The Jewish State and the Jewish Diaspora

Even as American Jewry extends its political support to Israel, we should never stop questioning how we can make a "better Israel" a reality.
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This is the last article in a 5-part series on Middle East peace running this week. For the first four articles, on Obama's new style in the Middle East, the Arab role in making peace, getting Israel's message across, and Israel's internal politics, click here, here, here, and here.


One of the biggest changes to have overtaken the Jewish people during the past century has been geographic. If prior to the Holocaust the vast majority of Jews lived in Europe (in particular eastern Europe) and Russia, we are now situated primarily between two poles - Israel and America. The present and future of the Jewish people will therefore be decided to a large extent by the relationship between the Jewish state and the American Jewish community.

The debate that has sprung up over the past several years regarding the proper contours of the Israel-Diaspora relationship is a crucial one. Simply put, the relationship needs to be rethought and updated for the twenty-first century. The ideas and emotions that served us so well for the past six decades simply do not resonate as strongly with the younger generation of American Jews, who have no personal memory of 1948 or 1967. Instead, what they see is a troubled Israel yearning for peace with its Arab neighbors, while unsuccessfully trying to extricate itself from over four decades of occupation over the Palestinians. They also don't understand why a minority - a powerful minority - believes that all of the land is God-given to us Jews, and that no compromise over it is possible.

As the first four articles of this series made clear, there are no easy answers. Yet I believe that the American Jewish community's relationship with Israel can have a positive impact on the prospects for Middle East peace and, by extension, a positive impact on Israel itself. As Israeli President Shimon Peres once told me, "In order to improve our relations with American Jewry, we must make a better Israel. Not better relations, but a better Israel. A better Israel will bring better relations."

But what would a "better Israel" actually look like? First, it has to be noted that the American Jewish community will only support a liberal and democratic Israel. These are not just slogans, and as I wrote earlier this week; they need to be backed up by the right policies and the right kind of political system. Maintaining control indefinitely over millions of Palestinians will inevitably lead to a demographic nightmare and cannot be sustained if Israel is to remain true to its founding principles.

Making this point publicly should not be controversial. The notion that as a Jew, one has to take the position of "my Israel, right or wrong," is deeply problematic. I would rather have the right kind of Israel. Moreover, calling anyone who criticizes certain Israeli policies a "self-hating Jew" is simply alienating and divisive.

In my frequent discussions with prominent Israeli and Jewish Diaspora leaders, we regularly air our own frustrations with the Jewish state's current direction, while at the same time also appreciating the country's many positive attributes. I am sure that these same types of conversations are repeated in synagogues and Jewish community centers and college Hillels all across the Diaspora. The beauty of Judaism is that it demands we ask questions, especially of ourselves.

Indeed, there is really no better sign that we care deeply and profoundly about Israel - otherwise, we would not spend our days working on its behalf, giving money, thinking about its future, or simply following events half a world away. We do it out of love.

The second way the American Jewish Diaspora can help actualize a "better Israel" is by the power of example. The majesty of the American Jewish experience is in its success marrying its unique Jewish identity with the larger, liberal values of the United States. There is no need anymore to choose between assimilation and separation. We are accepted as equals. (As I told David Ben Gurion when he inquired why my family and I weren't going to make aliyah: "Mr. Prime Minister, we Jews have found our Zion - it is America.")

The same general idea should hold true for Israel too. As my dear friend, the philosopher David Hartman once said to me, "Israel is a return to the particular, but not a ghetto.... It's not meant to be insulated from the world. It lives in discussion with the world." Yes, Israel has very real problems being accepted in its immediate neighborhood and by some in the international arena. And yes, these problems on the whole are not of its own making. But Israel should always be engaged in this wider "discussion with the world," and turn away from the "ghetto" mentality.

American Jewry can help in a number of other ways as well. The Israel-Diaspora relationship has to be a real two-way street and an honest partnership of equals. As Avram Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, explained to me: "You believe that we are all heroes, and we believe that you are all rich. And unfortunately, only 50 percent of it is true." Stereotypes do us no good in our common mission.

Just as we send young American Jews to Israel through the Birthright program, we need to also consider a "reverse Birthright" for Israeli kids to come see America. Opening young Israeli minds to the outside world, particularly the vibrant American Jewish community itself, can only help the Jewish state.

Similarly, as former Ambassador and president of Tel Aviv University Itamar Rabinovich has argued, expanded student collaboration and exchanges between Israeli and American universities would also be beneficial, as would cultural tours of America by Israeli artists. Not only would these and other like-minded initiatives be useful in ensuring Israel maintains its "discussion with the world," but it would also likely support those segments of Israeli society most liberally inclined.

Yet another way American Jewry must continue to help Israel is by its traditional political support here in the United States. Only a strong Israel which feels secure will be able to make the compromises necessary to ensure its future. However, even as we extend this political support, we should never stop questioning how we can make a "better Israel" a reality. The answer, it seems clear to me, has to start with real peace via a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is far too easy to let cynicism and hopelessness become the norm when we discuss the prospects for Middle East peace. But we should never lose sight of what we need to do. "If you will it," Theodore Herzl famously said, "it is not a dream." A better Israel, living in peace with its neighbors, cannot be allowed to remain a dream.

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