Relations between Israel and American Jews, by now an old and recurring subject for discussion, have come to the surface again, this time on the editorial page of the Forward (“The Third Front,” August 4). Writing about the conflict in Lebanon, the Forward calls for a greater role for American Jews in Israeli decision-making because what Israel does has significant, and often negative, consequences for American Jews.
The editorial seeks to hoist American Jewish organizations on their own petard by referring to the mantra of so many of these organizations of “we are one.” Well, if we are one and we are also directly affected by what Israel does, the Forward reasons, then we must have a say.
The theme that what Israel does can have negative consequences for American Jews is, of course, not new. Indeed, anti-Zionists in the community at the time of Israel’s founding justified their anti-Zionism on the grounds that supporting Israel would imperil American Jews by leaving them open to the charge of dual loyalty. Thus, they argued, American Jews must have nothing to do with Zionism. Now, we are hearing similar concerns about the impact Israel’s actions have on our lives, but with a very different solution: more, not less, involvement.
On the surface, this approach sounds very appealing. It speaks to one of the great challenges that face the community: a growing apathy toward the Jewish state. Linked to the anxiety over sustaining Jewish identity in America, the notion of American Jews having more say in what Israel does on security and policy matters might be one way to enhance and deepen the commitment of American Jews to Israel.
In reality, however, this is not a compelling idea. It misses the essential nature of the relationship and in the end would have the effect of damaging relations. “We are one” is a meaningful statement if understood in context. What happened in France several years ago illustrates that context. As antisemitism in France was reaching a peak, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon called on French Jews to leave their country and make aliya. The French Jewish community was outraged and made their feelings known to Israeli leadership. Thereafter, Sharon and other Israeli officials showed much more sensitivity in addressing the future of Jews in France.
This incident highlights the parameters of the “we are one” concept. It focuses on the reverse side of involvement, that of Israel intervening in the local affairs of a Diaspora community. It speaks to elements of unity and diversity in the relationship.
Aspects of Israeli-Diaspora relations urgently demand more involvement with one another, more demonstrations of unity and equality. Issues of Jewish education and identity are classic examples of need for this approach.
Any ideas or projects that further emphasize that we are a people with one heritage, one religion and one history, and that we are all strengthened and bound together the more we know about that history and those texts, is something to be encouraged. There are so many ways that the concept “we are one” can be fulfilled through educational, political and social service vehicles.
The French Jewish example points to the diversity factor in the relationship. Within the context of emotional ties between Israel and the Diaspora, there exist very different realities and responsibilities. Israel plays a vital role in standing up for and even rescuing endangered Jewish communities. But it must take into account the independence of a free Jewish community such as exists in France, and cannot simply make statements on its own that may impinge adversely on the life of the community.
American Jewry’s relationship to Israel also manifests similar complex elements. When it comes to Israel’s security, there is no doubt that American Jews play a significant role — not in the way our enemies claim, either as controllers of America’s policy or working for Israel’s interests against America’s, but significant nevertheless. Still, we understand that we are limited partners when it comes to Israel’s basic security.
Only those who live and vote in Israel, who directly experience the consequences of governmental decisions, such as to go to war against Hezbollah, should sit at the table. We are Zionists, but we are not on the same level as those who live their Zionism — practically, if not always ideologically — every day.
This is not merely an abstract distinction. Can one imagine American Jewish representatives having input on Cabinet decisions or even discussions as to whether Israel should go to war against Hezbollah? It is ludicrous on its face.
It would only serve to strengthen many times over the cynicism that some Israelis have toward Diaspora Jews. It would alienate many American Jews from Israel because their efforts to get the Jewish state to take into consideration concerns perceived to be of far less importance would be frustrated. If Sharon’s intrusion into the life of French Jews was seen as insensitive and problematic, how much more so would Israelis see it as inappropriate if French Jews had demanded a role in determining Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians on the grounds that such behavior was directly affecting Muslim attitudes toward Jews in France?
Roles and responsibilities aside, it is important to make clear that in the American context, the benefits to American Jews of Israel’s existence far outweigh any negative impact. It is no accident, though other issues are also at play, that American Jewry has become many times more comfortable as Americans at exactly the time that Israel came into being and flourished.
There is much work to be done to improve and solidify Israeli-Diaspora relations. There are so many ways we can show each other we care. The last thing we need is for American Jews to claim the right to inject themselves into the life-and-death decisions that Israel’s democratically elected government and its citizens have to confront on a daily basis.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, is author of “Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism” (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).