When it comes to Israel, Diaspora Jews have to tread a difficult path. On the one hand, we are largely expected to support the world’s only Jewish state. Having our own state is something to be proud of, and it provides our people with an important voice in international affairs. On the other hand, Diaspora Jews find themselves wanting to speak up when Israel acts in ways they find morally questionable.
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It used to be that Diaspora Jews were expected to support Israel. There were the occasional critical voices that emphasized the cultural and ethical values of living in the Diaspora as opposed to having control over the apparatuses of violence and oppression that comes with nation-statehood, and there have always been Jewish critics of Zionism. Yet, in the last 20 to 30 years, something more dramatic has taken place that has built on a combination of historical debate and more recent Israeli policy.
Israel's security policies have made it increasingly harder for Diaspora communities to have a unified voice about the Jewish State, and my research has shown that the range of views is becoming increasingly antagonistic. It is not uncommon to find Jewish communities where the congregants are apprehensive about publicly debating Israel, or where rabbis are concerned about making critical statements about Israel’s human rights record or its military tactics.
Since the establishment of the Jewish State, Israel has become an important part of Diaspora Jewish identity. Historically, the American Jewish establishment came to view being a Zionist as being a good Jew, and in the Diaspora long-distance Zionism became an important marker of Jewish identity. Unfortunately, this association came with serious consequences that few foresaw. The more Diaspora Jews came to identify with Israel, the easier it was to associate whatever Israel does with Jewish responsibility for those actions, regardless of whether or not individual Diaspora Jews supported Israeli policy.
Moreover, although it is in some ways ridiculous to hold Jews accountable for what Israel does, the argument that ties Jewish identity to Zionism means that even if Diaspora Jews are not responsible, we can be expected to hold a degree of accountability for what is done by the world’s only Jewish State. Diaspora Jews want to have it both ways. We want to keep our ties with Israel and to celebrate its achievements without being held accountable for Israeli policies. Supporting Israel has come to demand that we either uncritically support the difficult security decisions the Israeli government makes or distance ourselves from these decisions. In order to celebrate Israel, too many Jews feel they must choose to ignore Israel’s moral crimes or justify them in the name of security.
The consequences of these two forces – one tying Diaspora Jewish identity with Israel and the second being our moral commitments – has meant that when we debate Israel, we are not only debating the policy choices of the Israeli government; we are debating what it means to be a Diaspora Jew.
There are two opposing positions that, generally speaking, frame the relationship between Diaspora Jewish identity and Israel. The first is that to be a good Jew is to support Israel, and that to question or challenge Israeli policy too much is to betray the Jewish people. The second is that to criticize Israel’s unjust policies is to be true to Jewish values, and those that hide behind Zionist justifications that whatever Israel does is necessary for Jewish survival are betraying the Jewish tradition. The choice has become framed as being between peace or security, and never shall the two meet.
The arguments we pursue about Israel with one another and with our non-Jewish friends can all too easily become a self-defining commentary about the type of Jew we are. Israel is no longer a unifying force, if it ever was one, in Jewish communities, but can all too often become a divisive one.
Having an opinion about Israel has turned into an existential choice. Whereas for the pioneering Zionists this existential choice was one of survival, for today’s Diaspora Jews, the choice is one of meaning: it is about what it means to be a Jew in the age of Israel.
In the 20th Century, the question of Zionism was ultimately about divisions between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. In the 21st Century, it is about divisions within the Jewish world. The positions that we take about Israeli policy can be polarizing, and discussions about what it means to support Israel can even become vindictive. These divisions are weakening Jewish communities and may even risk tearing them apart.
Ilan Zvi Baron is a lecturer in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, and author of the recently published book, “Obligation in Exile: the Jewish Diaspora, Israel and Critique.”