The divide between Jewish diaspora and Israel


By Max Hastings

Whatever the outcome of the current Palestinian chaos, meaningful negotiations with Israel seem unlikely. The most plausible scenario is that Ehud Olmert will proceed unilaterally to draw new boundaries for his country, which will absorb significant Palestinian land, and institutionalise such dominance of the West Bank as to make a Palestinian state unworkable. If this is the future, it is likely to yield fruits as bitter for Israelis as for Palestinians. The world, far from becoming more willing to acquiesce in Israel's expansion, is becoming less so. The generation of European non-Jews for whom the Holocaust is a seminal memory is dying. With them perishes much vicarious guilt.

Younger Europeans, not to mention the rest of the world, are more sceptical about Israel's territorial claims. They are less susceptible to moral arguments about redress for past horrors, which have underpinned Israeli actions for almost 60 years. We may hope that it will never become respectable to be anti-semitic. However, Israel is discovering that it can no longer frighten non-Jews out of opposing its policies merely by accusing them of anti-Semitism. There is also evidence of growing disenchantment with Israel in the Jewish diaspora. Feelings have changed since 1948 and the days when Jews around the world thought it a duty to support "their" nation in the promised land right or wrong, in good times or bad.

David Goldberg, the former rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, has just published a book that will rouse plenty of wrath in Israel. Entitled The Divided Self, its theme is that in modern times the Jews of the diaspora have preserved the honour and heritage of the Jewish people far more convincingly than Israel's citizens. Goldberg, whom I should acknowledge as a friend, rejects the Zionist conceit that the only proper place for Jews is in Israel. He discerns an unhealthy artificiality about the society constructed beside the Mediterranean since 1948: "to assert itself, it must be rigid and inflexible". He notes that while genealogy has become a popular enthusiasm of diaspora Jews, Israelis prefer archaeology, "pursuing the distant past to authenticate an ancient connection with the land" in the absence of any more recent claim.

He tells a good story of returning on a boat from Israel to Marseilles in 1958, after a stint on a kibbutz. His efforts to make headway with pretty blond American passengers were thwarted by the presence of a tanned, muscular Israeli paratrooper, who effortlessly cut him out. When the boat stopped at Naples, this hero of Sinai announced that he was off to buy a watch. Beware of fakes, advised Goldberg, magnanimous in sexual defeat. The soldier ignored him, and was later seen hurling a worthless purchase into the sea. If we were talking about Christians here, it might be called a parable. Goldberg believes that Israel has allowed military prowess to blind it to wisdom: "the Jewish fox knows many things, the Jewish hedgehog only one big thing".
Or you may prefer a Talmudic saying: "better a live dog than a dead lion". Goldberg defines the virtues of diaspora Jews, "adapting to novel circumstances and responding to changing times", in terms that would rouse the contempt of many Israelis. "Two thousand years of powerlessness have honed the antennae to detect where self-interest lies, what is on or not on ... The experience ... of learning to live circumspectly among more numerous and powerful neighbours is a surer guarantee of survival than the triumphalist illusions of a mere 50- odd years of statehood."

Some Israelis would say that this is the language of the ghetto, reflecting a willingness to defer, even to cringe; of exactly the kind their state was created to remove from the Jewish psyche. Yet Goldberg's book reflects a declining willingness among many diaspora Jews to write blank cheques for Israel, either literally or figuratively. It is a painful experience for some Jews who achieve good and even great things in their own societies to find themselves cast as sin-eaters for the Jewish state. Most are reluctant to speak out as frankly against Israel's West Bank policies as Goldberg has, and as did the late and great Rabbi John Rayner, who arrived in the UK from Germany with the kindertransport. But with each generation the emotional distance between Israel and the diaspora is growing.

In some respects, this reflects a situation Amos Oz prophesied. "People like you,"he said to me almost 30 years ago, "who want Israel to go on behaving like a European society, are heading for disappointment. Israel is becoming a Middle Eastern country. In future, I hope that it will not behave worse than other Middle Eastern countries, but I doubt that it will behave any better." As long as Israel retains US support, its rulers may feel they can shrug off the alienation not only of non-Jewish Europeans, but also of growing numbers of European Jews. Yet if David Goldberg is right that diaspora Jews today contribute far more to the "universal values" of civilisation than the people of Israel, then the Jewish state has a far more profound problem than that of frontiers. - Guardian