One-way relationship between Israel and the diaspora needs to be revisited

Philanthropy and political support cannot be the only building blocks. Israel has a responsibility to relate to Jews around the world as partners in a joint venture.

Two events took place In Israel on May 14, 1948.  One is well known. In Tel Aviv, David Ben Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. That same day another entity was created: the Jewish diaspora.

The word diaspora, as referred to in modern times, is a category of people that exists in relation to a homeland. Diasporas are interconnected to their homelands through formal and non-formal ties. Once a Jewish nation-state was born, so was its diaspora. At the time of Ben Gurion’s announcement, only 7% of world Jewry lived in the newly declared state. The rest were scattered around the world, with North America having the largest concentration of Jews after the catastrophe of the Holocaust.

The new state was not intended just for those 650,000 Jews present at its creation. Moreover, the state, from the start, was a project of the Jewish people worldwide. They initiated the project and stood behind the struggle for its creation. William Safran, one the founders of the study of contemporary diasporas, laid out a list of characteristics describing how they function.

Two items from this list are relevant here. First, Safran asserts, diasporas are expatriate minority communities whose members regard their ancestral homeland as their true, ideal home and as the place to which they or their descendants would (or should) eventually return when conditions were appropriate.

Second, they believe that they should, collectively, be committed to the maintenance or restoration of their original homeland and to its safety and prosperity.

From the onset, relations between the diaspora and the state were characterised by two strands, both of which corresponded with Safran’s theory: aliya (immigration) to Israel or supporting the project from afar.

In Israel’s Declaration of Independence there was a call to Jews around the world: We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and up-building and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realisation of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel”.

The state was a project of the Jewish people worldwide. They initiated the project and stood behind the struggle for its creation.

Earlier in the Declaration it was stated: The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles”. Simply put, the message to world Jewry was: Join us by immigrating to the new country, and if not, support our project financially and politically.

To facilitate these relations, several institutional arrangements were made. In 1950, the Knesset passed the Law of Return, the gateway to Jewish immigration for any Jew who wished to become an Israeli. In 1952, the law defining the status of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel was passed. Those two bodies were recognised as the representatives of world Jewry in matters concerning the relations between the diaspora and Israel.

Fundraising mechanisms that were operating in the pre-state era were carried over to the new political reality. In the early years of Israel, it became clear that Jews who were in distress were likely to immigrate while Jews in free western countries were expected to support the Israeli project from afar. World Jewry played a critical role in the enormous task of absorbing the great number of immigrants who came from Europe and from Arab and Muslim countries, most of them without any assets or resources.

Another pattern emerged in those formative years: The diaspora is not evenly spread. The American Jewish community is the dominant force in determining the rules of these relations. Other communities were invited to sit around the table, but their influence was limited. Corresponding to this imbalance was the financial support. While there were donors and fundraising mechanisms around the world, the bulk of the funding came from North America.

As those institutional arrangements in the early years of Israel were forming, there was a deep cultural disconnect between Israel and world Jewry. The two entities operated with little social or cultural engagement. Diaspora Jews who cared about Israel and supported it were geographically and physically separated from the site where the action was taking place.

Similarly, Israelis were focused inward, invested in the task of nation-building. Travel and contact were limited. The so called “relationship” between Israel and world Jewry was left to the domain of imagination and was mediated through packaged institutional messages created by the establishment bodies.

The new reality that emerged after the Six Day War in 1967 brought change in the intensity and quality of the engagement. Diaspora Jews were deeply touched by the drama of the war. They celebrated the stunning military victory and were prepared to stand by Israel against the growing pressure of the international community.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence

At the same time, Jewish travel to Israel increased dramatically. Diaspora Jews could visit Israel and see heritage sites, with the Western Wall as the main feature, tour the country, engage with its citizens and get an unmitigated impression of Jewish sovereignty. Similarly, Israelis were exposed to world Jewry as hosts and partners. Thousands of Israelis were sent overseas as shlihim (emissaries) to Jewish communities. This was a sort of honeymoon in the evolving relations. The discourse was filled with expressions of unity and slogans regarding world Jewry and Israel as one people (Am Echad).   

The honeymoon was short-lived. Starting in the late 1970s and well into the 1980s and 90s, a new discomfort penetrated the discourse. Many diaspora Jews felt discontent with the policies of Israeli governments in two main areas: the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and continued occupation of the lands conquered in 1967, and the increased Orthodox control of matters of religion. And Israelis began accusing diaspora Jews of intervention in what they considered were internal Israeli affairs.

with the centrality of Israel also comes the responsibility to relate to Jews around the world as partners in a joint venture.

In parallel with these diverging trends, we saw a new, and in my mind, positive trend: mass-level direct encounters between Israelis and diaspora Jews. Starting in the 1990s, multiple settings of direct contact and dialogue emerged. Technological innovations and social media platforms allowed for interaction that was not regulated by the established leadership system.

Large communities of Israeli expatriates emerged around the world and contributed to this trend. This direct line of communication made the relations messier, but more real. In this complex web, gaps between Right and Left politics, and between conservatives and liberals, were accentuated. Traditional modes of support were weakened. Jews in the diaspora selected their donations based on their ideological preferences.  

As Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary, with about 50% of world Jewry present in the state, there is a need to revisit the question of relations between the two components of the Jewish People. Philanthropy and political support from the diaspora to Israel cannot be the only building blocks of this relationship.

The Zionist project succeeded in the creation of a nation-state that influences the narrative of the entire Jewish collective. But with the centrality of Israel also comes the responsibility to relate to Jews around the world (and to Israeli expatriates) as partners in a joint venture.

The web of relations between diaspora Jews and Israel must move to levels of cooperation, dialogue and mutual responsibility based on respect for differences, recognition of diversity and an ability to contain discomfort and divergent interests.

Illustration: Avi Katz