In 1950, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and the president of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein, negotiated a concordat between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Blaustein pledged U.S. Jewry's political and financial support. In return, Ben Gurion agreed that Israel would avoid speaking on behalf of the entire Jewish people, insulating American Jews from charges of 'dual loyalty.'
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That concordat is obsolete. Prime Minister Netanyahu frequently speaks on behalf of the entire Jewish nation, while increasingly confident Jewish communities in the U.S. and elsewhere are less squeamish about dual loyalty accusations. Those same Diaspora Jews, however, are also more confident voicing differences with Israel, particularly on issues deeply affecting their sense of Jewish peoplehood and values, such as minority rights, religious pluralism and the search for peace.
Israel remains central to our identity, however, and when the Israeli Prime Minister speaks, Jews around the world listen, knowing his words and actions have a direct impact on their lives as Jews. Many would have been supportive of Netanyahu's 2009 Bar Ilan speech affirming his commitment to two states for two peoples. They had less to cheer in his second Bar Ilan speech last month.
What concrete vision did Netanyahu offer? He gave a learned account of Palestinian rejectionism, including an accurate reference to the Palestinian leadership’s collaboration with the Nazis. Israel’s leaders should indeed deliver such correctives to the flawed historical narratives permeating so much of the discourse on Israel. Few do this more effectively than Netanyahu. But analysis of the past cannot come at the expense of a vision for the future. Where was a new nugget of hope?
A battle of historical narratives rages daily in the world’s universities, civil societies and media. Diaspora Jews are on the frontline against delegitimization, facing an emboldened Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement drifting ever closer to the mainstream.
Across Europe, we observe an increasingly negative default narrative on Israel. That is an unfortunate fact, but one we have learned in the struggle to combat it. We don’t like it but have a duty to convey it. A lack of trust that Israel’s political leadership is serious about shaping a viable peace process is unquestionably an obstacle to our defense of Israel. If Israel’s leadership articulated a vision of progress, it would boost the Diaspora’s diplomatic arsenal immeasurably. Without that vision, however, we are fighting with one hand tied behind our back.
This is not merely a ‘tactical advocacy’ concern. It is difficult not to notice the growing constituencies of young, passionate and actively engaged Diaspora Jews, increasingly disenchanted by the lack of progress towards peace. They are redirecting their energies to broader causes or worse, drifting, wittingly or unwittingly, into the fringes of the BDS space.
Whatever the outcome of the Kerry process, a reinvigorated, public and sustained expression of a two state vision by Israel’s leaders would arrest and reverse this worrying trend. Without it, we fear for the long-term future of our communities’ commitment to Israel. We fear that the commitment to Israel of our children will not match the commitment to Israel of our parents.
That would damage the strategic interests of both Israel and the Jewish communities that cherish its place at the heart of our identity. The challenge must be addressed honestly and it must be addressed now.
We in the Diaspora are well placed to assess the ongoing assault on Israel’s legitimacy, but cannot just be the canary in the mine. We want a truer partnership with Israel, contributing our experience and skills to an Israel that engages and inspires us.
Israel has a unique opportunity to harness Diaspora Jewish leaders' leadership roles in industry, business and wider political life. Developing a real shared agenda between Israeli government ministries and an effective group of Jewish leaders would facilitate a new narrative in Europe and beyond – one that addresses the complexity of the situation without sweeping it under the carpet. It would be a narrative that demonstrates Israeli political leaders are making real and meaningful plans for a peace agreement, shrinking the space in which BDS and delegitimization operate.
This new Jewish conversation means Israel and the Diaspora preparing for peace together. Successful financial and operational partnerships were previously built between Israeli national institutions and Diaspora Jewry in absorbing waves of immigration to Israel. Similar partnerships will need to be revitalized to absorb settlers from outside the main settlement blocs, a necessary part of any eventual peace agreement. We need to re-establish the notion of Jewish peoplehood, developing a shared approach to the challenges flowing from that imperative.
Diaspora Jews must not exclude themselves from the challenges Israel faces. But nor should Israel exclude the Diaspora from the search for solutions. A new Jewish conversation, grounded in reality but with a positive vision at its heart, is essential if our unique bonds are to remain strong, mutually beneficial and unbreakable for generations to come.
Mick Davis is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the UK's Jewish Leadership Council and is Chairman of the UK's Holocaust Memorial Commission. He is the founding partner of X2 Resources Limited and recently stepped down as Chief Executive Officer of Xstrata Plc.