizing his slaughtered daughters Maia, 20, and Rina, 15. Israelis’ shared pain following these crimes has “proven that we are one,” Rabbi Dee said – and we will keep “marching side by side... left wing next to the right wing, religious next to secular, uniting against the real threat, – the threat of pure evil” that murdered his lovely daughters – and an Italian tourist – within hours.
Gil Troy is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University and the author of nine books on American History and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set, ‘Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,’ the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org).