Israel, Don't Tell Diaspora Jews How to Be 'More Jewish'

It's hard to tell what's more offensive about Netanyahu and Bennett's new initiative to 'strengthen' Jewish identity abroad: the idea itself or its ham-handed, arrogant and ultimately counterproductive execution.

Lior Mizrahi / BauBau

So Bibi Netanyahu’s coalition, led in this case by Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett in his capacity as diaspora affairs minister, has decided to give $66 million dollars (including $10 million from Israeli taxpayers) to three organizations to “strengthen” Jewish identity and Diaspora Jews’ connection with Israel. As with almost everything the Netanyahu government does that affects American Jews, it’s difficult to say which is more offensive: the idea proposed or its ham-handed, arrogant and ultimately counterproductive execution.

The notion of Israeli officials instructing Diaspora Jews how to be Jewish is not merely misguided but offensive. It is none of Netanyahu or Bennett’s business how we Diaspora Jews choose to manifest our religious, cultural or historic Jewish identities. Bibi may be the leader of the state of Israel, but he is not, as he may imagine, “king” of the Jews. Diaspora Jews have had thousands of years to develop their own ways of being Jewish; we do not need directives from abroad. In fact, the official contempt that the Israeli government demonstrates for Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and even Modern Orthodox denominations makes it a decidedly unreliable partner in pretty much every effort to revive Jewish life and culture here in the U.S.

As Haaretz reported last year, the decision to undertake this initiative was based on an internal Diaspora Ministry document describing a “continuous erosion of the Jewish identity of communities around the world.” The erosion, the document went on to say, included the “undermining of the Jewish foundations of the family unit” and a “significant rise in critical discourse regarding Israel.”

To counter this, the Israeli government is now giving money to three organizations: Chabad, Hillel and an umbrella group called Olami Worldwide that – while perhaps consistent with Netanyahu and Bennett’s notions of how Jews ought to behave – share little, if anything, with the way most American Jews live our lives. I happen to live in what might be considered the capital of the Diaspora – the Upper West Side of Manhattan – and I teach in its satellite, Brooklyn. One sees Chabadniks almost everywhere, but never in my 56 years have I met another secular Jew who felt an urge to become “more Jewish” after being persuaded to shake a lulav and etrog.  

Ditto, I imagine, grantee, Olami. Though not nearly so conspicuous as Chabad, one learns from its website that it is connected to the far-right organization Aish Hatorah. I happened to have been recruited by Aish as a visiting college student in Tel Aviv in 1980. They sent me to a family in Bnei Brak for a Shabbat weekend. I found it interesting for a while, until I found it suffocating, and ended up walking all the way back to Tel Aviv because I could not take it there a minute longer. 

Once again, such efforts, while interesting from a sociological perspective, have no relevance whatever to the lives of those American Jews who cannot countenance those forms of Jewish practice that deny equal rights to women and condemn the LGBT community as somehow unholy, to say nothing of their hard line on settlement building – all of which are strongly opposed by exactly the Jews this effort is supposed to reach. (A bare 17 percent of U.S. Jews support settlement construction on the West Bank for the sake of Israeli security, while 44 percent think it wrong. U.S. Jews, who do not identify religiously oppose it by a majority of 56 percent, according to the exhaustive 2013 Pew Research Center survey.)

The final grantee is Hillel, the Jewish college organization. While more mainstream than the other two, it is no less problematic for the task at hand. In the first place, it is one of the best-funded Jewish organizations in America, so why shower it with more money? In the second, its inability to countenance open-minded debate on campus about the brutality of the occupation and other controversies raised by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, its Arab minority and myriad other issues circumscribe its ability to reach out to those do not already strongly identify with it. (Its closed-mindedness on the issue helps account, I fear, for the successful recruit of so many young Jews to pro-BDS groups.)

If Israeli leaders and their representatives in the U.S. really want to end the “critical discourse” around Israel, they could start by not giving its critics so much to work with. For starters, how about recognizing the injustices carried out against the Palestinians and, instead, taking seriously peace with the Palestinians, full-fledged democracy and equality for Israeli Arabs and genuine respect for Diaspora Jewish denominations? Alas, regarding the latter, the recent failure to enact even a compromise measure to create to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall does not augur well for such a future.

Finally, even if Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and American Jews were somehow flawless, this new initiative should nevertheless be considered unwelcome and inappropriate. Netanyahu and Bennett are the leaders of the state of Israel, not the nation “Israel.”

Their attempts to ignore this recall the historic 1954 debate between then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and the Zionist philosopher Simon Rawidowicz. The latter pointed out that by calling the Jewish state “Israel” rather than, say, “Eretz Yisrael,” it confused the interests of the state with those of Jewish people. No doubt this was Ben-Gurion’s intention, but as Rawidowicz pointed out in their correspondence, the conclusion that “only the citizens of the Jewish state are Israel” not only negated the Diaspora, it “cannot but lead to the conclusion that Israel, as such, does not relate to the concept Jewish in any sense. Israel becomes nothing but a geographical political term, devoid of Jewish identity.”    

Today that prediction looks like prophesy – but how profoundly misguided both of Israel (the state) and those self-appointed Jewish leaders of the nation Israel to continue down this reckless and ill-advised path.

Eric Alterman is CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College, media columnist for The Nation and a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress. The author of ten previous books, he is currently writing a history of the Israel/Palestine debate in the United States.