Anshel Pfeffer / Right and Left, Diaspora Jews More Critical of Israel Than Ever

Regardless of stance on Gaza war, world Jews have more information and less innocence about Israel.

There is something very strange and more than a little frustrating for a reporter used to being on the frontlines to experience a war in Israel from afar. Having to experience the goings-on not only from the reports of one's Israeli colleagues but also through the hall of mirrors that is the international media, with its sometimes incomprehensible agenda and likes and dislikes. At least as an Israeli you know where you stand, with all the familiar personal views, loyalties and criticisms. But to be a non-Israeli Jew can be a lot more difficult during such times.

Well not for all Jews. A vast number, I hesitate to say the majority, are just not that interested. They are much busier eking out the days left of their Christmas/New Year's vacation, and news of renewed conflagration around Gaza receives only a passing register. Those who are engaged enough to really care and spend time glued to the news channels and reading every bit of information available on Web sites can be divided into three groups.

There are large number of Pavlovian flag-wavers, good and innocent Zionists and Jews who see only the trauma inflicted on the people of Sderot, Ashkelon and other parts of the country's south-west, and instinctively position themselves behind the IDF, often saying that the government should have allowed it to go in further and strike harder.

There is, in my impression, a somewhat smaller but highly vocal group belonging usually to the more radical left, and even fewer to the anti-Israel Neturei Karta sect, who feel compelled to atone for Israel's manifold sins and join its enemies in the demonstrations and sign petitions accusing the Zionist entity of war crimes. They have cut themselves firmly off from the local community's mainstream, and they are fine where they are.

There is, though, a third stream of Jews - perhaps not the widest one, but I believe quite significant - who have more complex and uncomfortable feelings on the matter. They care deeply for Israel and understand even why its government felt compelled to launch the devastating Operation Cast Lead, but they are extremely disturbed and hurt by the level of civilian deaths and destruction that almost seems part and parcel of the action. Surely, they say, there must, there has to be another way of doing this. And they live with those doubts, often unexpressed, even among families and close friends because the worst thing they find is that others around them don't seem to discern between the different nuances, and can't find in themselves compassion for the dead and wounded on the other side. They begin asking themselves very awkward questions: Are they surrounded by latent racists, or is something wrong with them that denies the feelings of certainty of those around them? Or does everyone have similar doubts but are simply afraid to express them?

Perhaps those in the most difficult predicament are those who work daily in Jewish and community organizations, the kind of august institutes that have already felt the need to issue those meaningless announcements that "the pan-national Jewish forum stands firmly in support of Israel." Almost constantly, they find their dearest beliefs challenged.

"I just couldn't understand how the other people in the office were just incapable of acknowledging there was any real suffering on the Palestinian side, and that Israel has a significant portion of the responsibility for that," said to me a friend working in one of those organizations in London. "I feel so alone because no one seems to understand how torn I feel about this. I understand Israel's position very well and to a degree identify with the reasons for launching the operation, but why are none of them saddened by children dying? They don't even seem to see these reports."

Two sides of the same coin

My friend found his own peace by trying to keep quiet at work but donating money to an NGO purchasing medical supplies for hospitals in Gaza.

For Jews in the U.S., things are easier. Due to the size of the community and the relative self-confidence of American Jews, there are more platforms and mid-streams that allow people to show both support and criticism at the same time, and far greater openness to individuals forming and expressing their own independent views. In smaller communities like those of Britain and France, the establishment seems to operate on a siege mentality, and the ideas of "us" and "them" are much more rigid.

Many Israelis will think that all this is indulgent bleeding-heartedness on the part of those who don't serve in the IDF and pay Israeli taxes, and their families are nowhere near the range of the Qassams and Grads: Why should we care about what they are thinking? But Israel expects support, fund-raising, lobbying and media advocacy efforts to be made by the Jews of the Diaspora on its behalf, and that can only take place in an open environment.

Ultimately, only Israel's citizens, Jewish and Arab, have the right to vote and decide, but it has to be realized that while the world's Jews are still broadly in favor of Israel, they have more information and less innocence than ever before and will give that support, but with a healthy dose of criticism - whether from the Right of the Israeli government being too namby-pamby with the Palestinians, or from those on the Left who want to see the military option used as sparingly as possible.

Both Israeli and Diaspora leaders should be providing space for this kind of discourse, because stifling will not consolidate support for Israel but increase frustration and disillusionment with it.