The Israel-Diaspora Relationship

An unequal partnership?

Print this page Print this page

"You can't sit in Manhattan and be a Zionist just because you like oranges, falafel and come here once a year to argue in Jerusalem about 'Where is Zionism going?' There is only one answer: Zionism is going on here," wrote Israeli poet and essayist Yonatan Geffen. "Zionism as I see it exists only in its practical form. And as a person who likes shoes isn't a shoemaker, so a Jew who likes Israel isn't a Zionist.''

However, coexisting with the shlilat ha'galut (negation of the Diaspora) conception was an urge to reach out to the Diaspora in partnership. The following quote from Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, sounds as if it were lifted from the traditional Jewish saying that all the people of Israel were responsible for one another.

"I have complete and unbridled faith in both the Jewish People the world over and in the State of Israel. There can be no faith in either without the other, because each needs and depends on the other. Both stem from the same source in antiquity, and inherent in both is a common vision of redemption."

This concept of partnership was strengthened following the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. With Israel's existence seemingly hanging in the balance, American Jews rallied around the Israeli flag and raised a record amount of financial support.

Building a Partnership

Institutions like the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, and the Joint Distribution Committee were organized to be the focal point for joint activity. In a program called Project Renewal, twin city relationships were established during the 1980s to allow Diaspora communities help in the refurbishment of working-class Israelis cities.

While Jews in the U.S. elevated fundraising for Israel to its most lofty institution, Israelis became accustomed to being on the receiving end. But the dynamics of the seemingly one-way relationship often engendered bitterness among recipients. In the view of some cynical Israelis, cash was the minimum Diaspora Jews could give when they themselves weren't sending their kids to mandatory army service. In the early 1990s, Matti Golan, a prominent Israeli newspaper editor, authored With Friends Like You (the Hebrew title of which was Blood for Money), in which he argued that what Israel needed was not American Jewish hand-outs, but badly needed investments.

The dramatic signing of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord created shockwaves that altered Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. With Israel taking the initiative to sign bilateral peace treaties with its neighbors, American Jewish lobbyists from organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee were rendered less critical for Israel's defense abroad. Instead of questions of Israel's survival, issues of the quality of Jewish life in Israel became more prominent.

For example, when Israel's Orthodox Jewish establishment sought to delegitimize the conversion institutions of Reform and Conservative movements, U.S. Jewish leaders from those denominations saw the move as an attack on their religious and cultural identity. Average Israelis however, was unable to understand the controversy because they had little appreciation for the pluralistic Jewish life in the U.S.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Joshua Mitnick is a freelance journalist living in Israel. His articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Toronto Star, The Newark Star Ledger, and The Washington Times.