The Jewish Report Editorial

Israel: a defining feature of diaspora Jewish identity

  • JNF - Tu B'shvat
"The world, in recent weeks, has watched with fascination as Israel’s exciting election process unfolded and, earlier this month, its prime minister stood on a powerful platform - the United States’ Congress floor - to speak on behalf of all the Jewish people about a potential major world threat in the form of Iran," writes editor Vanessa Valkin in her weekly ediorial comment.
by VANESSA VALKIN | Mar 18, 2015

Whatever hue Diaspora Jewish sentiment has taken for our state nestled among hostile neighbours, it is clear that Israel is as relevant to us now as it ever was.

This has not always been the case. In the last few decades, Jewish leaders have placed high up on their list of anxieties (worrying is in our gene pool) that the significance of Israel as an independent homeland for the Jews, has not filtered into the consciousness of Jewish youth, particularly in North America where the proportion of Jews who attend Jewish day schools or visit Israel, has fallen and where rates of assimilation continue to rise.

Surveys have shown that higher observance is strongly associated with a greater connection to Israel and less synagogue attendance is associated with less interest in the country.

Yet, for Diaspora Jews in 2015, even if one is secular, Israel is very much a part of how we think of ourselves. How can we not? We live in a world where militant Islamic terror activity against Zionism has led to a rise in attacks against Jewish establishments.

Right here in Sandton, the 48th Annual Zionist Federation Conference saw BDS supporters calling for “no Zionist conference be held on our soil” and chanting “You Jews do not belong in South Africa”. As a result, most of us will stand up for Israel because we see it as our role.

Toronto University researcher Emma Jo Aiken-Klar published a paper showing how concerns about Jewish continuity were handled in Canada. She discovered that community funding was driven towards innovative ways to attract students to Judaism and that Israel advocacy was considered a major draw card for bolstering Jewish identity on campuses.

“Israel was chosen to be the vehicle through which ‘Jewish continuity’ would be maintained,” Aiken-Klar explains.

Events like the riot which broke out at Concordia University in Canada in 2002 where students from a Palestinian rights group protested outside a talk by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, gave an even greater impetus for Jewish communal leaders to channel resources to train Jewish students to advocate against Israel haters on the frontlines of university campuses.

Here in South Africa, which has the highest proportion of Jewish day school attendance among Diaspora Jewry, and where our government is vocal in its criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, a naturally strong identification with Israel by Jewry is a given.

The apartheid metaphor which has been imported across the world to describe Israel’s policies and the now annual Israel Apartheid Week, has given our community, the birthplace of the term, an even greater ownership of the battle ground of defending Israel.

And what does this ensuing phenomenon, where Judaism and Zionism have blurred so that Israeli nationalism has become a defining feature of Jewish identity in the Diaspora, then mean for the great debate of whether anti-Zionism is really anti-Semitism?

Many of us feel, with a gut instinct, that when the United Nations Human Rights Council focuses on Israel’s alleged human rights abuses to the exclusion of the behaviour of other countries or when students call out to “Shoot the Jew” at an Israel Apartheid rally, this delegitimisation of Israel is about Jew hatred. And it may very well be.

But our critics tell us that branding advocates for Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic and fudging the important distinction between criticism of Israel as a nation-state and anti-Semitism does not take into account that disagreeing with Israeli policy is not akin to criticising or discriminating against all Jewish people, or even Israeli people.

So we need to hear those voices too because attending to both points of view does not taint our allegiance, it merely gives us a greater understanding and a sense of mastery of a very complex situation. We may have to realise, even though our identity is so enmeshed with supporting our ‘homeland’, that not every pointed finger at Israel is an attack on our people as a whole.



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