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Marmur: Enfranchising the Diaspora

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Israeli election box

“For Netanyahu, the demands of the majority of American-Jewish leaders compete not only with those of his ultra-Orthodox allies, but also to an increasing degree with the American constituencies he sees as much more useful to him,” wrote Anshel Pfeffer, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s biographer and a respected journalist who specializes in Israel-Diaspora affairs, in Haaretz, on the eve of last American Independence Day.

The constituencies Pfeffer had in mind are the Republicans and the Christian evangelicals, many of whom describe themselves as Zionists. The headline of the Haaretz article read, “Why being anti-Diaspora makes sense to the Israeli right.” It ends with the following note: “For any right-wing Israeli politician today, being anti-Reform – and by extension anti-Diaspora – isn’t a matter of ideology. It simply makes political sense.”

That’s not how Israeli politicians like to put it. For example, Education Minister Naftali Bennett told the American Jewish Committee that what keeps him up at night isn’t the danger presented by Iran, but “the future of the Jews in America.” The reasons usually given are assimilation and intermarriage. The named culprits are often the Reform and Conservative movements.

The matter of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, which is demanded by these movements, has become the focus of much of the controversy, but there are many other issues.

Israelis only think of Jews in America. The rest of the Diaspora is rarely mentioned. Canada may have the fourth-largest Jewish population in the world (after Israel, the U.S. and France), but at best it’s viewed as an appendage to American Jewry. Politicians in Israel often assume that anti-Semitism will bring non-American Jews to Israel, particularly from Europe. Those who’ll stay don’t seem to deserve much attention because it’s believed that they’ll eventually assimilate, unless they’re staunchly Orthodox.

READ: THE TWO SIDES OF BENJAMIN NETANYAHU

Netanyahu maintains that only he is the legitimate spokesman of world Jewry. That’s why, for example, he felt entitled to make a deal with the Polish government over its slanted view of the Holocaust, even though many survivors and scholars saw it as a betrayal of the Jewish people and their history. That’s also why he has entertained Hungary’s prime minister in Israel, despite the painful unease of many Jews.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Likud Beitenu elections HQ at Metzudat Ze’ev in Tel Aviv. (Moti Kimchi/Israel Sun photo)

Netanyahu’s reasons seem to have little to do with Jewish history, and more to do with contemporary Israeli politics, which tends to see right-wing governments everywhere as allies, despite their implicit – or explicit – disdain for the Jewish people.

He acts on the apparent assumption that what Jews in the Diaspora think and feel is of little relevance. Israel’s economy is strong enough not to need the money collected in Jewish communities. Certain institutions may still depend on funds from abroad, but the Jewish state does not.

And the time has long passed when Israel needed local Jewish communities to intercede with their governments on behalf of Israel. Today, the prime minister of Israel has open lines of communication with the leaders of the United States, Russia and other world powers. Netanyahu may purport to speak on behalf of all Jews, but he does so without their input and often without any consideration of their needs.

The result is a growing chasm between Israel and world Jewry. Individuals and organizations trying to bridge the gap assume that promoting civilized conversation will remedy the situation.  Thus the argument recently presented by Natan Sharansky, the immediate past chair of the Jewish Agency, and Gil Troy, a prolific writer and professor at McGill University who divides his time between Montreal and Jerusalem. They want to establish a Jewish People’s Council, a body composed of representatives of major Jewish organizations that would consider issues that divide us and advise the government of Israel on how to fix them. Though action is mentioned, the authors state explicitly that “ours is not a proposal for power-sharing.”

But it’s precisely power sharing that’s needed. If the prime minister of Israel is to be the leader of the Jewish people, Jews outside of Israel must have a say over what he says and does on our behalf. Another debate club isn’t enough.

The most drastic and effective way of achieving this would be to allow all Jews to vote in Israeli elections. Those living in the Diaspora could apply for Israeli citizenship as non-residents. At election time, they could cast their ballots by mail, or at Israeli missions in the countries in which they reside.

If the State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, as the much-discussed nation-state law recently passed by the Knesset says it is, then all Jews should be allowed to shape its future, irrespective of where they live. Enabling the Diaspora to vote in Israel would give all Jews a voice.

Alas, many Israelis are likely to oppose such a move. They’d argue that because Jews in the Diaspora don’t serve in the Israel Defense Forces and don’t pay taxes, they don’t qualify to help decide what direction the country should go, even when the world’s Jews are often deeply affected by Israel’s decisions.

There are, however, many Israelis who don’t serve in the army – the ultra-Orthodox come to mind – but still vote. It’s also reasonable to assume that not all Israelis pay income tax. And some young Jews from the Diaspora choose to serve as lone soldiers in Israel, or contribute to the Jewish state in many other ways. Citizenship would no doubt encourage many more to do so.

Perhaps those in power in Israel will oppose Diaspora participation not for the reasons given, but out of a fear that Israeli politics would take a hard left turn if the Diaspora’s many liberal Jews were able to cast a ballot. (Though for some Israelis, this would be one more reason to give Diaspora Jews the vote.)

Ironically, seven decades after the State of Israel was established – an event that Jews throughout the world had cause to celebrate – it has the potential to become a threat to the Jewish people, if small-minded, reactionary politicians get their way. We need drastic and imaginative measures if we are to heal the rift that threatens the future of Jews and Judaism.

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