For most of our history, when our non-Jewish neighbours didn’t want us in their midst, they expelled us, put us in ghettoes or killed us. The majority of Israelis seem to have chosen to forget this: according to data published earlier this year, almost half of all Jews in the State of Israel want its Arab citizens expelled or restricted.
Prof. Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist active in both the United States and Israel, referring to data published last March by the Pew Research Center, has observed that not only do most Israelis who describe themselves as ultra-Orthodox or nationalist-religious believe that “Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel,” but many self-defined secular Jewish Israelis share their views.
It used to be different. A major shift from a universalistic to an exclusivist understanding of Judaism began in Israel after the 1967 war. It was strengthened following the failure of the Oslo accords, which promised a two-state solution based on compromises by both sides. The various intifadahs and their offshoots have also led to a hardening of Jewish arteries, with potentially terrible consequences not only for peace in the region, but also for the way Jewish Israelis have come to understand themselves and their heritage in relation to their Arab fellow-citizens.
Despite their support for Israel, often bolstered by the shift to the right throughout the western world, most Jews in the Diaspora have retained their universalistic vision, especially these days when they themselves are once again victims of growing nationalism in Europe and elsewhere. Though many identify with right-wing political parties in the Jewish state, they tend to vote liberal in their own countries, wary of both nationalists and ideologues.
The time has come for Jews in the Diaspora to share their experience and their vision with their fellow Jews in Israel. Instead of blindly joining the chorus of support for the Israel’s government or making representations on behalf of their own institutions – e.g., the current clamour for a non-Orthodox prayer space at the Western Wall – liberal Jews must also find ways to influence Jewish Israelis to share their understanding of Jewish history by reminding them of what happened to Jews under oppressive regimes and the ominous distortion of Judaism by those who now seek to emulate our enemies
In view of the tremendous advances made by Israel in many fields, which have helped to turn it into a potentially economic and technological powerhouse, funds from the Diaspora collected through the conventional channels are much less significant than they used to be. Israel needs now another kind of Diaspora input: the sharing of the Jewish experience across history and the realization that imitating our tormentors under whatever banner may lead to our downfall.
A recent headline in the American-Jewish publication the Algemeiner repeats the conventional question: “Why don’t Israeli Jews care about their counterparts in the Diaspora?” It’s now more appropriate also to ask why Diaspora Jews don’t get more involved in helping shape an authentic and humane Jewish way of dealing with minorities in the Jewish state?
Israel is essential for the survival of Judaism and the Jewish People. There may not have been many of us left who identify as Jews after the Holocaust had there not been a Jewish state. Essential though Israel is for Jews everywhere, Jews everywhere are also essential for Israel, not only because of politics and diplomacy, but also in order to help Israel to espouse Jewish values.
A growing minority of sensitive Israelis are realizing this when they hint or openly state that the country is in danger of coming to imitate states that not long ago kicked out their Jews. They’re appalled when members of Israel’s Arab minority are humiliated or worse. Responsible Diaspora leaders need to join forces with these patriotic critics to safeguard the soul of Israel, and thereby also the future of the Jewish People.