The dilemma of a Diaspora Jew at an Israeli peace rally
Something about my long and tortured love affair with Israel tells me that there must be some quasi-citizenship category that describes Diaspora Jews, a category that suggests a tangled and complex web of legitimate discourse when it comes to Israel.
On a visit to Israel recently, I noticed on my Facebook feed that Peace Now was partnering with a handful of other organizations in holding a peace march in Tel Aviv. Usually I read Peace Now missives from my home in Ottawa, far from the actual fray. But staying just a few blocks away, sympathetic to the cause, and looking for all experiences Israeli, I couldn’t help but attend.
Take a Canadian Jewish political scientist on a balmy Saturday night in Tel Aviv, armed with an iPhone camera and a heady dose of progressive Zionism and put her amidst clusters of political activists milling about with colorful and witty placards, and she feels right at home.
As the throng started to move, a young woman handed me a Peace Now flag. I have a decade of summer camp summers under my belt. So when I heard Hebrew cheers being issued through a megaphone (at my camp, everything was done in Hebrew), I dutifully repeated them. “Bibi, recognize Palestine. Two states for two peoples!” Other cheers were issued, some too sophomoric for the tastes of the older generation judging by some scowls, but I good-naturedly followed along.
Soon I found myself - a flag-carrying, slogan-chanting, Hebrew-speaking, leftist Zionist, Canadian political scientist - in the front row of thousands of marchers. It was exhilarating and meaningful, until it sank in that I was protesting a government that is not my own.
When I returned to my friend’s apartment that night, I checked the online news coverage to see what the estimated turnout was and to confirm my memory of the protest chants. But I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t captured in the photos. What would my Israeli family think if they found that their Canadian relative was protesting their government? I have a deep affection for Israel, have dedicated my career to the subject, speak only Hebrew to my kids, and listen to vintage 1970s Shlomo Artzi albums. But I certainly don’t bear the costs of Israeli policies in blood and treasure as all Israeli citizens necessarily do.
But neither did my discomfort seem quite right. In Canada, I donate modestly to Canadian Friends of Peace Now and have lectured for them on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Was it a far cry to lend my arms, feet and lungs for a cause I am passionate about - as a scholar, as a global citizen, and as a Jew? And more pressingly, isn’t there some claim that Diaspora Jews have on Israel (and its policies) that grants them a certain moral right to be part of the national conversation? Given the Jewish right of return, do we have the right to arrange the house, so to speak, as we would wish it to be were we to exercise that right?
I was intrigued by these philosophical questions, and proceeded to poll various Israelis on the matter. One of my Tel Aviv colleagues applied a scientific lens: it messes with the sample, he said. While there’s no law in Israel against a foreigner participating in a political rally, the government has the right to know how many protesters are its own citizens. But a senior Israeli journalist understood my motivation to participate, saying that as a Diaspora Jew, “you have a stake.” Not without some reflection, an experienced peace activist said that she strives to see deep and meaningful Diaspora involvement with Israel, an involvement that might sometimes be critical.
Walking through the departures wing at Ben Gurion airport a week later, my eyes rested on a Keren Hayesod / United Israel Appeal poster. “You are part of us and we are part of you,” it said, an interlocking magen david suggesting the Israel-Diaspora relationship. Certainly, there are many factions in Israel and abroad who would like Diaspora involvement to mean supporting all of Israel’s policies, “defending” Israel on university campuses, sending money, and sending their kids on Israel trips.
But something about my long and tortured love affair with Israel tells me that there must be some quasi-citizenship category that describes Diaspora Jews, a category that suggests a tangled and complex web of legitimate discourse when it comes to Israel. Some of us may wish to see a continuation of the policy path Israel is on, but many of us are deeply concerned by the entrenchment of the occupation and an apparent lack of serious efforts towards a solution.
Though I will continue to grapple with the philosophical dilemmas, marching with thousands of Israelis that June evening seemed natural. As natural as scarfing down a Golani falafel in Afula on Friday afternoon, running through the salty waves on the Tel Aviv beach, and taking my kids to buy strawberries, peaches, and a handmade kippa in the besieged shuk of Sderot.
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