Overseas Jews and Israel

The Internet provides insight into the range of opinions expressed by overseas Jews about Israel.

It also raises the question about the nature of Israel’s relations with the Jewish Diaspora. Do overseas Irish, Germans, Italians, Indians, Sri Lankans et al demonstrate the same concern for a “homeland” as do Jews living outside of Israel?

Google provides no answer.

So on to the Jews, for whom it should be no surprise there is a lot of writing about Jews, much of it by Jews.

We’ll leave aside boasts and worries about the quality of Jewish life outside of Israel: who the Jews are marrying, what they know about Judaism, and their continued identification as Jews.

There’s enough coming to my mailbox to provide what is likely to be a non-representative, but wide ranging indication of what overseas Jews say, wish, and demand of the Jewish state, and of fellow Americans capable of influencing the world, e.g., Donald Trump.

The range should be no surprise to anyone with the scantiest knowledge of Jewish history. Variety and dispute have been with us from the beginning. They can be found without difficulty in the Hebrew Bible, and can only be avoided with difficultly when opening the Talmud to a randomly selected page.

We begin at the extreme right, with a man who appears to be an American Jew, knowledgeable about a few passages in the Hebrew Bible. He views Israeli media and many–perhaps most–Jews as fake, not up to his standards, and demands that Israel impose a death penalty on homosexuals.

A bit more modest are Americans who want to end Israel’s problems with something dramatic and final. Some would begin with a mass expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank, and send away Israeli Arabs. Others would have Israel nuke whatever it is that Iran is doing in Syria.

There are also those who stand aside from the prevailing Democratic left, and acknowledge–or proclaim–their support of Donald Trump. For several, support of Trump derives from a stronger distaste of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

As always, Jews are inclined to recognize complexities.

“Trump – boorish, vulgar and irreverent as he is – won office as a revolutionary, despite the announced opposition of every single major Republican figure. . . His boorish behavior somehow resonates with a public that is fed up with politically correct demagoguery, presidential focus on what bathrooms people use, and so much else . . . Yes, the man is a complete tyro, as was Obama as well, but he has exhibited a unique marketing talent, both as a showman (his TV show) and in business (marketing his name to an incredible degree) as well as in his improbable campaign for the nomination and the election.”

There’s also a patriotic posture, which includes an attack on the extreme left.

“With all due respect. He is not a crazy president. He is our president. The lack of respect from the fake news and the dishonest left is disheartening. I didn’t like Obama, but I didn’t call him names, and no one I associated with ever conducted themselves as disgracefully as those who now oppose the President. . . . It is what the press and opposition choose to say and do that is disruptive. I don’t agree with all of the things Trump has done or said, nor was he my first choice, but he was elected, legitimately, without the behind the scenes lying and deceptions used by the Democrats.”

On the other side of the center are American Jews who would remake Israel into something they perceive as more just, wise, and safe. Some appear to be fixed in idealized images of Israel in the 1950s and early 1960s, before what they view as the error of taking over the West Bank and Gaza. For them, settlement is the cardinal sin. There are also Jews who accept history as it has developed, but would nudge it a bit to be more in keeping with their ideals. With more or less clear notions of the map, they’d settle here but not there, and they would censor what Israeli politicians say in order to encourage Palestinians to reach a deal.

Prominent in the notes from liberal Democrats are attacks on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in which he was severe in his criticism of their President’s agreement with Iran. Their themes are lese majeste and meddling in American politics, overlooking Netanyahu’s invitation from Congressional Republicans, and his primary concern for Israel’s security.

Perhaps the toughest issue for overseas Jews is a complex of things involving those who are religious but not Orthodox. Many of them may affiliate with a congregation the sake of preserving a Jewish identity for themselves and children. Living overseas, they miss out on one of the prime attractions of Israel, which enables an attachment to the Jewish experience without spending hours each week, or even a couple of times a year, in ritual and fine clothes. Most secular Israelis enjoy a cup or two of wine and a good meal with the family on Friday evenings, along with festive gatherings for Rosh Hashana and Pesach. However, all that can be done without darkening the doors of a synagogue.

A recent comment by the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi will not help relations. He said that Reform Jews are worse than Holocaust deniers, due to the Reform denial of religious law (הלכה).

Along with an Israeli residence, and the Hebrew that comes with it, are opportunities to internalize the complexities of relevant politics.

Lesson #1 is the futility of trying to turn back history. It won’t work for us anymore than it’ll work for the Palestinians. Jews can dream all they want about a more innocent time before 1967. It’s especially easy if they overlook the poverty, hardships of frequent military service up to the age of 50, terror attacks, shelling by Jordanians from East Jerusalem, and Egyptian rants more immediately threatening than what comes from Iran and Hezbollah today.

That doesn’t mean that we avoid arguments about what to do.

Just as Jews or Palestinians cannot turn back history to a point more desirable for one or the other, so Israeli and overseas Jews cannot rid themselves of the cultural trait that is central to our being.

Disorder and argument, characteristically without violence, has been important to Jewish survival and success.

Issues in dispute are hard ato enumerate, in part because they change with the efforts of Jewish contenders for power, and their antagonists among the Gentles.

It’s a mistake to think of it only as a continuing debate. It’s more tangible than any discussion. The country has been threatened since its birth. Not all has come from individuals or movements with a religious-inspired fervor to kill Jews. Some comes from what may be well meaning innocence, or efforts to serve their own agendas, of powerful figures seeking to help or pressure Israel. This list of adversaries includes several American Presidents and individuals who have reached the tops of European governments and the United Nations.

Against those innocents abroad who want to end Israel’s problems with the drama of mass expulsions, a nuclear attack, or an acceptance of Palestinian demnds, Israeli officials have practiced an ongoing calculation of costs and benefits. What is the tipping point of threat experienced or expected, and when is it necessary to risk damage to oneself by taking steps that might escalate out of control?

We can assume that the Russians, Iranians, and Israelis understand one another’s limits. But every once in a while, the IDF acts when someone has gone beyond what Israel can tolerate.

The nuances of Israeli politics include leaders who seem to accept the insolubility of major problems, even while they engage in simplistic and deceptive exchanges with adversaries.

There’s a lot to criticize in the behavior of Benyamin Netanyahu, as well as his wife and son. Alongside personal faults, however, is experience that leads him to act moderately, even while speaking forcefully to his constituencies here and overseas. It’s a lesson his American counterpart should learn. Helping to understand this bit of comparative politics, however, is the true fact that Netanyahu has had about as many years in government service as Trump has had weeks.

Alas, a great deal of experience has not curbed the Netanyahus’ appetite for personal goodies, and a bit more experience seems unlikely to teach Donald Trump how to express himself.

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post