I recently disclosed on the floor of the Knesset an astonishing fact, which unfortunately received insufficient media coverage, and Benjamin Netanyahu did not deny it when I confronted him: There are people who swear they recently heard the prime minister declare that only in Israel would the Jewish nation survive, and that eventually the millions of Diaspora Jews, from all streams, will be lost.
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It’s not true!
It’s not true because we never lost the Diaspora, even in the darkest times of persecution and killing. It’s not true because the ignorance and arrogance of the Israeli leadership prevents it from fully understanding the power of Jewish identity in its various forms. It’s not true because meaningful, vibrant and fascinating theological dialogue takes place within every Jewish stream and group. It’s not true because the Jewish establishment in the Diaspora, particularly in the United States, is strong, organized and well-funded, with an activist leadership that wants to maintain a strong bond to Israel, but not at any price. It’s not true because in his blindness Netanyahu is incapable of seeing that, unfortunately, a Jewish autonomy is being created abroad and “recalculating its route” — a development that is particularly dangerous to Israel’s Jews.
Recent news and the unbelievable remark by no less than the prime minister of the Jewish state proved conclusively that the crisis between the Israeli government and the Diaspora is profound and dramatic, its importance impossible to overstate.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely’s disparaging remarks about U.S. Jews illustrate the intensity of the crisis. Anyone who cares about the ties between Israel and the Diaspora, and is active in nurturing it, is frustrated, worried and upset. They realize that Netanyahu has given up on world Jewry. The leader who has based his entire political life on proximity to top Jewish leaders abroad is turning his back on the majority of Jews. But they are scared, and refrain from confronting him over this sensitive issue.
I included the sin of dividing the Jewish people as one of Netanyahu’s sins in my speech at the opening of the Knesset winter session. I recalled his amazing ignoring of the Ku Klux Klan’s anti-Semitic attacks in the United States, his lack of an assertive response to the Charlottesville events and the alt-right narrative emanating from his own house; his scandalous decision to renege on the Western Wall agreement, the fact that he never lifted a finger to solve the conversion issue and the complexity surrounding it. It’s been one slap in the face after another, and then Hotovely came along and went to great lengths to demonstrate a profound ignorance of the amazing story of American Jewry in recent generations.
What a paradox. On one hand, the state pours enormous sums into Taglit-Birthright, encourages young Diaspora Jews’ ties to Israel. On the other, it cuts off their connection with the state. On one hand, Netanyahu loves it every time thousands of voices sing “Hatikva” and cheer for him until they are hoarse at every conference and rally in the Diaspora. On the other, he signals them that he’s written them off. He’s basically saying donate, fight the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and shut up! But that formula no longer works.
It’s true that the No. 1 threat to the Jewish people today is not anti-Semitism but assimilation, the hemorrhaging that sabotages the continuity of Diaspora Jewry. If that’s what Netanyahu meant, he characterized the threat correctly, but not the solution. I say that the source of the dichotomy in the official Israeli position is Netanyahu and his instrumentalist attitude to the Diaspora. Realizing that many Diaspora Jews and their leaders disagree with his positions, he has decided to write them off in favor of his immediate political needs.
In the past few months I have met with thousands of Diaspora Jews, from all streams. The script is always the same. We expect you in Israel, our “great mother,” to help us in this battle, before it’s too late. At a conference of European rabbis I attended last week, the voice was unanimous: Don’t throw us away, don’t leave us, we are alone in the fight: the great battle for the survival of the Jewish people, and our generation and its leaders are losing.
History will judge our generation on this failure. The government of the Jewish people and its head should have analyzed these dangerous trends and developments long ago, challenged the rabbinic establishment and demanded that it join this battle with all its might in order to propose solutions, to strengthen Jewish and Zionist life and do everything possible to meet the challenges. They should have considered how to empower the Diaspora, tighten its bond to Israel, guarantee continuity for the Jewish people, slow assimilation and address other difficult issues facing Jewish communities, including burials, conversion, education, kosher slaughter and, of course, anti-Semitism. It would help every community. None of these tasks, unfortunately, is on Netanyahu’s radar. Of all his sins, that is the greatest.
Isaac Herzog is the head of the opposition and a Zionist Union MK.