When Israel's Actions Threaten Diaspora Jews

The actions or inactions of Israel and of Diaspora Jews continue to deeply affect the other, whether they like it or not.

A woman holds up a sign proclaiming "I am a French Jew' at a support rally in Jerusalem following the murders in Paris last January.

When I was growing up as a strongly identifying Jew in the United States during the 1950s and 1960’s there were certain basic givens: Israel was a Jewish state destined to be a “light unto the nations,” a beacon of hope for all Jews, and a place of which we could be proud. As Diaspora Jews we had a responsibility to support it financially and morally.

For their part, Israeli leaders — most prominently Ben-Gurion — negated Diaspora life, pointing to the Holocaust (still fresh in our collective consciousness, at least for people like me, an immigrant child of survivors) as the ultimate evidence of what will happen in even the most secure diasporas where Jews had lived for generations.

We living in the Land of Promise, feeling protected and at home, however saw the Promised Land as dangerous and insecure, surrounded by implacable enemies, and culturally foreign to us. Yes, we repeated the mantra — often when trying to explain why we had to learn Hebrew — that Israel was the ultimate Jewish refuge, the place to which we might have to emigrate if things got bad again in the Diaspora, but few believed this a likely future, and fewer still learned Hebrew.

With the unfolding of history, perceptions changed on both sides. Israel, although never completely safe, became an image of a militarily secure place, an occupying power. Its image as light unto the nations faded. Its economic might grew, along with its population, and its need for financial support from the Diaspora likewise appeared to diminish.

Diaspora Jews still saw it as "over there" but now closer because trips were cheap and easy. Israeli leaders no longer spoke about the negation of the Diaspora; they actually embraced the idea of being able to travel back and forth to it. We all know how the common after-army experience for Israelis is to take a long excursion to somewhere in the world beyond the borders of the Jewish state. Somehow, the distance between the two places seemed to shrink culturally. As one Israeli expatriate in Queens, New York, where I teach, said (in Hebrew) to an Israeli friend visiting and marveling at the vibrant Israeli culture there: “Did you think that you can be in Israel only in Israel?”

There have been, however, unintended consequences of this change. What Israel does often threatens Diaspora Jewry. The Russian, Ethiopian and most recently French waves of immigration cannot be separated from reactions to Israel. Attacks on Jews in the Diaspora, even those who don’t see themselves as Zionists, are carried out often in response to what Israel does. Israel more than ever is a refuge for many Diaspora Jews.

With its large influx of Islamist and Arab expatriates, European Jews are physically threatened. The recent announcement by a Jewish leader in Marseilles, France following a stabbing attack on a teacher in a Jewish school urging Jews not to walk in the streets with a kippa only echoes other voices throughout Europe that warn Jews to keep a low profile – all Jews, and not simply Orthodox ones.

In Europe, people have become used to the presence of police guards in front of synagogues and other Jewish community institutions; now they want even more protection. Such a police presence is rapidly spreading across the United States as well, where a sense of insecurity permeates the body politic.

The increasing militancy of the BDS movement, the exclusion of Israelis from academic exchange as well as other cultural venues, and the move to remove certain Israeli products from the shelves is growing. Supporters of Israel are increasingly treated no different from Israelis. One senses that the line between Jewish and Israeli is blurring.

Among the Orthodox, this blurring is abetted by a conviction that Israel is an extension of their Judaism and they’ve the right, even the religious responsibility, to shape it in their image. Among Jews at the other end of the spectrum, watching this religious nationalist trend, there is the growing inference that if they are disconnected from Orthodox and nationalist sympathies, they can also ignore Israel and Zionism in favor of other concerns.

But as Diaspora Jewry, in Europe especially but elsewhere as well, has discovered, the adversaries of Israel do not distinguish between Jews who remain connected to Israel and those who do not. Diaspora Jews and Israelis may not share a common home address or common politics, but there’s no denying that the actions or inactions of each continue to deeply affect the other, whether they like it or not. We cannot escape one another, nor should we. Maybe it’s time to resurrect an idea that the late editor of Haaretz, David Landau proposed: a global Jewish parliament, so that the Diaspora might have their say in the Jewish future, rather than leaving all the big decisions to Israel.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.