Note: Also speaking for the motion – Rabbi Shlomo Riskin; opposed Keith Kahn-Harris and Rabbi Jonathan Romain. The motion carried by a large majority.
I am not at all comfortable with the question of whether Israel or the Diaspora communities are central – cooperation between both is essential, in many dimensions. If it had been up to me, I would have chosen another framework for this debate.
But I understand that the Israel-based discourse, particularly among at Limmud, in the Jewish Chronicle, and among a number of Anglo-Jewish groups, reflects discomfort regarding the question of primacy. And in this context, I will present my views.
I am an Israeli, born in London, raised in California, and living in Israel for 40 years with my family, raising four children, with all that this implies. As a Jew, I and millions of others have seized the opportunity to fulfill 2,000 years of waiting for the return to the Land of Israel, and to be part of what has been called the greatest comeback in modern history.
How could I not be part of this incredible project, in which the Jewish nation has taken full responsibility for security, politics, economy and society. Israel is one of only two states than gained independence after 1945 that has remained democratic, despite deadly wars and political isolation, mass immigration as well as immense religious, ethnic and cultural diversity.
Perhaps the most important difference between us is the cultural renaissance taking place in Israel every day. We speak, read and breathe Hebrew – not only on Shabbatot, or for a few hours in school, but every day, everywhere. And while my students and children will tell you that my command of Hebrew remains imperfect, it is good enough to contribute to the rediscovery of the incredibly vibrant contemporary Jewish-Hebrew culture from 4,000 years of texts which is the essential basis for our shared Jewish identity.
The restoration of Hebrew and the responsibility for our own fate have led to the emergence of a free-flowing contemporary creativity — in Jewish terms Israel is where it is at. No other Jewish community can compete with Israel’s Jewish intensity nor with its Jewish diversity – from the four corners of the world. The exciting synergy in literature, music, and political philosophy, makes Israel the core the Jewish renaissance.
All of this is reinforced by inescapable political realities. We live in a global system of conflicting nation states – the multicultural societies under Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman tutelage ended two hundred years ago. And the enticing images of modern Western multiculturalism, in which Jewish communities can, at times, survive physically, including preventing mass assimilation, and prosper culturally, may very well be illusory, as many European leaders and intellectuals acknowledge. The widely proclaimed end of nationalism is a myth, fostered by wishful thinking, including among many Diaspora Jews.
For the Jewish people, therefore, the centrality of Israel is the only political and cultural option, in the long term, and perhaps in the short term as well, if the hostile environment in Europe, and particularly in Britain, worsens, as it probably will. If we think the unthinkable, meaning the reversal of the Zionist miracle, and an end to Jewish sovereignty, Diaspora Jewry, subject to pressure from all directions, and with a 50% rate on intermarriage in the UK, will be, at best, consigned to the fringes of society. Without belittling the value of social justice and Tikkun Olam, these are no substitutes for the centrality of Israel in Jewish identity.
The majority of Jews in the Diaspora share the centrality of Israel – including, I assume, most of you, which is why so much attention and anxiety are focused on events in Israel, including at Limmud. We may agree on some issues, such as the need to prevent a nuclear Iran, and oppose the hijacking of human rights by NGOs that immorally singling-out Israel; and we disagree on others, but Israel is central in this exchange.
However, in recent years, the evidence shows that the disagreements have grown. While proclaiming their “love for Israel” (sincerely in my view), individuals such as Peter Beinart, and Jewish leaders from J Street, the New Israel Fund, and others, have joined the dominant ideological current simplistically blaming Israel for the absence of peace. We are frequently admonished for expanding settlements and perpetuating the occupation. The patronizing myths of Palestinian victimization, such as we heard yesterday from John Ging, and the lies of “war crimes” as well as the insidious “apartheid” analogy promoted by powerful NGOs such as Amnesty, War on Want, and Oxfam in the pages of the Guardian, the Independent and on the BBC, are inescapable. We understand that Anglo-Jewry is in a difficult situation, where criticizing Israel is politically expedient. But at time, Israel’s Jewish critics appear to be making a virtue out an uncomfortable necessity.
Of course, Israel is far from perfect. There is a great deal to criticize, including our version of democracy, which is still based on the Polish model of the 1850s, and has empowered politicized and often demagogic rabbis who hold the balance of power between the major parties. But, as has been true since 1948, Jews who choose to live in the Diaspora are not with us in Israel to help bring the changes they insist we make. Like the most articulate book or film critics who have never written a novel or produced even a YouTube video, you are stuck on the sidelines, looking in.
Yes, for every position that Diaspora Jews select, they will find some Israelis to provide credibility. The Left can cite Haaretz, David Landau, and Peace Now, and those who endorse promotes Goldstone’s indictment of Israel as a nation of war criminals have a handful of Israelis in groups like Breaking the Silence. Similarly, Diaspora supporters of the Israeli Right have their own touchstones. (In reviewing the Limmud sessions on Israel, I did not see much of a representation of that part of the spectrum, and therefore, you have a very limited marketplace of ideas.)
But while the Diaspora community moves further to the [irrational] ideological poles on both ends (more to the Left than the Right), most Israelis have abandoned these failed ideologies, resulting in a very distorted understanding of Israel. The 6% of Israelis who still read Haaretz have many other sources of information, and do not need to accept the party line. Far more Israelis read Israel Hayom, which has no English version. And while many Diaspora Jews may think that Netanyahu is “right wing” and Tzippi Livni leads the post-Oslo “peace camp”, Israelis know that there are no substantive differences. The criticism expressed by Anglo-Jewish leaders is the result of convenience given their own situation, and a failure to understand the extremely difficult dilemmas that Israel faces in foreign policy and security.
We need you to help us fight our battles, and visa versa. And the observations and expertise of Diaspora Jewish leaders, offered in partnership, should certainly inform the Israeli debate, with the realization that ultimately, the fateful decisions can only be taken by Israelis.