By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Israel and the Diaspora


Jews have had a Diaspora at least since the middle of the sixth century before the Common Era.

During the time of the Second Temple, a substantial number, perhaps even a majority, lived outside of the Judean homeland.

The Jerusalem-centered Diaspora figures in Christian anti-Semitism, via the episode of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers.

The story features elements of Jews whose concern for money competes with what should be sacred.

The reality was that money changers were essential to the religious rites. Jews came for the three major festivals from all of the known world, and were compelled to change money brought from their homelands to purchase food to sustain themselves in Jerusalem and to buy the doves or animals which they donated for sacrifice.

Up until modern times there were substantial communities in what is now Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Central Asia, across North Africa, and throughout Europe.

There were small communities of Jews in North America from colonial times, a sizable migration from Germany in the middle of the 19th century, and then the bulk of what became American Jewry arrived from 1880 until the onset of WW I, mostly from Eastern Europe.

There was always a dribble of Jews moving to Jerusalem and other sites in the Holy Land. The tempo increased with the anti-Jewish tensions that provoked the movement westward.

Jerusalem’s meager and impoverished population, described in unglowing terms by Mark Twain, had a Jewish majority since the middle of the 19th century.

In the early years of modern Israel, the American community provided significant resources and political support with ambivalent American governments. During the late 1940s and early 1950s the new country absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jews who came from the remnants of the Holocaust and from Middle Eastern communities, whose governments turned against their Jews after the military embarrassments suffered by Arab armies in 1948.

Now the Jewish communities of western democracies and Israel have matured way beyond their economic, social, and political status of the 1940s, and there are Israel-Diaspora tensions associated with each community’s own interests.

Judaism (i.e., the religion of the Jews) is having a tough time on both sides of the divides, showing the temptations of secularism widespread just about everywhere outside of Islam. Estimates are that as many as 70 percent of non-Orthodox Jews are marrying non-Jews in the U.S. and Western Europe, and that a majority of Israeli Jews rarely visit a synagogue, or know what to do when they do visit for a relative’s bar mitzvah or some other occasion.

Political disputes have replaced the wholehearted enthusiasm for Israel that was characteristic of the 1940s, and through the wars of 1967 and 1973. Concerns became prominent around Israel’s “first unnecessary war” that featured the IDF reaching Beirut and beyond in 1982, and remained as settlements in the West Bank and post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem came to be sources of disagreement with western governments.

Other sources of tension appear among Jews who support campus programs sponsored by Palestinians, up to and including boycotts of Israeli institutions; Jews who express concern about their own loss of status and security due to Muslims and others who oppose Israeli actions involving settlements, Arab casualties due to the actions of the IDF and Israeli police, or what is described as the inflexibility of Israeli governments with respect to the “two state solution” important to the U.S. and other western governments; unease between Diaspora Jews who support left of center political parties, and Israelis who support right of center political parties. 

One can find in the Israeli population antipathy to “rich and spoiled Americans and Europeans” who criticize Israeli actions from their own positions of safety, even while Israelis acknowledge and seek to enhance the financial and political support received from those overseas Jews who continue to identify with Israeli concerns.

With Israel’s development, financial support from the Diaspora has become less important than political support, in the context of increase activism of overseas Palestinians and their supporters.

The Obama administration has moved to an extreme position, not seen since Eisenhower’s pressure on Israel, Britain and France to withdraw from the Sinai in 1956, or Secretary of State James Baker’s “f*** the Jews” in the context of the first Gulf War.

Most prominent is the contrast between G.W. Bush’s recognition of demographic changes that have to be taken into account in any accord, and the Obama-Kerry concern for the 1967 borders and opposition to Jewish construction in post-1967 neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

It is not the case that Israeli Jews and the Israeli government have given up on their former friends, but something like that is involved in Israelis’ move to the right politically while Diaspora Jews continue to support Barack Obama and the head of the British Labour Party Ed Miliband, who is a Jew and son of Holocaust survivors, and has opposed some of Israel’s prominent activities.

One can argue about Israel’s dependence on the political influence of American Jews. For one thing, that influence is not entirely in the direction of supporting the policies of the Israeli government. J Street may not be the match of AIPAC, but it reaches the White House, most notably via Martin Indyk. For another thing, Israel’s own economic and military might, along with its capacity to link itself to various politicians ascendant elsewhere, makes it a factor in its own right, able to look after itself in international politics. At some points in recent months, Israeli actions have been closer to those of Egypt than to those of the United States. And for a third thing, Israeli officials look for support across the complexity of American politics, including sectors not close to whoever is currently in the present White House. Among its points of reference have been Republicans in Congress, and leading ministers of the Christian Right.

None of which is to say that Israeli officials overlook the sentiments and support they may get from American Jews. The point is that Israel is an independent actor, not tied to whatever may be ascendant among the Jews of the United States or any other Diaspora.

BDS and other actions against Israel and Jews on campuses and elsewhere may be making Diaspora Jews more uncomfortable than Israelis. Israelis have been aware of threat and tensions all during their history, and rely on security forces skilled in protecting them. Diaspora Jews are encountering a wave of anti-Semitism, at least partly linked to what Israel has been doing, not felt in western countries since Jews began to enjoy increased opportunities after World War II.

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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