June 26, 2011
A flash of anger abruptly erupted during an otherwise sober discussion at the Third Israeli President’s Conference last week. “That is an offensive statement!” bristled Stuart Eizenstat, who served in the Carter and Clinton administrations, in response to Eyal Gabai, Director-General of the Israel Prime Minister’s office. Gabai had sat listening to various proposals for Israel/Diaspora relations and flatly observed, “80 to 90% of this is irrelevant to Israelis.” He singled out Eizenstat’s proposal for a Jewish Peace Corps that would send young Jews to Africa to do grassroots community service. (Gabai spoke as an individual, not on behalf of the Israeli government.)
Eizenstat took the remark personally. “That is an offensive statement to those of us who work every day to fight delegitimization,” he thundered. It was a microcosm of the emotions surging beneath the calls for a “partnership” and “collaboration” on both sides of the Jewish divide. Here was an American Jew, deeply devoted to Israel, who felt his good intentions were spurned by an Israeli. And here was an Israeli who felt that Diaspora Jews just don’t get it. They speak different languages in more ways than one.
There was another, less visible sort of tension. Pierre Besnainou, former president of the European Jewish Congress summed up an enormous change over the past 60 years in ten words: the Diaspora has become weak as Israel has become stronger. Eizenstat similarly sees a “new paradigm” where Israel has to take responsibility for strengthening the Diaspora so there will be more Jews who support Israel. His solution? Israel should issue a “Diaspora Impact Statement” on every policy – as if American Jews’ identification with Israel ought to be predicated not on a shared Jewish heritage and destiny but on the politics of the moment. It’s a paradox: as Israel becomes less dependent upon the Diaspora, Eizenstat thinks the opinions of Diaspora Jews should be treated as more important than ever. Normally it is the stronger party, not the weaker one, that has the greater leverage.
Jews in the United States may not be cognizant of this shift. Yet as Federations gradually redirect funding from Israel to their own communities, American Jews will hold still less sway, even as they want a greater voice on issues like conversions and the status of women at holy sites, not to mention the conflict with the Palestinians. Of course the views of the American Jewish community will continue to carry a lot of weight for some time, but not as much as Americans might imagine. That’s one reason the frustration and mutual incomprehension between Israelis and American Jews isn’t going away any time soon.