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The role of diaspora Jews vis-à-vis Israel

We Asked 23 Rabbis: What Is The Diaspora Jew’s Role In Israel?

By Forward Staff
November 14, 2017

As a part of our Rabbi Roundtable series, we brought together leading rabbis from all corners of the Jewish world to offer their thoughts on the big questions. This week, we asked our rabbis, “What is the Diaspora Jew’s role vis a vis Israel?” Here are their responses:

Uri Pilichowski, Orthodox, Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah:

I teach my students that as those who live outside Israel, even if they’re an Israeli citizen, have no right to tell Israelis what to do. When your blood isn’t on the line, you have no right to tell others whose blood is on the line what to do. Many of my students vehemently disagree with me and I’m sensitive to their feelings and positions. I don’t claim to have a monopoly on the truth, and I understand how someone with strong love, experiences and complete dedication to Israel would disagree and even take offence at my position.

That being said, I wouldn’t want people living outside Israel having a say, for while some might understand the issues, most do not. They live a pie in the sky dream of what Israel should be, without any understanding of what it’s like to live here. I think Diaspora Jewry should play a supportive role of Israel.

Jill Jacobs, Conservative, T’ruah:

In the Talmud, some number of rabbis from Babylonia and the Land of Israel travel back and forth, bringing insightful teachings to and from the other place. Those of us living outside Israel have a responsibility to work with Israelis to ensure that Israel remains a safe and secure place for its Jewish and non-Jewish residents, and that the country lives up to the commitments to democracy and human rights on which it was founded.

While some argue that Jews outside Israel cannot criticize Israeli policy without moving there, this argument is specious: as a country that defines itself as “Jewish” and that often claims to represent the Jewish people, Israel must also participate in a two-way conversation with Jews elsewhere. Nor should the voices of right-wing Jews, who are willing to put Israeli lives at risk by preventing a peace agreement, be privileged over those voices (Israeli and non-Israeli) working toward a solution.

And, of course, each of us has the right to criticize any country for failure to live up to its international human rights commitments — even more so when it’s a country with which we have a strong relationship and sense of commitment. The principle of “all Jews are responsible for one another” also demands that Israeli Jews support Jews living outside of Israel. In particular, we have an opportunity for critical cross-border partnership right now, as each of our governments adopt anti-democratic and even fascist tactics.

Rebecca W. Sirbu, Post-Denominational, Rabbis Without Borders:

Jews around the world can both support Israel and question Israeli policies. These ideas are not diametrically opposed. The Israeli government hears a variety of views and opinions from its own citizens, and it can hear this same diversity of viewpoints from Jews living outside of Israel. Listening to and learning from this multiplicity of voices will make Israel stronger in the long run. So, I encourage Jews in the diaspora to learn about what is going on in Israel from different sources and voice opinions when they have them. This will keep all Jews in relationship with the state.

Asher Lopatin, Orthodox, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School:

I’m an old-fashioned Zionist. I believe that Jews of the diaspora — in all their varieties and diversity — should try to move to Israel if they can. It’s not easy. Family, health, career, or lifestyle considerations may make it impossible, but I believe that it should be a real conversation in every home: Can we make it in Israel? Beyond that, Jews should take responsibility for supporting the Jewish State in any way they can, and for offering helpful advice and criticism designed to make Israel a stronger, better country.
[NB there are approximately 15 million Jews living outside Israel. Does Israel have the resources to take us all in?]

Aaron Potek, Pluralist, Gather DC:

If Israel wants to be a homeland for all Jews, then all Jews should have a voice in shaping its future. Israel’s image reflects on Judaism’s image, so those who care about Judaism’s image should care about Israel’s image. Just as there shouldn’t be one way to engage with Judaism, there shouldn’t be one way to engage with Israel.

Israel needs voices of support and voices of critique. Treating the former as a prerequisite for the latter, or believing that criticism should only happen behind closed doors, stifles discourse and reflects defensiveness. It’s hard to hear challenging perspectives; moral excellence requires it.

Ayelet Cohen, Conservative, New Israel Fund, NY:

As Diaspora Jews, our relationship with Israel is one of deep familial connection and mutual responsibility. We are interconnected yet distinct; Israeli and Diaspora Jews should strive to understand one another and respect the difference of each other’s perspective and experience. We must be invested in each other’s thriving, and also engage in loving rebuke when necessary. The values upon which Israel was founded are inextricable from our connection to Israel. Therefore, Diaspora Jewry must hold Israel accountable to its founding promises of freedom and justice as enshrined in its declaration of independence, ensuring “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

Shmuly Yanklowitz, Orthodox, Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice:

the primary role of a Jew in Israel is to construct a model society that honours the dignity of all

The primary role of Jews in the Diaspora is to learn from the best of gentile worldly contributions while also contributing the best of Jewish wisdom. At the same time, the primary role of a Jew in Israel is to construct a model society that honours the dignity of all of creation and guided by Torah values. If the Jewish people are to continue thriving all over the world, we’ll need to inhabit both these symbiotic roles while also looking towards the future. Without recognizing these, the destiny of the Zionist dream may not be fully sustainable.

