Something Is Rotten in Diaspora Discourse on Israel

Jewish community volunteers and activists who choose to wrestle with ideas around Israeli politics instead of supporting the endless occupation risk being accused of disloyalty.

Reuters

Amidst what had been a steady stream of volunteer commitments I had undertaken in the Jewish community, it seems I now have some more free time. I could be pleased by the fact that I am freed from a major board commitment, but I’m not. Because something’s rotten in the state of Diaspora Jewish communal discourse.

Let’s back up. After seven years of dedicated service on the board of a large Jewish organization here in Ottawa, where I helped initiate policies around ecological sustainability, help reform the board’s governance and procedures, work on LGBTQ inclusion, and reformulate our mission statement to better reflect the organization’s values, I found myself having risen through the ranks of the board’s executive to the position of vice chair. All this along with teaching adult education classes at the institution, creating an innovative women’s athletic program there, and being a regular user, along with my family, of a variety of programs and services. Normal board succession procedures imply that I would be next in line for chair — a position I had made plain to those in charge that I was willing to take on.

But rumblings over the past half year suggested that I was potentially radioactive in the minds of some donors. Why? Because of my writings on the subject of Israel. In short, the board’s selection committee made clear that they’d be better off without me.

Readers of the Fifth Question here at Haaretz — as well as of my writings over at The Jewish Daily Forward, and before that, in Open Zion, know that while I am frequently critical of Israeli policies around the occupation and other anti-democratic moves afoot in Israel, I am squarely in the camp of liberal Zionism. This means that, in addition to criticizing the occupation and pressing Israel to make the necessary conditions to engage in a meaningful peace process, I oppose full-out boycott of Israel leading to the undermining of its core identity as a Jewish state. I have publicly debated anti-Zionists and non-Zionists — both in person and in print — on these issues, and I regularly tout the importance of Israel engagement and Jewish and Hebrew literacy. These are all ideas that I also seek to put forth in my columns in local Canadian Jewish papers where the conversation tends to be a little bit more intimate.

Still, it seems that when it comes to positions of community leadership, none of this is enough to establish one’s loyalty to a tent that is rapidly shrinking.

We’ve heard this all before, of course. Witness the stonewalling reaction Peter Beinart received by the Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs when his organizers tried to get him an audience with Hillel on Campus during his three-city Canadian tour a couple of years ago. And then there’s the canceling of David Harris-Gershon’s talk at the JCC in Washington, DC earlier this year.

It’s by now a truism that the breadth of policy debate among Israelis themselves far outsizes what is evidently permitted within the Diaspora Jewish community. But then neither do Israeli Jews have to actively work to inculcate Jewish identity, as I frequently have in my writings, including promoting Jewish education, pushing for the active use of Hebrew, examining the value of synagogue affiliation, defending Jewish and Zionist summer camping experiences, and yes, insisting on the value of a Diaspora connection to Israel.

So I’m left to ask this: what is it, ultimately, that we, as Jewish community volunteers and activists, are being asked to be loyal to? Are we being asked to promote Jewish community vitality, wrestle with ideas around Israeli politics and policies, encourage Jewish literacy, and consider realities that preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character? Or are we being asked to simply support the endless occupation just as we see Israel’s democratic character crumbling before our very eyes, as the country becomes more and more of a pariah state? I think I know the answer. But how I wish it weren’t so.