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Israel to pay attention to diaspora needs

  • AkivaTor
Israel must prioritise diaspora Jews’ needs second to its own security. This, says Akiva Tor, the head of Israel’s Bureau of World Jewish Affairs and World Religions, is most important in light of spiking anti-Semitism levels, and the global increase in political extremism.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Nov 08, 2018

With political polarisation rising dramatically worldwide, levels of anti-Semitism have spiked accordingly in several countries in recent months. While Jews everywhere need to pay close attention to these developments, Israel needs to remain as attentive to the needs and realities of diaspora communities as possible.

In South Africa at the invitation of the Israeli Embassy, Tor is on a five-day visit to meet communal Jewish leadership and representatives of other religious groups in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

“My concern is issues of relevance to the Jewish world, from combatting anti-Semitism to the welfare of the community. It’s helpful to see people in their [own] environment when engaging with them. Also, as I’m responsible for Israel’s relations with religious groups, and because South Africa is an overwhelmingly Christian country, I am interested in meeting senior Christian leadership for meaningful engagement.

“If we want countries to engage with Israel as a whole, and not only with its government, Israel must engage with every element of a country’s society, and not merely the government itself.”

Tor says that Israel needs to make sure it listens and is adequately attentive to diaspora Jewish communities’ thinking and needs. “We are concerned about things happening which are the result of political developments, and need to pay attention. On anti-Semitism, we’re seeing things that we haven’t seen in a very long time. Political polarisation in Europe, and the rise of the far right [which, in some cases has parties’ nostalgic for the Nazi period] is something we monitor constantly. These parties can’t come into power.”

On this point, Tor says that though we have seen an emergence of right-wing anti-Semitism, by and large it hasn’t approached political power. What is challenging, however, is what is going on in the United Kingdom today, with the anti-Semitic voices around the leadership of the Labour Party.

“Frankly, it is shocking,” says Tor. “Here you have a radical left where some voices are absolutely anti-Semitic, and members of leadership are not able to see it. People are blind to their own weaknesses. One of the biggest problems with anti-Semites is that they are not aware of their anti-Semitism. It’s the same with many racists.

“Anti-Semitism will always exist on the margins of society, and we need to be careful not to exaggerate. Social media can exaggerate things. However, in the UK, the Labour Party is where you see strands of deep anti-Semitic thinking entering mainstream leadership. That’s a deep challenge for Jews and society.”

Tor says today’s anti-Semitism is born in places of political polarisation and economic dislocation. “It is a societal sickness that breaks out when an imbalance occurs. Like a virus, it exploits a particular weakness. Often, political and other social actors seek a scapegoat. It’s not always the Jews, but it often is. Israel is also often perceived as the Jew of nations.”

However, Tor stresses that world Jewry has had a breakthrough in the growing acceptance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which has been accepted by several countries in the European Union among a growing number of other countries. “It’s an attempt to define anti-Semitism for law enforcement and monitoring,” he says, “but also for understanding. The definition deals with what it means to hate Jews, but doesn’t shy away from the statement that denying the right of the Jews to self-determination is a form of anti-Semitism.

“This definition recognises the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement as a movement whose goals are anti-Semitic. Perhaps its actions and members may not be, but its aims can be defined as anti-Semitic.”

Speaking about the Pittsburgh massacre, Tor says that the attack can be viewed through the lens of other attacks against religious installations in America, including churches, and a mosque. “Different issues are implicated, some of them internal US issues such as weapons control. It’s a large country, and it does have a marginal neo-Nazi presence. I hope that we don’t see a reality in America in which shuls have to be secured behind blockades and fences.”

While Israel’s first responsibility is the security and welfare of its own population, its responsibility to world Jewry comes a close second. “Israel must concern itself with the diaspora,” Tor says. “That doesn’t mean we infringe on the sovereignty of other countries, nor do we impinge on the loyalties of Jews to their various countries.

“Still, we need to find a way to strengthen Jewish identity. Jews are an ancient people, older than most. They have a right to form a national framework, both for their safety and to maintain their values. Anyone who says that the Palestinians have this right and that Jews don’t is an anti-Semite.”

Considering the recent election victory of the BDS-aligned Progressive Youth Alliance, which took 13 of 15 seats on the Student Representative Council at the University of the Witwatersrand, Tor says the way in which this narrative has taken over spaces such as universities is particularly troubling. “In the past, the university campus was recognised as a place of study. No one feared students taking over student government and hijacking the institution for political agenda broadcasting.

“When I was a student, we could arrange an interview with the primary spokesperson of the Palestinian Solidarity of the US, Professor Edward Said, for an engaging discussion. This would not happen today. Students’ political agendas undercut almost any such engagement”

Yet, in spite of the challenges posed by reality, Jewish communities – including our own – continue to achieve remarkable accomplishments.

Tor praised South African Jewry, saying it must be recognised for the strides it has made, and continues to make. “This community needs to receive high marks for maintaining vibrant Jewish life,” he says. “One example is the continued enrolment of Jewish youth in formal Jewish education, the rate of which is about 90%. This is true nowhere else outside of Israel. Australia is considered the closest, at 40%.

“Jews here are invested in broader society and its aspirations, helping to shape its future and dreams. They are committed to making South Africa a success, and are devoted to the goals shared by all decent world citizens, including Israel itself.”

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