OPINION: Strengthen diaspora communities with less focus on Israel

OPINION: Strengthen diaspora communities with less focus on Israel

Jonathan Paul Katz

By Jonathan Paul Katz, a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford.  

One hears the complaints all the time: Jewish youth do not care for Israel.

Support for the state is down, and groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Yachad ask inconvenient questions about the actions of Netanyahu’s government.

The youth no longer want to plant trees in Israel, and may even vote for politicians that, horror of horrors, are highly critical of Israel.

The old days of a united community front, supportive of Israel in all of her endeavours, is gone. We are told, especially by the right, that this is a tragedy – and a decay in the communal scaffolding of diaspora Jewry.

The truth is this: for many Jews of our generation – Orthodox, Progressive, Masorti (like myself), secular, or mixed – Israel is not the glorious apex of Jewish history.

Nor is it, according to many a right-wing demagogue here, in the United States, South Africa, or elsewhere, the demon evil of the world.

Rather, Israel is simply another country.

Sure, most of the population shares our religious tradition and ethnic background, but ultimately it is not home in the same way that London, New York, Manchester, or Johannesburg may be.

Furthermore, compared to other countries’ governments, we find the actions of the Israeli state to be particularly problematic, and see the post-1967 era as less of a glorious Jewish military victory than a Pyrrhic one.

We do not necessarily see anti-Semitism in every critique of Israel – although occasionally it is there; rather, we see Israel being held to the standard of any normal country, and certainly one that calls itself “democratic.”

Of course, some of us – including myself – do talk about Israel/Palestine a good deal. (Yes, we use the “P-word.”)

But no longer is our conversation about defending Israel alone – since for us, Israel is not what is to be defended.

Nor is it central to our Jewish identity.

For many of us, the concern is human rights. For me and many others, it is the hijacking of our Jewish identity, religion and heritage to one narrow interpretation alone.

As Jews in the Diaspora, we also simply do not get to escape Israel.

Within our communities, we are constantly reminded of Israel, told about it, told to support it, told of its glories.

Outside of our communities, we are constantly told to defend it, explain it, disown it, or change it.

Some of this pressure comes from non-Jews, who associate us with Israel for innocent and not-so-innocent reasons alike.

But some of this pressure comes from an Israeli state that without our consent claims to represent all Jewry – not just those associated directly with Israel through citizenship or residence.

In this environment, we must engage with Israel in some fashion: the pressure is too much to bear.

Yet for us – even those whose engagement with Israel is mostly praising the state – England, America, and other countries are fundamentally home.

These countries are the places where we grew up, where we return to as a source of comfort, and where we identify as our places of origin.

Though we may later migrate – some to Israel, others to elsewhere – these places that right-wing Zionists consider “exile” are often for us the “sweetest home.”

London and New York are our new Jerusalems.

So let’s build here, in the Diaspora.

I say this not just to those who complain about the sinking support of Israel, but also to those who are critics of Israel and Zionism – but do not go beyond criticism.

Complaining is sometimes necessary – and certainly cathartic – but there is also work to be done.

To the right, I argue that new building here would help retain the young Jews – observant like myself, secular, Orthodox, and others – so many worry about losing.

To the left, I note that positive construction would do far more to win support, and shift the Jewish conversation on Israel/Palestine, than performance alone.

Let’s strengthen diaspora communities’ knowledge of Jewish tradition in the Talmud and Tanakh, liturgy and literature, and faith in the three thousand year history of our people – taking the charge of Adin Steinsaltz to create “diaspora centres of learning.”

Let’s widen our perspectives beyond Israel and the status quo, to cover the multivalent kaleidoscope of Jewish life.

Let us change the way we use historical memory – and honour those we lost in the Shoah and other tragedies by aiming to come at least a little closer to that fantastic world of theirs that was so horribly destroyed.

Of course the funding mechanisms, management structures, and decades of publications circulated across Jewish communities do not necessarily match my – admittedly rather idealistic – call to arms.

However, I recall Rabbi Hillel’s words here: the task is never-ending. Thus, even with a little, much can be done.

A huge effect could be had if even five pence to every pound directed towards the Jewish National Fund (which hardly needs money) was redirected towards new educational initiatives, additional funding for museums and synagogues, or new Jewish publications.

As for the change of mind-set – that takes time. But the Jewish people have adapted and rebuilt and changed over the centuries – through Inquisitions and invitations, wars and prosperity, dispersion and the creation of Israel.

Who says we cannot start to build now?

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