In the wake of the horrific events that occurred in Paris last week, politicians here in Israel have been trying to come to grips with how best to solve this problem at least insofar as it pertains to French Jewry. In the wake of the attacks, the prime minister has invited French Jews to come "home" to Israel, the foreign minister has echoed this call, and the former finance minister has declared that Israel is the only place for the Jews. To my mind there is something troubling to this reaction.
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In its capacity as Jewish State, Israel plays a number of roles vis-à-vis Diaspora Jewry. It is of course considered a Jewish Homeland that does and must open its gates to any Jew around the world who wishes to enter them, whether they do so voluntarily or because there is nowhere else to go. In this sphere Israel invests much effort in absorbing and assisting new olim (immigrants). Indeed, the results of this absorption process are very impressive.
Another function of the Jewish State is to fill Jews around the world with a sense of pride that somewhere in the world there is an independent Jewish State where, within a democratic framework, Jews call the shots. Jews feel no longer a stateless minority but rather compatriots and honorary citizens of a state that purports to promote Jewish values and to represent these to the international community. This function is not easy to uphold and within a hostile environment it is difficult for Israel’s actions and views to remain undistorted, even if much can be done in the sphere of public relations. However, given the overwhelming bias from international media outlets it would probably be unfair to overly fault the Jewish State and its leaders for the unbalanced image it is assigned.
The Jewish State also has a third function: being the protector of world Jewry. Jews and Zionists around the world rally around the Jewish State, contribute valuable finances and other resources in the knowledge that Israel has their back. There is an implied, and sometimes express, understanding that in return for the very generous contributions world Jewry has made to the Jewish State, the latter will reciprocate by protecting their interests abroad as well as in their homeland. It means that whenever and wherever there is trouble around the world Israel will try to assure local Jewry that their interests are being protected.
Part of this includes the Israeli government demanding other countries remain committed to securing their Jewish populations and, if necessary, offering assistance to the Diaspora communities to ensure such security. It means that if financial assistance is required, then Israel will extend such assistance without conditioning it on making aliyah (immigration to Israel), and it also means that if in its considered opinion there is little chance of an undisturbed existence for these Jewish communities, then Israel will advise these Jews to leave their country for a safe haven. That safe haven should not exclusively have to be the State of Israel.
Rightly or wrongly, the Jewish Agency in Mandatory Palestine was criticized for being too Palestino-centric when it embarked on rescue missions in Nazi Germany. It has been controversially argued that more Jews could have been saved during World War Two had the Jewish Agency not focused exclusively on relocating Jews to Mandatory Palestine. Whatever faults lie in this argument – and many have strongly questioned its historical veracity – it is almost unarguable that, as of Israel’s founding, its leaders from whichever party have tended to adopt an almost exclusive Israel-centric attitude. Ignoring the contributions Jews have made to countries such as Argentina, South Africa and the former Soviet Union, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has too often tried to manipulate the situations there by predicting unrealistic doomsday scenarios in order not only to save the besieged communities but also to bolster the numbers of Israel’s Jewish population. Efforts to strengthen local Jewish institutions throughout the former communist Russia have often been hampered by singularly focused Jewish Agency emissaries.
Times are indeed tough for French Jewry at this moment. The perceived refusal of the French government to acknowledge it has a problem with radicalizing Islamists has fueled the current pessimism surrounding the uncertain future for France’s Jews. Their long and proud tradition, notwithstanding all their blood that was spilt in recent and more ancient times, gave us Rashi and the Tosafists during the medieval period and continued to contribute – whether it was for the struggle for human rights following the French Revolution or whether it is the enrichment of modern France’s culture and economy. Is it inevitable that such a tradition must come to an end? And if it cannot be continued in France, may we not advise them to go to Montreal or other havens that are more akin to French culture?
While it is tempting to believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians have tried to take advantage of a tragic situation, it must be admitted that their statements may very well reflect good, sincere and perhaps noble intentions. The fault, however, lies in continuing the legacy of not recognizing the value of a continued Jewish existence in the Diaspora and in the belief that Jewry can only thrive in a Jewish State and so the ultimate solution for every Jew is aliyah. As someone who comes from the Diaspora and has voluntarily chosen Israel as his home, I believe this is a tragic mistake, not without consequence for the future of world Jewry.
David Fachler has a Masters in Law from South Africa (LLM) and a Masters in Contemporary Jewry from Hebrew University, Jerusalem (MA). He is contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org