The Israel-Diaspora Disconnect

There are many factors to the weakening of ties between the Diaspora and Israel, but in order to fight any of them, Israeli leadership must recognize the legitimacy of approaches which differ from its own.

Gabi Sheffer
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Gabi Sheffer

The convening of the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee − the largest Jewish lobbyist organization in the United States − has got the attention of some Israelis. The fact that around 13,000 members, including senior American and Israeli officials, participate in this conference, which lobbies Congress, is impressive. Many Israelis think that this typifies the relationship and the ties Israel has with the Jewish Diaspora in America in particular, and other countries in general.

But this isn’t really the case. The process the Diaspora is currently undergoing is bringing about a sharp change in direction. Firstly, the majority of Diaspora Jews do not feel that they are living in exile: They are convinced that their lives in the Diaspora are the right fit for them. The tendency to “make aliyah” to Israel is minor. The decisive majority of Diaspora Jews ‏(and the Israelis among them as well‏) see the countries in which they live as their homeland, and only a few see Israel as the people’s real, present-day homeland. Many see the United States and Europe, not Israel, as the centers of the Jewish people. All of this greatly affects the relationship between the Diaspora and Israel.

Unlike the situation in Israel, the number of Diaspora Jews is not increasing − in fact, it is decreasing. There are many reasons for this: their assimilation and their adoption of the cultural and social values of the liberal countries in which they reside. The majority of Diaspora Jews dwell in big cities, and are well integrated within them.

The diminishing numbers of Diaspora Jews, their absorption and assimilation into their host societies, and the difficulty in maintaining the cohesiveness of these communities, means that Jewish institutions in the Diaspora invest more in their attempts to prevent the communities from disappearing. So their investment of time and resources in Israel diminishes. Likewise, there is also a decrease in the active participation of Jewish organizations that deal with the relationship between the Diaspora and Israel.

Other processes are also occurring: The majority of young Jewish men and women and some older ones are highly educated, and work in the financial or academic sectors. They are affected by the process of globalization and the tendency of the “host country” to accept them, despite occurrences of anti-Semitism. All of these factors mean that they are mainly concerned with their own affairs and interests, rather than in the affairs of the Jewish community and nation. One of the most important consequences of this is the diminished importance of family − which further reduces their ties to the community, the nation and Israel.

It’s worth noting that the ultra-Orthodox and religious extremists, who are connected to Eretz Yisrael ‏(and not to Israel‏), which in their view is the source of the Jewish religion, are a minority in the community. Among them are those who criticize the State of Israel for the secular tendencies of its society. On the other hand, the large liberal Reform and Conservative movements, which have many followers in local communities, are critical of Israel because of its extreme nationalism, its policies on conversion, marriage and divorce and education, and the government’s non-committal attitude toward solving the conflict with the Palestinians. Many of them do not support AIPAC, identifying instead with organizations like J Street.

All of this has significantly weakened ties between the Diaspora and Israel, and contributed to growing criticism of many in the Diaspora toward Israel. These are reflected in fewer people making aliyah to Israel, fewer Jewish tourists visiting the country, and a significant reduction in the amount of donations to organizations such as the Jewish Agency, Zionist organizations and Israeli universities. It is also evident in a lessening involvement of Diaspora organizations with Israel, and in growing support of criticisms leveled at Israel, especially regarding a solution to the conflict.

Only a few Israelis − some politicians, some members of the Foreign Ministry, and recently some of the leaders of the Jewish Agency and its officials − are starting to understand and to realize the scope of these developments in the Diaspora. As a result, a change has begun in their stance toward the Diaspora. But the most important change needed is the recognition − which has not yet occurred in Israel − that the Diaspora is legitimate and that the State of Israel should respect the Diaspora’s situation and its approach, and try to help it. Israel should not complain that Diaspora Jews are criticizing the country’s policies, not making aliyah, not contributing enormous sums of money, and not engaging in lobbying on behalf of Israel.

The more widespread this change in attitude becomes on the part of Israelis, the more they understand the situation in the Diaspora and its relationship with their country, the less likely it will be that the Diaspora disengages from Israel. And this is good for both the Diaspora and for Israel.

The writer is a professor emeritus of the political science department in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Members attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual policy conference in Washington on March 3, 2013. Credit: AFP

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