Borderline Views: Reflections on the nature of Israel-Diaspora relations

We need to stop testing each other’s degree of patriotism and Zionism, and using such terms as “fascists,” “Nazis,” “traitors” and “self-hating Jews” for people with whose views we strongly disagree.

Israel US flags (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel US flags
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It struck me as odd last week to see an event advertised in Tel Aviv, a debate between two well-known North American Jews, Peter Beinart and Shmuley Boteach, on the various issues facing Israel and the Jewish people. Why on earth would an audience in Israel be interested in hearing the views of two Diaspora Jews who, however committed and supportive of Israel both clearly are, are, at the end of the day, residents of North America, not of Israel.
I can understand why their debate should take place in New York or London, but not why they believe they have anything of significance to say to an Israeli audience – be it of the Left or the Right – when they do not share or experience the fate of all those who do live, and go about their daily work, here in Israel.
I am closer to one of these speakers (Beinart) politically, and to the other (Boteach) in terms of religion and ritual, but when it comes to Israel, I am closer to my most radical opponent here in Israel, than I am to a Diaspora Jew who shares my political views. It is simply a different playing field and while I can understand why Jewish communities in the Diaspora are eager to hear what Israelis visiting their community have to say about daily life experiences at home, I fail to understand what Israelis would want to hear from people coming from elsewhere to sell their respective political points of view.
It is for this reason that when I am invited to take part in panel discussions concerning Israel, I will only share a panel with fellow Israelis. Overall, I don’t participate in panels even with my fellow countrymen and women because, as many years of experience has taught me, it becomes very polemical and heated and no one ends up in convincing anyone else. It is better to give a talk and then have someone with an alternative view invited to do the same, rather than engage in a classic Jewish-Israeli confrontation which makes us all believe that we are each other’s enemies, rather than people sharing a common religious and ethnic identity, sharing a similar fate, but – as to be expected in a country of six million opinionated Jews – people with different opinions.
Israelis (including academics) often get it wrong when they lecture abroad. Too many of them believe that it is their job to sell a particular political opinion rather than inform their audiences. I am constantly amazed at how much the Diaspora community is sometimes engaged in a discourse and a polemic that is 10 to 15 years behind the time and that we, here in Israel, have moved well beyond the point which is still being discussed, argued and shouted around the world.
The Jewish community is an educated and intelligent community and most of them have strongly held political beliefs – not just about Israel. They don’t like being browbeaten by their Israeli guests nor do they like being told that they are “more” or “less” patriotic or Zionist – depending of course on what side of the political spectrum the speaker is from. But they do want information and they do want to be educated, and I have found time after time, in Jewish communities and synagogues, on university campuses, at conferences, that it is definitely possible to hold a serious discussion and exchange of views without ending up in a shouting match – and the same goes for university student audiences which include both Arab and Jewish participants, although this has begun to change in some places, in the US more than in Europe, in recent years.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a strong believer that the Jewish Diaspora is, and must continue to be, a major partner of Israel, concerned about its fate and working on its behalf. We, in Israel, constantly request Diaspora support, whether it be through funding of projects and institutions, or creating a lobby amongst politicians and governments, and we cannot expect the community simply to undertake these tasks without wanting to be involved and voice their opinion. The days when Ben-Gurion and his political colleagues could tell the Diaspora, “Pay up and shut up,” have long passed and it would be hypocritical on the part of Israel to expect our compatriots in the globalized Diaspora of the 21st century to accept this role. But the Diaspora Jews must equally understand that they can never take the part of the residents of the country itself and it is presumptuous for them to presume that they can take on such a role.
It is dangerous that the wealthy Jews of the Diaspora have, increasingly, used their personal wealth to influence the country’s politics, be it through the ownership of newspapers or the funding of electoral campaigns. Israel should pass a law which forbids the raising of money for electoral campaigns from anyone who is not a full taxpaying citizen of Israel. We are greatly appreciative of the philanthropy of many of these people, but they should restrict their generosity to the many important causes in the field of education, health, welfare, science and religion – to whichever they feel the greatest affinity.
Not only would such a law mean that the elections are a matter for Israelis themselves, it would allow for a freer playing field for grassroots newcomers to the political process who do not share the wealth and the resources of those who are able to enjoy substantial funding from foreign sources. It would also, probably, mean that Israel’s elections are cheaper (presently they are one of the most expensive election campaigns in the world on a per capita basis), with the same resources being channeled to worthy causes.
It is for this reason that I have always been opposed to the inclusion of Israelis living abroad in participating in the elections. Everyone has the right to choose where he/she wants to live, to work and to pay taxes. But once that decision has been taken, it is a matter of personal integrity not to participate in the elections of a country they have chosen to leave, for whatever the reason may be. Americans residing in Israel have the right to register and vote (a right which many of them choose not to exercise) but they are also obligated (unlike Israelis living abroad) to file an annual tax form and pay taxes where necessary.
But given the fact that most Israelis have moved abroad after having served in the army (or national service) and have contributed a significant part of their young adulthood to the country, it is an argument which has another side, and I can well understand their desire to be part of the political process in a country to which, even from a distance, they feel a strong attachment and affiliation.
I too have the right to exercise my vote in the country of my origin – the UK, but I choose not to. If I were to ever return to the UK on a permanent basis (which I have absolutely no intention of doing) I would then decide to vote in the UK instead of Israel. But there is little which gives me greater pride than once every few years (perhaps a bit too often in the case of Israel) being one of the first in line on the morning of Israeli elections and casting my ballot in an attempt to influence the political outcome of the country I have chosen to be my home because, I believe, this is ultimately where the long-term fate of the Jewish people will be decided.
An Israel-Diaspora partnership has to be an inclusive one, ranging from the far Left to the far Right, as long as all are supportive of Israel, believe in its existence and that none of the views expressed break the law or incite violence (and there are unfortunately plenty of those two). We need to stop testing each other’s degree of patriotism and Zionism, and using such terms as “fascists,” “Nazis,” “traitors” and “self-hating Jews” for people with whose views we strongly disagree.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his own.