By Alan Elsner
A headline in the Jerusalem Post a couple of months ago declared: Israel to spend billions on initiative to bolster Jewish identity in Diaspora. It quoted Naftali Bennett, the Economics Minister and leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party as saying:
In Israel, we typically view the world as a source of aliyah and a big fat wallet, and that’s got to change.”
Bennett did not specify what he meant by “strengthening Jewish identity” – whether he meant religiously or culturally or through a deeper attachment to Israel. Possibly he intended all of the above. Still, the article was interesting because it implied that ties between Israel and the Diaspora were weakening and in need of reinforcement.
At a time when Israel faces serious diplomatic isolation over its continued occupation of the West Bank and the Boycotts, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign is gaining traction across the world, including on US campuses, who can Israel turn to for support, if not world Jewry?
But strengthening Jewish identity, however defined, may not be the answer unless Israel is also willing to engage in and foster an honest dialogue with Jews around the world that does not shy away from the most serious and sensitive issues facing the nation – the occupation, settlements, peace, Jerusalem and Israel’s future as a democracy.
As Bennett noted, since it was founded, Israel has come to Jews in the Diaspora, and especially in the United States, asking for money. Many of us, have been happy to respond. If you go to an institution like the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, where my son Micha was born, there is scarcely a room within the building or a piece of equipment within a room that does not have a plaque below it with the name of the family or families who gave money.
Our community has been proud to invest in Israel – and still is – because we take pride in what Israel represents and what it has accomplished as well as what it can and should accomplish in the future. Not only do we take pride in these achievements but we also feel a sense of ownership. We are emotionally as well as financially invested in Israel’s success and in Israel’s happiness.
Yes, Israel needs our financial muscle and our political support. But more than that, they also need our ideas, our intellectual vibrancy, our thoughts, our contribution to the development of the Jewish people.
What they want, in short, is a real relationship.
And we need Israel to be strong because it has become the vehicle for the long-term survival of our people. We need Israel to help inspire our future generations to stay connected to our people. That’s why we have sent them there on thousands on Birthright trips.
But whether we send more money their way or they send money our way, both sides now realize that relationship is in a bit of trouble right now. Many of our children, despite Birthright, are moving away from Israel emotionally, psychologically, religiously and intellectually. The relationship right now is not very healthy.
So what is a healthy relationship?
It is one in which both sides can address each other openly and honestly – and where each side listens to the other respectfully and attentively and with an open mind.
Israelis know what it is like to live under the threat of rockets and have to send their children to serve in the army. As a democracy, only they can elect their government and leaders and we should respect their choices.
But with greater distance from events and removed from the daily hurly-burly of life in Israel, perhaps we have some perspective that could be helpful to them. Perhaps sometimes we see the forest where they see the trees.
Especially on the question of peace, we may have that critical perspective. We may see the demographic danger to Israel’s democracy posed by continued occupation of almost two million Palestinians in the West Bank more clearly than people who are rightly concerned with the everyday challenges and stresses of life in the Middle East.
We owe it to ourselves and to Israel to speak up honestly and openly. We should not censor ourselves for fear that we should be seen as less than fully united behind every single decision that the government of Israel may take. That kind of silent acquiescence ultimately serves neither us nor Israel.
The author is Vice President for Communications at J Street