Thin-Ice: Criticism vs. Loyalty in Israel-Diaspora Relations
The Israeli Presidential Conference, June 2011
Presentation by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President, Union for Reform Judaism
In answering this question, I would make three points.
First, there is no Jewish Diaspora. There are multiple Jewish Diasporas. To say that the Jews are one people is not to say that we are all the same; in fact, we are the most variegated people on earth. Our history is a history of competing camps: Sadducees vs. Pharisees; Hillel vs. Shamai; Hasidism vs. Misnagdim; Orthodox vs. Reform; religious vs. secular.
Second, supporting governments of any sort unconditionally is a mistake; it is neither acceptable nor desirable, in political terms or in religious terms. Governments—even Jewish governments—are imperfect, human creations, prone to error and misjudgments.
Some of the great heroes of my life are Israeli political leaders, but if we look back over the entire sweep of Israeli history, it seems to me that only an anti-Semite could believe that Israel has always had the leadership that she deserves.
Third, neither the right nor the left in the Diaspora has adopted the view that it is obligated to unconditionally support Israeli governments. We Diaspora Jews have deeply felt convictions about what is necessary for Israel’s welfare and survival. When we feel that Israel’s well-being is threatened, we raise our voices—and it is as true on the right as it is on the left.
Let us be honest: The right in the Diaspora often did not support the governments of Rabin, Peres, Barak, and Olmert, and the left often did not support the governments of Shamir, Netanyahu, and Sharon.
There is a little game that we play. When you have a government of the right, as you do now, the Diaspora forces of the right demand unity—which means something that is rightwing and often Orthodox. And when you have a government of the left, the Diaspora forces of the left demand unity—which means something that is leftwing and often non-Orthodox.
Except in times of true and extreme crisis – which generally means a major war – unity of views is virtually never on the Diaspora agenda.
So please, no self-righteous statements by either side.
I am a rabbi and a Zionist and I believe that any distancing from Israel for any reason whatsoever is Jewishly unacceptable. But I am aware that when it comes to the specifics of Israeli government policy, there is a wide spectrum of views
Therefore, both in the Diaspora and in Israel we need to accept the reality of this diversity, and in fact to welcome it. The story of the Diaspora and Israel is the story of passionate particularism and of support expressed in diverse ways; as a result, generally speaking, neither the Diaspora nor the Government of Israel should expect that there will be “total and unconditional support” for Israeli government positions.
Having said that, am I saying that there can be no red lines at all? And the answer is: I am not saying that. In the real world, you do have to draw some lines. If being pro-Israel means everything, then it means nothing.
“Unconditional support” may be an unreasonable standard, but even a big tent is only so big. Surely the Diaspora community is entitled to say that there are some views which, if articulated, take you outside of the pro-Israel community. And the Government of Israel is entitled to have its own standards on such matters.
This is a topic that requires more time than we have, but if I had to set out some of the principles that have guided me on this matter, I would say the following:
If you support the international BDS movement (boycotts, divestment, sanctions against Israel), you are outside the pro-Israel camp.
If you make excuses for terror or anti-Semitism, you are outside the camp.
If you oppose every exercise of military power and question every act of self-defense by the Government of Israel, you are at the very least on the edge, if not outside the camp.
And this too: If you fail to affirm your commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, you are also outside the camp. And Jewish and democratic means having a secure Jewish majority and being democratic in the commonly accepted meaning of that term. Affirming policies that make it impossible for Israel ever to be Jewish and democratic, and that condemn Israel to being either a bi-national or, God forbid, a non-democratic state, means abandoning classical Zionist values.
So once again, let’s refrain from pointing accusatory fingers solely at the left or solely at the right. Let’s remember that if we are drawing red lines, they cut both ways.
And there is one other point that requires mention. When the State of Israel takes actions that undermine the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative Judaism, whether here or abroad, thoughtful and emphatic criticism is not only appropriate but necessary. One cannot issue a bold invitation to all Jews to view Israel as their home, and then allow the Knesset to rule that the Jewish way of life of the majority of world Jewry is fraudulent and inauthentic in the eyes of the Jewish state
My conclusion is this: We can’t simply sing Hatikvah, and engage in selective admiration of the good in Israel while ignoring the bad. But neither can we shrie gevalt and fall victim to apathy or constant, destructive criticism simply because loving Israel is a bit more complicated than it once was.
We are lovers of Zion in the old-fashioned way, in sickness and health, for better or worse, until death do us part. And we are a single Jewish people—a people that does not agree on many issues, but believes in dealing with them together.
With that in mind, let’s get back to the work of strengthening the dream and the magic of the Zionist enterprise.