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Does Israel Owe Us Anything?

Last week may have been the most fraught period in relations between Israel and American Jews since the cancellation of the Western Wall deal last July by Prime Minister Netanyahu in an effort to mollify his Haredi coalition partners. Among last week’s highlights that raised American Jewish hackles were the passage of the nation-state law over the strong objections of American Jewish groups big and small; the last minute betrayal of gay Israelis – in yet another effort to mollify Haredi coalition members – by excluding them from the surrogacy law after Netanyahu had pledged on video two days before to support their surrogacy rights; and the early morning arrest ordered by the Haifa rabbinical court of Conservative Rabbi Dubi Haiyun for performing an “illegal” wedding. All of these things caused enormous consternation among American Jews, despite the fact that arguably none of them actually impact American Jews directly, and it raises the larger questions of what, if anything, Israel actually owes American Jews, and what can and should American Jews expect from Israel.

That last week’s events were received by American Jews particularly poorly is in some ways odd. Unlike the abrogation of the Western Wall arrangement or non-recognition of conversions performed abroad by American rabbis, the actions taken by the Israeli government last week don’t actually impact Diaspora Jews directly. The arrest of Rabbi Haiyun was one of an Israeli rabbi performing marriages between Israelis. The exclusion of gay men from surrogacy eligibility in Israel affects Israelis and not anyone else. While there are concerns about the clause concerning Diaspora Jewry in the nation-state law, in some ways American Jews were given a greater stake in Israel than some Israelis now have as a result of the law’s passage; after all, a Basic Law declaring to be the national home of the Jewish people and granting only Jews the right to national self-determination in the country means that Jews anywhere have a claim on Israel that Palestinian or Druze citizens of Israel do not. Yet Chemi Shalev wrote over the weekend – correctly in my view – of American Jews that “the nation-state law could prove a bridge too far, a straw that breaks the camel’s back, the last nail in the coffin of their long-held allegiance.”

It’s not hard to understand why. American Jews have become accustomed to Israel ignoring their concerns and requests, but they have clung to a vision of Israel that was rooted partly in fact and partly in fiction. Israel was of course the Jewish homeland, but it was also the only democracy in the Middle East, a beacon of tolerance and liberal values, Ehud Barak’s “villa in the jungle” not only in a security sense but also in a values sense. Sustaining that vision has become increasingly difficult, and it is the shattering of the illusion rather than any policy decisions that tangibly impact American Jews that is creating the essence of the crisis between Israel and its Diaspora kin. American Jews want Israel to act a certain way and look a certain way, and they feel betrayed that their values are not supported by a majority of Israelis or the Israeli government.

In a way, this type of disappointment is even worse than having American Jews’ interests be used as a bargaining chip in coalitional wrangling. American Jewish identity is not wrapped up in being able to have an egalitarian bat mitzvah service at the Western Wall, but it is wrapped up in pointing to Israel as something to take pride in and something to which we feel a close and lasting affinity. The rise of groups like IfNotNow has been driven by tangible Israeli policies toward the Palestinians with which younger generations of American Jews vehemently disagree; at issue is what Israel does. But the much larger segment of American Jews that still feels a strong connection to and pride in Israel is driven by something less tangible but more emotionally resonant, which is not what Israel does but what Israel is. This is why the last week was such a damaging one. The sum total of such a frenzied week is that many American Jews are now finding it more difficult to see in Israel the thing that they thought they recognized.

Does any of this matter? What does Israel owe Diaspora Jews? The answer, sadly, is very little. Many Israelis resent that Americans want Israelis to conform to their own political and cultural values, and take exception to perceived interference in what they view as Israeli domestic affairs. And they are right. Diaspora Jews do not vote in Israel, pay taxes in Israel, or serve in the IDF. We are entitled to our opinions and our disappointments, and we can communicate those until we are blue in the face, but there is no reason why Israel needs to take our concerns into account when making policy decisions. Israelis have the absolute right to have their own state made in their own image, and not be forced to live in one that is made in ours. That American Jews want to see Israel look a certain way is our problem, and there is a strong argument to be made that this should be at or near the bottom of Israelis’ concerns.

But this freedom to ignore the concerns of Diaspora Jews when it comes to Israel will run the other way too, and that is why Israelis need not care what American Jews think, but should. Israelis have long treated American Jews like the gullible donors in Sallah Shabati, too enamored with Israel to see or understand what is going on behind their backs. For decades this dynamic worked for both sides, since Israel wanted American Jewish support without American Jewish hectoring, and American Jews wanted a Disneyland version of Israel that they could support with no qualms. That era is gone for good, and neither side has quite adapted to the brave new world in which they find themselves. Israel takes umbrage at American Jews who want to question what Israel is doing, and American Jews take umbrage at an Israel that looks and acts different from the liberal Zionist utopia they envisioned. Israel can dismiss American Jewish concerns, but it will have to get used to a diminishment in unwavering loyalty and support from American Jews, who do not see any higher or absolute obligation to back the Israeli government. Many American Jews will still identify with and support Israel for all sorts of good reasons, but many will not, and the Israeli government seems to not quite understand that this is a two-way street.

Israel prioritizes its Jewish character at the expense of other variables. The irony of this is that in doing so, it has alienated a non-trivial chunk of Jews who live outside its borders and would rather see Israel prioritize its democracy. Israel has every right to do this, but in doing so, it is in some ways creating a narrower variant of Israeli nationalism that is not necessarily a universal Jewish nationalism. We non-Israeli Jews should not expect that this Israeli nationalism includes us or incorporates our concerns, but Israel should also in turn not be surprised when some Diaspora Jews feel that Israel has betrayed them. Particularly in the era in which we live, where identity-based politics on both the right and the left are assuming unprecedented primacy, smashing the shared sense of Jewish identity carries with it serious risks; risks that go beyond the concerns over Israeli policies, because they speak to concerns that are deeper and more emotional.

This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.