Examining the Israel – Diaspora relationship: What is the role of Australian Jewry?
Harold Zwier 11th March 2010
Presented at the seminar held at Monash University Centre for Jewish Civilisation
In giving my views on the changing nature of our relationship with Israel and the positive role Australian Jewry might play in that changing relationship, I want to start with a few impressionistic sketches.
There is a story from the 1960s which might have come from my grandfather, though it might also just be one of those Jewish urban myths that has permeated the collective memory of our community. It’s the story of a blue-box collector who has the door slammed in his face one Sunday morning, after being berated by a prospective donor whose cousin had her apartment robbed in Tel Aviv. “If my cousin can be robbed in Tel Aviv I’m not giving money to Israel any more”.
The thieves had not merely robbed an apartment – an event that unfortunately occurs in every city in the world – they had violated the relationship between this person and their image of the holy land. A trust had been betrayed. Other countries have criminals, but not Israel…
Leon Freedman, a person much involved in the Jewish community in the 1960s told me that visiting Israel was considered such a big event at that time, that on his return from Israel in 1962, he was invited to address the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies – now known as the Jewish Community Council of Victoria – eager for an eyewitness report.
At the end of 1967, following the 6 day war in June, and my barmitzvah in August that year, my grandparents took me and my brother on a holiday to Israel for several weeks. Both my grandparents were people involved in the Jewish community and my grandfather was an engaging and lively personality. Traditional rather than strictly orthodox, they came to Australia from Germany in 1939.
Both my grandparents had health problems affecting their movement and therefore avoided walking more than short distances, but when we arrived in Jerusalem, the four of us went for a walk in the afternoon and having found the Damascus gate into the Old City, our walk became my grandfather’s quest to reach the Kotel – the Western wall. An energy drove him to ignore his physical pain and as we approached the area of the Kotel and it came into view, he was overcome with the emotional depth of the moment; the collective memory that stretched back to biblical times; the relatively recent despair and blackness of the horrific loss in a Europe gone mad; the Old City restored to Jews; and he cried both with grief and joy.
Somewhere around 2001 a rather right wing friend – someone in the orthodox community – told me that my political views were putting Israel in danger and he no longer wanted to talk to me. I persisted, but he closed down the discussion, and for reasons I can’t quite remember, suggested I might find a Wednesday night shiur with Rabbi Meir Rabi of interest.
Rabbi Rabi was examining the halacha associated with engaging in war and I anticipated learning something about a Jewish orthodox view of modern Israel’s conflict with Palestinians and other neighbours. I was completely wrong. Firstly, Israel is not a halachic state (thank God) and secondly, the last time Jews controlled their own territory in that area was some 2000 years ago and the halacha is somewhat frozen there – with no particular need for update… until now. I seem to recall that Rabbi Rabi suggested we needed to acquire a couple of hundred years of modern Israel’s existence to see a body of new halachic discussion.
The Gen08 survey of Australian Jews showed that 74% or respondents have relatives and 53% have close friends living in Israel. Some 86% of respondents have visited Israel and 40% have done so in the last 4 years. Whatever the cultural and religious ties that connect Israel to the Australian Jewish community, there are clearly strong personal ties as well.
Now these sketches are part of an ever changing set of perspectives and images that define the Israel diaspora relationship. They are part of a unique experience for Jewish communities who for centuries were minority communities which at best had peer to peer relationships with communities in other towns and other countries and no real protection against the prevailing political winds that saw them regularly evicted and worse.
The flux in our relationship with Israel is a totally expected effect of an ethnic/religious diaspora, whose collective memory does not have any recently used blueprints for defining the nature of a relationship with a Jewish state in its historical homeland. The relationship has therefore not achieved an equilibrium and is unlikely to do so any time soon.
The wide eyed adoration of Israel by the diaspora community that witnessed its establishment, became triumphant with the unification of Jerusalem during the war in 1967. But in addition to har habayit, Israel also acquired an indigenous population of Palestinians whose management over the decades since, has been detrimental to both sides. The reality of an unresolved conflict that regularly flares into violence has sobered attitudes in the diaspora and there is probably a better appreciation that like other countries, Israel has successes and failures in its civil society and political processes.
As much as we think of Israel as the Jewish state, it is in fact, a state of its citizens. Just as Australia thought it understood how to handle its indigenous people and rarely got it right, so too Israel in its own way cannot reconcile the vision of a Jewish state with the reality that some 20% of its population is not Jewish. And if it’s difficult for Israel, how much more difficult is it for the diaspora who sing hatikvah at every opportunity and feel pride whenever they see the Israeli flag with its Star of David. Those 2 symbols are a de facto bond between Israel and the diaspora, but how much do they unite all Israelis?
It seems to me that over time Israel will need to decide whether to emphasise its relationship with the diaspora, or whether it needs to focus on the internal adjustments necessary for all its citizens to have a sense of ownership. These are political directions from the highest level of government and not only affect policy approaches within Israel, but also deal with the compromises necessary to resolve the conflict with Palestinians. The diaspora often focuses on the very real political failures of the Palestinian leadership, but avoids discussion, and in some parts even rejects the notion, of political failure of Israel’s leadership.
