Can American Jews make demands on Israel if they don’t live there?

Both Israel and the Diaspora must admit that emotional resentment is bad for both of them.

Pro-Israel demonstrators in front of the Federal Building in Los Angeles on May 12, 2021. Photo by Harvey Farr.
Pro-Israel demonstrators in front of the Federal Building in Los Angeles on May 12, 2021. Photo by Harvey Farr.
Blake Flayton. Source: Facebook
Blake Flayton

On Monday morning, news broke that controversial, far-right, probable soon-to-be government minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, while in coalition talks with Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed support for an amendment to existing Israeli policy that would no doubt harm relations between American Jews and Israeli Jews. This change relates to aliyah—who is considered Jewish enough to move to the Jewish state.

Status-quo Israeli policy welcomes converts to Judaism into Israeli citizenship, even converts who underwent the process of becoming Jewish with a rabbi from the Reform movement. The approval of such Jews has drawn the ire of the more observant in Israel, including the rabbinate, which notably launched an open rebellion against the state when hundreds of thousands of Russians began emigrating in the 1990s, some of them with only one Jewish grandparent.

American Jews, the second largest Jewish community on earth, tend to trend liberal on such matters, and they aren’t afraid to show it. Comments online after the news broke ranged from: “This lunatic (Ben-Gvir) thinks he gets to decide who qualifies as a Jew and who doesn’t,” “Ben-Gvir is determined to ruin the state” and “This will be a divorce between American and Israeli Jews.” Yaakov Katz, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, wrote, “This is just the beginning. Hang on tight.” 

Regardless of whether this more traditional preference on the matter of aliyah has any possibility of becoming a reality, this development has sparked a familiar debate. And I am in a unique position to see both sides when it comes to whether or not American Jews deserve to have an opinion on Israeli politics.

Last week, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times wrote a scathing opinion piece on the heels of the Israeli election, airing fears that “the Israel we once knew,” meaning the one that American Jews are comfortable defending, is slipping away. Whether or not to support Israel “will haunt pro-Israel students on college campuses. It will challenge Arab allies of Israel in the Abraham Accords. … It will stress those U.S. diplomats who have reflexively defended Israel as a Jewish democracy that shares America’s values,” Friedman asserted. 

Though I have lived in Israel for barely two months, I can sympathize with some of the bitter reactions to this piece from Israelis, which are based, I believe, in a justified resentment. It’s true: Most Diaspora Jews have not served in the Israel Defense Forces, most of us do not understand the language being spoken by the politicians who we want to make certain kinds of decisions and many of us have never even spent a prolonged amount of time in the Jewish state. 

When the Executive Council on Australian Jewry published a statement condemning the rise of Ben-Gvir and partner Bezalel Smotrich, comments on their Twitter page ranged from “Stay out of our Israeli election, focus on Australia,” to “If you don’t like the results of the election, put on your big boy pants, move here and vote” and “With all due respect, Israeli politics can only be by Israelis, in Israel, in Hebrew. … Diaspora communities cannot be a part of it.”

This discomfort must be acknowledged as valid. Israel is constantly in the limelight of the international arena, constantly analyzed unfairly, disputed and placed under harsh scrutiny by those who see the land between the river and the sea as a grand morality play between good and evil. Israelis have a right to feel defensive; they have a right to their ruffled feathers when those who have not spent a day in their shoes feel entitled to explain how they should vote and how they should feel about their reality.

Yet this right does not come without its consequences. If Israeli Jews shifting further and further to the right truly feel that American Jews have absolutely no standing to intrude in their lives, then they cannot expect American Jews to remain vocally supportive of Israel, as Thomas Friedman says, either on campus, in politics or in the diplomatic arena. They would have to rely on support mainly from Evangelical Christians, who unlike American Jews, emphatically support right-wing policies in Israel like annexation of Judea and Samaria and the incorporation of more religious law in the public sector. Such a future, many agree, such a detachment from Israel in the lives of American Jews, is far from appealing. 

Tsvi Bisk, a social critic and author of The Suicide of the Jews, said during an interview on his (very Zionist) book: “We (Israeli Jews) have resentment, justifiable resentment, at the hypocrisy and double-standard of the world … our resentment is justified. However, you cannot make rational policy based on an emotional resentment.” 

What Bisk means by this is: Yes, when an animal is backed into a corner, lashing out is expected. But this impulse cannot infiltrate a society so profoundly that it results in terrible governance. Is American infiltration, what some Israelis go so far as to label a form of cultural imperialism, justified? Probably not. But is doing whatever the hell you want as a response, with no eye on international opinion, let alone on the attitude of half the world’s Jews, justified? Definitely not. 

The emotional tug of war will no doubt continue to persist. Israelis will be shocked and offended by UNESCO’s shameful declaration that Jews have no right to the Temple Mount, which will compel them to vote for radical parties. Jews in the Diaspora will continue to voice their moral condemnations of this, which will only deepen the hostilities.

A solution to this quandary would be for both sides to bite the bullet. If Jews outside of Israel feel so strongly about what is happening in Israel, they should take the advice of those with whom they most disagree and move their lives here. They’ll have a stake in the future of the nation and a sturdier platform when speaking for or against its policies.

Simultaneously, Israeli Jews should come to realize that though they are entitled to their choices, they are not entitled to be free of scrutiny and backlash, and that what the rest of the world thinks of you does make a difference. No nation has ever been able to survive moral and political isolation, especially not one whose citizens consider millions living overseas to be part of the nation as well.

Blake Flayton is the new media director and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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