OPINION – Michael Oren: We must remain united, even if we do disagree

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OPINION – Michael Oren: We must remain united, even if we do disagree

Former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, reflects on the heated debate over annexation in the British Jewish community

Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference announcing the planned annexation, in September 2019
Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference announcing the planned annexation, in September 2019

The letter signed by British Jews condemning the Israel government’s plans to annex a large section of the West Bank said as much about this controversial issue as it did about the state of Israel-diaspora relations. With the proposed annexation only weeks away, the Israeli government has yet to launch a concerted campaign to explain its position to diaspora Jews.

On the other hand, the signatories seemed unaware that the Israelis most opposed to the policy are not centrist liberals but extreme rightists who reject the Trump peace plan.

Indeed, the decision to publish the letter in Haaretz, a leftist paper with minimal circulation, instead of one of the more mainstream dailies, indicated a certain detachment from Israeli reality. Annexation has become another symptom of a much more pervasive – and dangerous – trend.

That process has been deepening in recent years, with diaspora Jews increasingly accusing Israel of abandoning its enlightened values and undermining their ability to defend it publicly. Israelis, on the other hand, were profoundly offended by the large numbers of diaspora Jews, especially in the United States, who supported the Iran nuclear deal and opposed US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

That resentment influenced the Israeli government’s withdrawal from the Kotel arrangement, a move which, in turn, further alienated liberal diaspora Jews.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, efforts to address the tension have been frustrated by the cancelation of virtually all exchanges between Israeli and diaspora youth, and the understandable turning inward of communities both within the Jewish state and abroad.

This situation is not only morally tragic, but strategically dangerous. Diaspora Jewish support, both political and financial, is vital to Israel’s defence, and a strong Israel greatly enhances the security of Jews worldwide. The gravest threat, though, is to the Jewish peoplehood on which Israel is predicated and to which the large majority of diaspora Jews is still passionately committed. At stake is the Talmudic adage of Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all of Israel is responsible for one another.
It is impossible to be mutually responsible and at the same time be mutually obtuse.

Michael Oren

Annexation – or rather, the extension of Israeli sovereignty, for Jews cannot annex their own homeland – is fraught with complications. Proponents will stress the need to exact a price for Palestinian rejectionism, to prevent the peace plan from stagnating, and to render its two-state solution palatable to the Israeli centre-right.

Opponents warn of serious damage to Israel’s international reputation, the collapse of both the Oslo Accords and the peace with Jordan, and the erosion of Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state. Annexation may help defend Israel from military threats in the Middle East while exposing it to sanctions from Europe.

Certainly, there is much to discuss here and to debate, often ardently. But both sides, Israelis and diaspora Jews must first be willing to listen. Urgently needed is a respectable and widely inclusive dialogue. Previous initiatives, such as diaspora-Israel summits sponsored by President Ezer Weizman in the 1990s, ended in failure, and later Israeli leaders recoiled from what they saw as a politically unprofitable endeavour.

But we no longer have a choice. Israeli and diaspora Jews – writers, rabbis, public intellectuals and decision-makers from across the religious and political spectrum – must meet and air their differences openly, frankly, and in the spirit of klal yisrael.

Internal divisions, our history teaches us, have often hurt us more than external enemies. The Jewish people must not fall victim to the chronic polarisation that is now plaguing so many societies. We can still pull back from that brink. We can still gather, agree to disagree if we have to, and remain united. Whatever gains annexation may bring in terms of territory,
it must not be at the cost of our people.

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