ICAHD

Israelas Jewish Problem

A funny thing happened to me on my way to synagogue in Sydney; my scheduled talk got cancelled. The uproar caused by the prospect of my speaking to the Jewish community in Australia, as in Jewish communities the world over, is truly startling to an Israeli. Granted, I am very critical of Israelas policies of Occupation and doubt whether a two-state solution is still possible given the extent of Israelas settlements, but this hardly warrants the kind of hysterical demonization I received for weeks in the pages of the otherwise respectable Australian Jewish News. After all, opinions similar to mine are readily available in the mainstream Israeli media. Indeed, I myself write frequently for the Israeli press and appear regularly on Israeli TV and radio.

Why, then, the hysteria? Why was I banned from Temple Emmanuel in Sydney, a self-proclaimed progressive synagogue. Why did I, an Israeli, have to address the Jewish community from a church? Why was I invited to speak in every university in eastern Australia yet, at Monash University, I was forced to hold a secret meeting with Jewish faculty in a darkened room far from the halls of intellectual discourse? Why, when the _leaders_ of the Jewish community were excoriating me and my positions, did the Israelis who attended my talks express such appreciation that _real_ Israeli views were finally getting aired in Australia, even if they did not all agree with me? All this raises disturbing questions over the right of Diaspora Jews to hear divergent views on Israelas conflict with the Palestinians held by Israelis themselves, especially, again, since it is a phenomenon which critical Israelis encounter throughout the world, the US, France and Toronto being the most closed and hostile .

The Australian controversy raises an even deeper issue, however. What should be the relationship of Diaspora Jewry to Israel? Whatever threat I represent has less to do with Israel, I suspect, than with the fear that I might call into question the idealized image of Israel _ which I call the _Leon Uris_ image of an Israel which, if it ever existed certainly does not today _ to which they cling so dearly, even desperately, despite what appears in the news. This might seem like a strange thing to say, but I do not believe that Diaspora Jews have internalized the fact that Israel is a foreign country, as far from their idealized version as the wholesome families of the 1950s sitcoms were from real American or British life _ or Australia is from its image as kangaroo-land.

Countries change, they evolve. What would Australiaas European founders think _ even those who, until 1973, pursued a _White Australia_ policy _ if they were to see the multi-cultural country Australia has become? What would George Washington have thought of George Bush, or Lenin of Gorbachev, or President Hendrik Verwoerd of President Nelson Mandela? Well, almost 30% of Israeli citizens are not Jews, we may very well have permanently incorporated another four million Palestinians _ the residents of the Occupied Territories _ into our country and, to top it off, itas clear by now that the vast majority of the worldas Jews are not going to emigrate to Israel. Those facts, plus the urgent need of Israel to make peace with its neighbors, mean something. They mean that Israel must change in ways Ben Gurion and Leon Uris never envisioned, even if thatas hard for Diaspora Jews to accept.

Yet I see the evolution of Israel as a positive challenge. Israel is a real country, not some Zionist construct or a projection of Brooklyn or Golders Green onto the Middle East, and like all countries it must come to grips with reality _ much of it of its own creation _ even if that means it might eventually evolve from a Jewish state into a single state of all its citizens. Rather than _eliminating_ Israel, this challenge is in fact a natural and probably inevitable development. It will not be easy, but if Australia, Britain and South Africa can become multi-cultural, so can we.

But this is our problem as Israelis. Why should Diaspora Jews get so exercised over changes in Israel? Because, I venture to say, the real country of Israel means less to them than preserving its idealized image. This makes sense. Diaspora Jewry uses Israel as the lynchpin of its ethnic identity; mobilizing around a beleaguered Israel is deemed essential for keeping the community intact. But this does not foster a healthy relationship. Israel cannot be held up as a voyeuristic ideal by people who will not only not go there, but who actually need an Israel at conflict for its own internal survival. That is why I, as a critical Israeli, am so threatening. I can both conceive of an Israel very different from the _Jewish state_ so dearly valued at a distance by Diaspora Jewry _ and I can envision an Israel at peace. Ironically, it is precisely such a normal state living at peace with its neighbors that is so threatening to Jews abroad, because it leaves them with no external cause around which to galvanize. But Israel cannot fulfill that role. Diaspora Jews need to get a life of their own, revalidate Diaspora Jewish culture (that Zionism dismissed as superficial and ephemeral) and find genuine, compelling reasons why their children should remain Jewish.

This is the threat I represent. Only this can explain why rabbis, self-appointed community _leaders_ and Jewish professors refuse to have me in their synagogues or classrooms or community centers. It is all understandable. They do need a lynchpin in order to preserve their communal identity while prospering in tolerant, multi-cultural societies. But the real country of Israel cannot fulfill that role, and itas not fair to an Israel that must find its own place in the Middle East to expect it to.

Ironically, after all I have said, the Israeli government will present the greatest resistance to Diaspora independence. Just as Israel is used to preserve Jewish communal life in the Diaspora, so, too, does it use the Diaspora as an effective agent for ensuring support its policies among the various governments in countries where influential Jewish communities are found: the United States at the head, but Britain, France, Germany, Holland and Australia as well. But this support for extreme right-wing and militaristic policies contradicts the very liberal values that define Diaspora Jewry, thereby further eroding the moral basis of that community and driving young liberal Jews away. Remember: Israel does what it does in the name of the Jewish people. Unless the Jews of the world distance themselves from the policies of a militaristic nuclear power with a a violent and oppressive 42-year occupation over the Palestinians, they will be defined by those policies; they will be complicit.

What befell me in Australia is just a tiny episode in a sad saga of mutual exploitation to the detriment of both Diaspora Jewry and Israel. The lessons are three: Diaspora Jewry must let Israel go, get a [Jewish] life of its own, and return to its values by supporting an end to the Israelas Occupation and a just peace between us and the Palestinians. Iam going home to Jerusalem to continue the good fight.

Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, a peace and human rights organization dedicated to achieving a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He can be reached at jeff@icahd.org.

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