Addressing the Israel Diaspora Disconnect

Alon Ben-David is a senior Israeli journalist.  His geopolitical scan of the Middle East, as presented to an audience of corporate representatives in Perth with global trade interests, was savagely honest.  Mr Ben-David brutally articulated matters such as Egyptian poverty, Syrian genocide, Iranian nuclear ambition, and the regional impact of political instability.  His candid assessment showed the security challenges faced by Israel, and placed into perspective how Israel’s inability to find Palestinian leadership that understands compromise and genuine intent is required for peace, is not the major concern of the corporate sector in Israel.  Regional instability is a reality.  Whilst the enemies of Israel proceed to continually attempt to edit history, Israel charges ahead in its quest for economic development, technological progress and the betterment of humanity.

As I scanned the room when Mr Ben-David started speaking, I saw several Jewish business people. In his opening gambit the speaker raised the publicity surrounding the Zygier incident.  He candidly expressed that it was a reality of Israel that intelligence services are required, and that Israel will take all and any necessary means to mitigate the risk of sabotage and terrorism.  I was pleased that on this occasion there was no sugar coated pleasantness on offer, just an honest and practical assessment that all nations operate covert spy networks, and sensationalism aside, this assists to preserve national security, and in Israel’s instance, assists to save lives. 

As this was communicated I observed the body language and noticeable nervousness of the Jewish people in the room.  On the brow of a lawyer was a metaphorical neon sign that screamed “Oh no, I am one of them.  I will be judged by those around me as a Jew and a Zionist.  This presentation is too honest and raw to fit my comfort zone”.  On the other side of me, a Jewish executive sat with folded arms, evidently deciding to hear what was being communicated, but not to listen.  This person’s body language made the clear statement that “Although this may be true, the people here should not need to hear it.  They cannot relate to the harsh reality that Israel will defend itself, and they will conclude that Israel is an aggressive nation.  What will they think of me after this?”

The experience above is one that I have seen played out in a number of settings in recent months.  When travelling to Israel with a non-Jewish business delegation, I was able to see first hand how the participants understanding and perceptions changed as they witnessed Israel’s security dilemma first hand.  We made the most of every moment, observing how the desert is literally greened, how biosecurity, agritech, ICT and energy industries are being transformed by Israeli innovation.  We understood that both in spite of, and because of, the existential threat that Israel faces that strong and effective cultural resilience is carried into Israel’s commercial markets.  

Yet along the way, and in later weeks in other settings (predominantly populated by Jewish Americans) I was aghast to see just how much of a growing commercial and cultural disconnect there is between Israel and its Jewish Diaspora. 

I saw enough while in Israel and further in my travels to see that politics in Israel is not two-dimensional and that politics in Israel does not necessarily drive, enable or even concern matters such as lifestyle, commerce and culture.  Yet outside of Israel, the nation is defined and discussed by its politics alone.  Within Israel the society flourishes on factors such as the creation of technical skill sets, the maturity of research structures, and the ethos of innovation.  The discussion within in Israel relates to domestic concerns such as the diversity of its population base, establishing harmony within social and religious structures, and fostering identity based on Jewish values.  An incredible maiden speech by Ruth Calderon in the Knesset recently highlighted just how passionate these values are within Israeli society (not just the religious sector), and shows how truly unique the nation of Israel is.

When I returned to Perth from Israel, I was surprised by the number of questions I received regarding my personal safety and security.  During the final days of Operation Pillar of Defense several thousand missiles were fired towards Israel.  I encountered a terror attack only 200 meters from where I was standing.  I followed people into shelters following air raid sirens on two occasions.  Yet all the while I felt a serene sense of calm, a comfort in the level of military protection, and above all a strong sense of solidarity.  Life continued in Israel as normal, which is the best demonstrable response that the people can offer.  As they just carried on with their lives, with a slightly enhanced level of vigilence, I realised just how inaccurate the perceptions of Israel are from beyond its borders.  The security situation is disruptive, but it does not disenable the nation or distract it from its task.

The disconnect of Diaspora Jewry must be addressed.  Diaspora Jewry should be working in partnership with Israel.  Yet the state of this relationship is now ironically one of dependency on the part of the Diaspora on Israel’s cultural, religious, economic and military strength.  The relationship is starting to further wane due to the arrogant expectation of the Diaspora that Israel will provide, and the Diaspora will take.  There is anxiety and discomfort in the Diaspora, even a tinge resentment for Israel’s success.  Israel has the chutzpah to stand strong; to respond militarily to invasions of its sovereignty, and respond publically to attempts to delegitimise its rights of settlement.  Instead of supporting this, the Diaspora is starting to cower. When Israel asserts its Jewish character, we should respond with pride, not embarrassment.   

The harsh truth is that Diaspora Jews are not afraid of what will happen to Israel, but what the consequences are for themselves.  Jewish living requires a discipline, not just a feel good emotive connection.  When Jews around the world opt for a relaxed lifestyle ahead of a Jewish work ethic, then they lose a connection with Israel.  Jewish living requires rigorous debate and enquiry.  The skin of Diaspora Jewry is no longer thick enough, and the structures of Diaspora Jewry are no longer strong enough (or sufficiently opened by their leadership) to be able to cope with the intensity of the renaissance of Jewish living in a Jewish land – a third Jewish Commonwealth emerging before our eyes.

To solve the disconnect, radical action is required.  The first remedy is to change the language of the debate.  Literally.  When Diaspora Jews are unable to converse with their Israeli brethren in their own language, they cannot expect to relate to the way of life in Israel, or assist with the resolution of those microcosmic flare-ups within Israeli society that challenge and impact Jewish life globally.  The development of Hebrew language skills must be a priority for Jewish communities everywhere. 

The second measure that must be taken is to shift the focus of the debate.  It is not about politics.  In its infancy Israel was a socialist nation.  That upset conservative Jews and economic rationalists.  Now Israel is economically liberal and is criticised by the socialist ideals of Jewish humanists who are content to place freedom and rights ahead of personal obligation and societal commitment.

The third element of the solution is education.  This is a process that seems to have been reduced to responding to media bias and attempting to correct the misconceptions that are promulgated by the flourishing NGO industry of anti-Israel deception and lies.  The education needs to move into positive territory, to provide a constructive identification to Israel based on Jewish values.  

The Perth Jewish community thankfully has a strong Zionist ethos within its youth education.  It is far ahead of the USA, and even other Australian Jewish communities when it comes to building connections between Israel and our place in the Diaspora.  But the disconnect exists, the language barrier is substantial, and the generation gap is growing.  As we grow confidence and pride in our own Jewish identity, in the public settings of the streets, workplace, and universities our ability to express pride in Israel as a Jewish nation will be become easier.  As we contribute a more vocal Jewish perspective to the development to the broader community, so too the connection and contribution of Israel will begin to feature in a strong and positive light.