By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
An old joke has it that when a rabbi who knew both countries was asked to describe the difference between Israel and America, he said: “In Israel they give me advice and ask me for money; in America they give me money and ask for advice.” It was an apt metaphor for Israel-Diaspora relations: Israel would set the Jewish agenda and the Diaspora would raise funds to support many worthy causes in the Jewish state. To be a Jewish leader abroad was to be a fund raiser or philanthropist.
Jewish community leaders often reminded us that it wasn’t for those who didn’t live in Israel to voice critical opinions about the Jewish state. It was perfectly in order to criticize other foreign governments but, in the case of Israel, it behooved us to show blind loyalty lest we provide ammunition for Israel’s non-Jewish critics. And not long ago did Mr. Netanyahu declare that, as the prime minister of Israel, he speaks for the entire Jewish people.
This attitude has permeated most, if not all, all spheres of Jewish life. Even the Israeli Hebrew teachers we would employ in the congregations I served saw themselves as experts on all matters Jewish only because they came from Israel. Teaching language was a cover for imparting truths about all matters. They were scandalized when I ventured to correct the mistakes in their Hebrew grammar, assuming that as I lived in the Diaspora I had no right to know Hebrew.
It’s not like that today. Many Israelis are still put out by the fact that Jews in the Diaspora have views of their own and don’t feel inhibited to state opinions on Israeli politics and related matters. However, responsible exponents of particularly American Jews do express views of their own that often go against Israeli government policies.
The recent statement by the Israel Policy Forum that has among its members many leaders of American Jewry is a case in point. The Forum is urging Israel to pursue the two-state solution. Though members of the present government of Israel pay lip service to the project, all who follow events as they unfold know that in practice the government is taking steps that makes that solution less and less likely. The inclusion of Avigdor Lieberman in the cabinet is further evidence of it.
Obviously, the American-Jewish leaders are concerned. They’re no longer prepared to send money and take advice, because they sense that a growing majority of American Jews – particularly the young – look at Israel critically. Unless they’re heard, their support for the Jewish state may evaporate; Bernie Sanders and the young Jews who vote for him are a case in point.
That’s good news. Those who’ve tried to envisage a healthy relationship between Jews who live in the Jewish state and those who reside elsewhere see the possibility of a creative tension between Jewish nationalism in the land and the experience of Jews exposed to the wider world.
Israel is at present entangled in a nationalism that, alas, reflects the putrid political climate in the entire region. Ironically, in the necessary and legitimate endeavor to defend Israel, too many of its leaders seem to be imitating tour enemies; recent statements by leaders of Israel’s armed forces bear it out. Instead of looking at ourselves, we find it convenient to point an accusing finger at others. Our fellow-Jews in the United States (and hopefully also elsewhere) may help us to save ourselves from the powerful hotheads among us.