Diaspora communities, of course, not only want to maintain, but indeed strengthen their ties to Israel. In the Gen08 survey some 80% of respondents self defined themselves as zionists within the definition contained within the question: (ie. a zionist is someone who feels connected to the Jewish people, to Jewish history, culture and beliefs, the hebrew language and the Jewish homeland, Israel). ¾ of respondents feel a special alarm or stronger when international events put Israel in danger.
Yet the diaspora comprises those who by and large have decided not to make their homes in Israel, and instead have adopted the role of promoting and defending Israel. Anecdotally, the diaspora regards Israel as a poor defender of its policies and actions when it is criticised in the international community, but Israel is seen to have the role of ultimate protector of worldwide Jewry.
These 2 examples touch on the ambivalence in our relationship with Israel. Perhaps if there were no diaspora, Israel might be less newsworthy and therefore even less inclined to invest overly in self promotion.
The collective memory of the Jewish diaspora has provided the plans for establishing, sustaining and nurturing communities wherever Jews have settled in sufficient numbers. It is therefore unlikely that Israel’s presence will see the decline of the diaspora in the short term. Old habits die hard. Nevertheless, as the centrality of Israel increases in the Jewish world the importance of the diaspora will reduce.
The last area I want to discuss relating to Israel and the diaspora is the issue of Israel advocacy. Firstly because it is seen as so central to the relationship. Secondly because it has a significant impact on the relationship between the Jewish community and the wider community and thirdly because it connects to the issue of antisemitism.
There is a correlation between reports of antisemitic incidents in Australia and events in the Middle East. We know that during the war in Gaza at the beginning of 2009 there was a spike in the number of incidents reported. Similar spikes occurred in 2006 during the war in Lebanon and in 2001 & 2002 during the second intifada. The Gen08 survey reports that 40% of respondents think that antisemitism in Australia is quite serious or very serious. On the other hand around 50% don’t think so. It is interesting to compare attitudes over time. In 1967 67% of respondents to that survey thought antisemitism in Australia was serious. In 1991 63% thought it a serious problem and now 40% think it’s a problem. So while the collated statistics indicate a rise in antisemitic incidents, concern in the community over time has apparently decreased.
The rise in anti Israel sentiment and antisemitism, in France, Britain and other parts of Europe has not yet affected Australia to the same extent and it may be that there are specific factors affecting Europe that are less significant here. But there is benefit in considering the issue of Israel advocacy in the public arena and how it might be effectively handled with anti Israel sentiment on the rise.
The following 4 considerations might provide a guide.
1. How to present Israel’s policies and actions in a credible, authoritative and reasonable manner.
2. How to present Israel as much more than the conflict with Palestinians without being seen to use that as a way to divert attention from the conflict.
3. How to present the strong Jewish community support for Israel, while at the same time conveying a sense of the diversity of views about Israel’s policies and actions.
4. How to ensure that the Jewish community is not seen as so tightly bound to Israel’s policies and actions that the lines are blurred between criticism of Israel and criticism of the Jewish community.
Israel advocacy covers a wide area and most of it is uncoordinated. Letters to newspapers, radio talkback, student protests, demonstrations, placards, e-mails, leaflets and other forms provide any of us with the means to have our say. But the organised parts of the Jewish community have 3 major groups that are either regularly asked for media comment about matters relating to Israel, or actively send out press releases as issues arise. These are the zionist organisations (Zionist Federation of Australia, Zionist Council of Victoria), the ECAJ (Executive Council of Australian Jewry) and the AIJAC (Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council).
These organisations have 3 major rules that guide their public presentations.
Rule number 1 is that they alone have the authority to speak on behalf of the Jewish community and they validly represent the voice of the community because a significant majority of Jews support Israel.
Rule number 2 is that they won’t criticise the government of Israel, its policies or its actions.
Rule number 3 is that if they can’t say anything good about Israel they will try to avoid saying anything.
There is also a rule number 4 which they apply to organisations outside their circle which says that if you can’t adhere to rule number 2, any comments critical of Israel must be balanced in some way.
I listed 4 considerations that might act as a guide for advocacy and for a long time it has seemed to me that the spokespeople for the Jewish community fall short on those criteria:
Their public statements on important issues are often less than credible, authoritative or reasonable.
They often seem to portray Jewish community support for Israel as also meaning support for all its policies and actions when the reality is that there is a diversity of views about Israel’s policies and actions.
The strong message of unity and unanimity being conveyed means that the Jewish community is sometimes seen as an arm of the Israeli government.
It seems to me that the Australian Jewish community can be staunch supporters of Israel without the need to defend everything it does. Rather than trying to reduce the number of spokespeople in our community there would be a real benefit in increasing the number voices. It would mean that the diversity of views in our community would be better represented, the Jewish community would be distinguished from Israel, and the complex nature of the Middle East and Israel’s place there would be better conveyed.
These are issues that require much more discussion than this brief overview.
In conclusion, it is fair to say that the Israel diaspora relationship is made of many strands and is itself only one aspect of our multi-faceted Jewish community. While there is no doubting the centrality of Israel to our community, the maturing of our relationship with Israel is likely to see a recognition that our interests and Israel’s interests are not always the same.
Harold is a member of the AJDS Executive
Examining the Israel – Diaspora relationship: What is the role of Australian Jewry?