Reassessing the Israel-Diaspora link

The Diaspora needs Israel for salving its own conscience much more than the other way round

ben gurion university building 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ben gurion university building 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The conference on Wednesday organized by the Humphrey Institute for Social Research at Ben- Gurion University will deal with a very contentious topic – the political, social and cultural role of diasporas and their links with their countries of origin or, in the case of second and third generation diaspora children, the home countries of their parents and grandparents.
Why do diaspora communities, following their migration from one country to another to create a better life for themselves or to escape persecution, expend much of their energies in forging and constructing links with the country they chose to leave? And why does the migrant generation, those that chose to make the move, get annoyed when their children and grandchildren show little interest in the “home” country and prefer instead to see themselves as fully integrated and assimilated citizens of the countries in which they were born and grew up? What is most perplexing is the fact that many diaspora communities have a tendency to take on more extreme stances concerning conflicts back in their “homelands” than do the home communities themselves. The Irish Catholic émigré community in North America was a strong backer of the IRA during the periods of heightened conflict in Northern Ireland, while many Jewish groups in Brooklyn, Toronto and London often adopt the most right-wing and intransigent positions concerning Israel and the occupied territories.
ON THE front pages of last week’s edition of the British Jewish Chronicle there is a report on a recent speech given by the head of the United Jewish Appeal, the main establishment organization supporting Israel. The head of the UJA, Mick Davis, a South African emigrant to the UK, argues strongly for continued Diaspora involvement in the affairs of Israel, arguing that the nature of the relationships is such that neither the Diaspora or Israel can exist without the other and that Israeli leaders and policy makers should pay more heed to the messages which are coming out of the Diaspora.
Davis does raise a real dilemma. Israel-Diaspora relations have changed. In the past it was very much a question of “write your check but don’t tell us what to do. You should feel guilty at choosing to remain in the Diaspora and your penance is your ability to support us through your wealth. It is your special tax.”
But the realities have changed. On the one hand, Israel is not a poor country and, while donations from the Diaspora community are always welcome, the country will survive regardless. Increasingly, the main pro-Israel fund-raisers, are diverting much of their funds to local community causes, not least the raising of Jewish identity in the face of growing assimilation on the part of a younger generation.
For many Jewish leaders in the Diaspora, it is Israel which provides them with their own identity. A besieged Israel, a growing anti-Semitism – especially if, as now, the new anti-Semitism is linked in with attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel – has given rise to a rebirth of Jewish community activism in many countries.
While one should not be naïve about the growth of anti-Semitic incidents in recent years, one can be forgiven for feeling that so many of these Diaspora institutions are socially constructing a much greater threat than that which really exists (the community fight against the proposed academic boycott in the UK is a good example of this) as a means of recreating themselves and raising large amounts of money to fight the good fight – money which could otherwise have been put to much better causes such as promoting Jewish education, culture and identity, or even supporting hospitals and welfare organizations in Israel.
Another problem is the fact that while many Diaspora Jewish organizations have become more outspoken, less apologetic and more “Americanized” in the way they defend the Jewish state from afar, they have become less and less representative of the communities they represent.
They do not represent the huge pro-Israel, liberal groups of the Left, which are now springing up in North America and Western Europe, and which increasingly represent a new generation of globally aware, but more critical, supporters of Israel.
Neither do they represent the rapidly growing haredi communities who, while not being supportive of the state and its political institutions, probably have more children and relatives studying and living in Israel, than most of the members of the formal pro-Israel organizations.
Nor do they represent the hundreds of thousands of Israeli émigrés, the true Israeli Diaspora, who have chosen to live elsewhere but retain their strong family links back home. Rather than denigrate them as yordim, Israel has finally understood that these communities are an important link to the outside world.
INCREASINGLY, THOSE who have become the selfappointed champions of the Diaspora Jewish communities, and insist on having an active voice in Israeli decision making, are in their positions because of the power of their checkbooks. Some of them have holiday homes in Netanya, Herzliya and Jerusalem, but few of them understand the complex realities of Israel through anything other than short visits and so-called “briefing” tours which gives them a very narrow and one-sided look at its daily problems. For many of Diaspora home-owners here, it is the perfect tax haven which saves them as much in terms of unpaid taxes, if not more, than what they donate to Jewish and Israeli causes.
Israel does need to harness its supporters in the Diaspora but it needs to do it in such a way that it is representative of the entire and diverse range of views and positions, more closely reflecting the reality of the fragmented Israeli public opinion. When the Diaspora spokesmen lobby their governments and media in an almost blind defense of Israel, they are often doing more damage than benefit.
They are seen by the foreign governments and media as being no more than “poodles” of the state, shutting down any form of alternative opinion, bringing into question the nature of Israeli democracy and diversity and taking on a far more intransigent stance than that of most Israeli leaders – present government excepted.
The Israel-Diaspora relationship is clearly not a symmetrical one. In the past, Israel needed the Jewish Diaspora for both finance and for political lobbying. Today, the Diaspora needs Israel for salving its own conscience much more than the other way round. And if the Diaspora leaderships of the Western world insist on continuing their reborn activism only through the prism of threat, anti-Semitism and the age old story of poor little besieged Israel, rather than through promoting the positive, the cultural, the religious and the educational, then their long-term contribution is not very significant.
It is time to sit down and reassess the nature of Israel- Diaspora relations if we want them to be mutually beneficial to both sides.
The writer is professor of political geography and dean elect at Ben-Gurion University, and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.