Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky probably thought he was stating the obvious when he welcomed his board of governors to Jerusalem on February 17 with a bromide about Israel-Diaspora solidarity. “It is increasingly clear,” said the chairman, still best known for his years in a Soviet prison, “that world Jewry depends on Israel and Israel depends on world Jewry.”
It’s a familiar notion, and contains much truth. But “increasingly clear” it’s not. If anything, it’s increasingly murky. Right now, no fewer than three major Diaspora Jewish communities — in Australia, Argentina and the United States — are embroiled in crises arising from their relationships with Israel, facing noisy, threatening allegations of dual loyalty.
This could be a harbinger of the future. Some top Israeli officials see the country’s actions becoming increasingly unpopular around the world. As that happens, they say, Israel’s defenders are on the defensive. The more isolated Israel becomes, the greater its dependence on Diaspora Jews — and the higher the cost to those Jews.
The most dramatic crisis involves a young Australian Jew who, like Sharansky, ended up in a prison cell as a consequence of his love of Zion. But his prison, unlike Sharansky’s, was Israeli. And unlike Sharansky, this inmate, Prisoner X, never got out alive. He died in December 2010, allegedly having hanged himself in Israel’s most closely monitored cell.
His fate was top-secret for two years, until an explosive documentary aired February 14 on Australian television. It told how the idealistic young Zionist Ben Zygier immigrated to Israel in the 1990s, joined the Mossad and ultimately got caught in a deadly conflict between Israeli and Australian security interests. At the heart of the dispute, it appears, is the Mossad’s practice of recruiting Jews whose Western passports let them travel where Israelis can’t.
The expose has left Israeli and Australian authorities groping for answers while Australia’s social media crackle with accusations of Jewish disloyalty, and Australian Jews grieve in stunned silence. Wounds are still raw from the deaths of four Australian Jews when a shoddily built bridge collapsed at the 1997 Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv. Now this. Love for Israel runs deep in Australian Jewry. Lately it’s exacting a cost.
Argentina’s crisis broke just days before Australia’s. Speaking on television February 9, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner de Fernandez suggested bluntly that the head of the Jewish community was in contact with “a foreign espionage agency.” This came a week after Argentina formally accused Israel of “improper” interference in “sovereign” Argentine affairs.
The dispute involves the still-unsolved 1994 terrorist bombing of Argentina’s main Jewish community center, AMIA. The bombing killed 85 people. It’s still the world’s deadliest single anti-Jewish attack since World War II. Another 29 people died two years earlier in an attack on the local Israeli embassy. Israeli intelligence officials believe both bombings were in retaliation for Israel’s 1992 assassination of Hezbollah chief Abbas Musawi. Yes, Diaspora Jews sometimes pay for Israeli security decisions.
Argentine courts eventually charged Iranian and Hezbollah officials, but no one was ever arrested. Now, on January 27, Argentina and Iran agreed to create a joint “truth commission.” Israel promptly protested, and mutual recriminations flew.
The Jewish community response was more complex. AMIA President Guillermo Borger initially objected, but withdrew his complaint after meeting on January 29 with Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, himself the son of a famed Argentine Jewish human rights leader. Ten days later Borger reversed him self again, declaring that the “truth commission” could bring “a third bombing.” Kirchner attacked Borger the next day, wondering aloud where he got his “information” about future bombings. Her rebuke apparently worked; further Jewish protests have been muted and poorly attended.
The third crisis, less dramatic but arguably more serious in the long run, is in Washington, where Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense met historically unprecedented resistance from Senate Republicans. Several motives drove Republican opposition, but the one that dominated televised Senate hearings, and drew the most impassioned public comment, was Hagel’s attitude toward Israel.
Without plumbing the details of Hagel’s views on Israel — they’ve been explored elsewhere at length — it’s important to note that they hardly approach the icy disdain of former Republican defense secretaries Caspar Weinberger and James Schlesinger. Nor, for that matter, of Republican ex-president George H.W. Bush. What’s new isn’t Hagel’s skepticism, but the level of pro-Israel purity now expected of our public officials.
Importantly, the campaign against Hagel isn’t the direct handiwork of the mainstream Jewish or pro-Israel lobbies. The main pro-Israel lobbying organization, AIPAC, has been silent. The two top Jewish advocacy powerhouses, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, have lagged ambivalently behind. The campaign has been led by Republican lawmakers and partisan hard-liners like Bill Kristol and Daniel Pipes. Regardless, it’s perceived as representing the will of Israel and its advocates. Politically, that’s what counts.
Thus the latest Washington brawl adds to the ongoing redefinition in the popular mind of pro-Israel advocacy and, by extension, of Jewish advocacy. Once considered a moral beacon, it’s now commonly viewed as a bullying force that throws its weight around without regard to American interests. This dim view, once confined to fringe extremists, began creeping toward the center a decade ago in writings by respected academics like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Now it’s standard fare for op-ed writers and late-night comics.
Ironically, efforts to silence such talk as bigotry merely prove the point. Witness Hagel, pummeled by Israel’s friends for having once said that Israel’s friends intimidate their critics.
Many community leaders view crises like the ones in Australia, Argentina and Washington as evidence of a new global anti-Semitism. Israel’s intelligence services conclude differently: that Israel’s continuing West Bank occupation and settlement expansion are fueling a rising frustration among Israel’s longtime friends, gradually morphing into hostility toward Israel and her staunchest defenders. Even veteran hard-liners like national security council chief Yaakov Amidror, once renowned as Israel’s most right-wing general, have begun voicing alarm over the problem.
Israel has been trying for 45 years to explain its right to settlements, and hasn’t convinced a single foreign government. Now the effort is merely discrediting the explainers.
Some Diaspora pro-Israel advocates still insist that settlements aren’t the cause of Israel’s problems, but they’re only spouting yesterday’s talking-points. Worse, they’re digging themselves — and their communities — into a hole.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Prisoner X Case Signals Moment of Crisis for Israel and Jewish Diaspora
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).