Jul. 21, 2004 6:38 | Updated Jul. 21, 2004 15:01
The limits of consultation
By ISI LEIBLER
Despite soothing statements of support from Jewish leaders, there are serious problems looming in the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
Anti-Semitism and demonization of Israel have encouraged committed Jews to intensify their support of Israel, but the reverse applies to the majority of less involved Jews, some of whom, one suspects, publicly criticize Israel to avoid being treated as social pariahs.
This is aggravated by the inclination of all Israeli political parties to export criticism of government policies. Hence, whereas a decade ago it would have been unlikely for a mainstream Jewish leader to publicly criticize IDF policies, today even the most provincial leader considers himself expert enough to excoriate Israeli actions.
In such an environment the Jewish Agency's respected think tank - the Jewish People's Planning Policy Institute - is to be commended for elevating the Israel-Diaspora relationship to a top priority in its comprehensive and well executed 2004 report.
However, its chairman, Dennis Ross, may have lost the plot somewhat by endorsing an extraordinary proposal to create a global Jewish consultative body in order to provide for the participation of Diaspora Jews in Israel's decision-making process.
This recommendation underestimates the complexities and crucial differences that distinguish Israel from the Diaspora; and I would submit that the very notion of such a bizarre joint consultative body is a prescription for division, conflict and ultimate chaos.
The very act of selecting representatives has the potential to ignite a war of the Jews. In most communities the lay leaders are part-time volunteers and the majority of their fellow Jews are not even engaged in organized Jewish life. Many Jewish communal roof bodies lack status and are frequently regarded with disdain by the elitist-inclined philanthropists, businessmen and professionals.
Besides, who would choose the participants for such a body, and by what criteria? It certainly could not be restricted exclusively to so-called communal leaders.
What about representation of professionals, academics, the creative arts, politicians, philanthropists and other do-gooders - truly a minefield replete with competing agencies and personalities.
But let us assume that despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, some form of a representative body for Diaspora Jewry were to emerge. What then?
Dennis Ross recommends the creation of a standing committee with which the Israeli government would consult before undertaking any initiative which could impact on the standing of Diaspora Jewish communities. The head of the research committee for this report, Professor Sergio Della Pergola, a highly respected Hebrew University demographer, suggests that the government should begin to consider the Diaspora and Israel as one entity, and that the Diaspora must in future be consulted before Israelis initiate actions that could impact on them.
Although noting that Israel should be entitled to make the final decision, he goes so far as to define the extrajudicial killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin as the kind of issue that would necessitate prior consultation.
WHEN SUCH palpable absurdities are expressed in the context of a reputable think tank it is time to speak plainly. To indulge in soothing rhetoric about partnership and "We are one" is fine in promoting a sense of common cause. Indeed, it is axiomatic that Jews share a common history, heritage, and destiny.
However, having dwelt in both worlds, I can testify that those who live in the Jewish state and those who live as minorities in the Diaspora cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered as representing one people sharing the same burdens.
There is obviously no symmetry between an elected government of Israel and Jewish communal organizations. In Israel elected representatives make decisions that impact directly on livelihoods and physical security - frequently on life and death. Every day Israeli youngsters are placed in harm's way as soldiers of the IDF.
In contrast, Diaspora Jewish leaders are neither necessarily representative of their constituencies nor democratically elected. In many cases they serve in a voluntary, part-time capacity. Their decisions rarely, if ever, materially impact on the lives of their community, except in marginal ways. Never do they make vital decisions determining the life and death of their members.
There is simply no symmetry of leadership responsibility between these two segments of our people. That is why, from the time of David Ben Gurion onward, Israeli leaders have been sensitive in drawing a line between our shared dreams and the harsh existential realities of the Jewish state. To cross that line would create false expectations and self-destructive confrontations.
Could anyone seriously suggest that Israeli citizens be exposed to danger in order to protect the image of Diaspora Jews? The very idea of Diaspora leaders being consulted on actions against terrorists is grotesque.
Yet there is no disputing that Israeli governments must be sensitive to the genuine needs of the Diaspora. By and large, they have been. I know from experience that over the decades prime ministers have always opened their doors to Diaspora leaders in a de-facto machinery of private consultations. That door is open now.
Moreover, President Moshe Katzav is investing considerable efforts in enhancing the Israel-Diaspora dialogue, earning the respect and appreciation of many overseas leaders. Indeed, the president and Minister for Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky are presently consulting on the creation of a body via which Israel would interface even more broadly with Diaspora Jews. One can assume that such a forum would have a wide agenda - barring one issue: consultations bearing on the security of Israeli citizens.
International Jewish bodies like the World Jewish Congress and other Diaspora groupings must, for their own healthy relevance, invest more of their activity in Israel. Aliya must be a top priority, not only because Israel will benefit from high-quality Western immigrants, but because it ensures that the links between Israel and the Diaspora will be vibrant.
What better way of maintaining the centrality of Israel in Jewish life than by creating additional living bonds between immigrants here and their families and friends in the Diaspora?
Aliya will continue to represent the ultimate litmus test of a genuine partnership between the Jewish state and the Diaspora.
The writer, a former head of the Australian Jewish community and now resident in Jerusalem, is senior vice president of the World Jewish Congress.