Don’t let the Wall divide us

As frustrating as the present situation may be, it is important to remember that governments are by nature temporary.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Western Wall in Jerusalem
Growing up in Israel, we always knew there was a wider Jewish world outside the country, but this knowledge was mainly theoretical. It is only after spending several years living among Jewish communities in the US and Europe that we witnessed the depth, richness and diversity of Jewish culture and religious practice outside of Israel. This unintentional “immersion program” changed our view of Israel-Diaspora relations and transformed us: We were no longer Zionists only because of our Israeli nationality, but because we were part of the Jewish People as a whole.
This is why it has been especially frustrating for us to hear calls from individuals like Daniel Gordis to shift Diaspora funding away from Israeli hospitals and Daryl Messinger of the URJ to avoid flying on El Al, as well as statements from Ike Fisher, a leading Miami Federation and AIPAC activist, threatening to suspend his philanthropy in Israel.
It has been frustrating precisely because these are the authentic expressions of mainstream Zionist leaders who spent the majority of their lives serving Israel in countless ways, and now feel abandoned and taken for granted by the State of Israel.
Will the pressure these individuals, and countless others, are exerting on Israel eventually result in the creation of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall? Maybe. In a way, however, it doesn’t really matter.
The extreme measures of boycott and divestment – undoubtedly the last resort for these individuals, whose commitment to Israel cannot be questioned – stem from a much deeper crisis between Israel and Diaspora Jewry that is perhaps as old as Zionism itself.
Indeed, the latest crisis is not just about the Western Wall, or the Conversion Bill, or the blacklisted Diaspora rabbis. It is the result of decades of growing emotional and intellectual distance between Israeli society and Diaspora communities. Most Israelis simply do not understand Diaspora Jews or their connection to Israel.
This distance is partly due to generational gaps; a growing distance from the shared memory of the Holocaust; and the prosperity, stability and strength of the State of Israel, which was founded on the negation of the Diaspora.
Ironically, it is only in the Jewish homeland where one can be considered a perfect Zionist, without ever thinking about Jews who live outside of Israel.
These perfect Zionists don’t really understand Diaspora Jewry. They do not attend the JFNA’s GA, AIPAC’s Policy Conference or take part in Partnership 2Gether activities. To the extent that Diaspora Jewry is on their mind, they know only what they have been taught: that Diaspora Jews are disappearing, that they have only three options: make aliya, suffer from antisemitism, or assimilate.
Although Israelis by and large are not religious (over 60% of Israelis are secular), the synagogue that they don’t go to is still Orthodox. Most Israelis are not losing sleep over the cancellation of the Western Wall compromise, do not understand the implications of the Conversation Bill and are probably not even aware of the Chief Rabbinate’s “blacklist” of Diaspora rabbis.
This is precisely why divestment measures will only increase and sharpen this distance and alienation. It is doubtful that the Israeli government will be so deeply hurt by the suspension of Tel Aviv University scholarships for students, or a soccer team for Ethiopian youth, that it will change its ways. What is certain, however, is that these measures will feed Israelis’ perception of world Jewry as mere cash cows whose love for Israel is conditional – which is, incidentally, the argument that Kalman Lipskind, a prominent right-wing Israeli journalist, just made.
In addition, this kind of pressure will only play into the hands of those who seek to further distance the State of Israel from the Diaspora. It will be celebrated as a victory by those who wish to equate liberal Zionists, Reform and Conservative Jews with anti-Israel BDS supporters, and will enhance the political support and legitimacy of the very people who initiated these crises, and who are already saying to the largely uninformed Israeli public: see, I told you so.
As frustrating as the present situation may be, it is important to remember that governments are by nature temporary, and Israel-Diaspora relations transcend the actions of any particular government. As Israelis who believe deeply in Jewish peoplehood, we would love to see a Jewish Diaspora that maintains a leadership role in domestic Israeli policies affecting the Jewish People as a whole. A Diaspora that invests in projects, organizations and efforts that strengthen Israel’s peace-seeking, pluralistic and democratic character and supports individuals and institutions working to make Israel a more egalitarian society. But at the same time, a Diaspora that avoids actions like divestment and/or boycotts, which will only drive Israeli civil society and Diaspora communities further apart.
We need to keep looking for opportunities to form direct links. Israeli Youth Movements, like the Israeli Scouts (Tzofim) or Bnei Akiva, for example, could create joint programming with their Diaspora counterparts.
Israeli Orthodox Feminist organizations, such as KOLECH, could work together with JOFA to create change in both Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities.
In order to survive as one people, the present crisis and address the growing rift between Israel and the Diaspora, Diaspora community leaders and organizations must remain focused on their original missions – even if resorting to tactics like divestment and/or boycott may seem easier at present. At the same time, Israeli officials, NGOs and community leaders need to assume greater responsibility for educating Israeli civil society, thereby turning this crisis into an opportunity to learn more about the Jewish world and our connection to it. It is time for community leaders on both sides of the ocean to re-imagine and build a more positive and pro-active relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel. Let this be our Tisha Be’av commitment to ourselves and to the Jewish People.
Talia Gorodess is an independent consultant and the former managing director of the Reut Institute. Naama Klar is managing director of the Reut Institute.