Adina Lewittes, Conservative, Sha’ar Communities:

It depends on the diaspora Jew. Some will advocate, some will offer harsh critiques. Some will link their lives to Israel and make aliyah, some will choose to nurture a bond from afar. Some will visit once in a lifetime, some several times a year. Some will eat her food and dance to her music, others will sweat over her tractates. Some will place Israel at the centre of their Jewish map, some on the periphery. Every diaspora Jew should consider the reality and the promise of the State of Israel as it relates to their Jewish identity, and claim some responsibility for her wellbeing.

Mitchell Wohlberg, Orthodox, Beth Tfiloh Congregation:

From its very rebirth, American Jews have formed a partnership with the people of Israel. But it is a limited partnership — we supply the economic and political support, and they supply the “blood, sweat and tears.” Our children hang out in Cannes, and theirs stand guard on the borders of Gaza and Lebanon. Issues affecting the collective Jewish people should be decided by the collective Jewish people. Issues regarding the security of Israel should be decided by the citizens of Israel. We owe them that support.

Benjamin Sendrow, Conservative, Congregation Shaarey Tefilla:

We must be strong advocates for the State of Israel, and for American Jews, that means working to make sure the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong. We must educate others about this, so that they know the relationship is not one-sided, but is as beneficial to the United States as it is for Israel.

We must constantly battle the anti-Israel forces in the United Nations, which has become exactly what President Kennedy feared, a forum for invective. We should visit Israel as often as we can, and we should reclaim our perfectly good word for those who believe in a Jewish homeland with safe and secure borders, a word our enemies have co-opted and redefined as racism. That word, of course, is Zionists. Let us proudly be Zionists.

Ari Sytner, Orthodox, Author of “The Kidney Donor’s Journey”:

The land of Israel and the people of Israel are inseparable. Diaspora Jews today, as our ancestors before us, must not forget our allegiance to our beloved homeland, nor cease our collective longing to return to it. In the interim, it behooves us to walk a fine line between showing support for Israel and expecting a conditional seat at the table.

We must demonstrate unconditional love for our brothers and sisters by donating to Israeli causes, supporting the State and visiting Israel as often as possible. Yet, when it comes to a complex, nuanced and politically-charged system, our support for Israel should not be dependent upon seeing our own unique agendas or perspectives being promoted or adopted. In healthy relationships, we strive to love the people in our family, even if we disagree with them.

Nina H. Mandel, Reconstructionist, Congregation Beth El-Sunbury, PA:

Israel was established to be both a safe haven and a source for continuity of Jewish thought and practice for ALL Jews. I’m not saying that we are in grave danger in our own country, but it would be careless to disregard the emergence of so many acts of antisemitism here and in Europe. It is important to know that Israel is a place where, at least ostensibly, all Jews can find a home.

The promise of a country which embodies the best ethics and ideals of Jewish thought and civilization is an exciting thought. However, we need to recognize that this promise is not yet completely fulfilled. Jews in the Diaspora have a voice and should use it to help Israel be the place we want it to be — for everyone. This is above and beyond issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. When Israeli governmental religious authorities are making rulings that call into question the legitimacy of Jews in the Diaspora, we all lose something.

Denise Eger, Reform, Former President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis:

I believe that Jews who live outside Israel should visit Israel regularly. It isn’t just a vacation — it is a sacred pilgrimage to the land of our ancestors. The Diaspora Jew should care deeply about Israel’s success and achievements and not be afraid to celebrate that or challenge Israel when it fails to meet high standards. We should have a voice in Israel and the government of Israel must listen. If Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, then it is all the Jewish people.

Yitzchok Adlerstein, Orthodox, Cross-Currents:

The common denominator of our commitment to Israel should be loyalty to the Jewish people. And the single largest centre of Jewish population today is Israel. In times of crisis or antisemitism, we are moved by the plight of individual Jews; all the more so should we be protective of a small, fragile country that is home to millions of Jews, and is often demonized and delegitimized by much of the world community. Whatever our politics, we should open our eyes to the reality that to a majority of our non-Jewish neighbors, Israel means Jews, and Jews means Israel. When they say they hate Israel, what they mean is that they hate us. We should regard ourselves as soldiers fighting for her on fronts all over the world, with the same commitment and intensity that those on the confrontation lines in the Middle East must demonstrate – and often pay for with their lives. Israelis pay a great enough price by sending their sons and daughters off to the front lines; we should gladly fight the battles that we are better positioned to fight than they are.

Adam Chalom, Humanistic, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism:

Just as we want Jews to be engaged with their Jewishness wherever they are, I encourage Diaspora Jews to be engaged with Israel, a state built by and today creating secular Jewish culture. If engaged means advocating for Israel’s security, if engaged means pushing Israel to respect human rights (as you would push any other nation and its own citizens’ freedom to live Jewish lives as they choose, or for the rights of those under Israel’s control, dayenu [it would be enough]. A complex and deeply engaged relationship means we will not always agree, but we continue to talk. Elie Wiesel’s put it best: “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

Shmuly Boteach, Orthodox, Author of “Judaism For Everyone”:

The role of diaspora Jews vis a vis Israel is to be supporting and loving, to visit, to engage when needed, and to defend Israel in every way possible.

Rachel Timoner, Reform, Congregation Beth Elohim:

Claim it as ours. Always with humility, but also with recognition that we are family. Our well-being, our moral failures, and our futures are intertwined.

Shalom Lewis, Conservative, Congregation Etz Chaim:

In the past, our happy duty in the Diaspora was to lobby for Israel, buy Bonds, plant trees, educate neighbours, junior year abroad, support institutions, come as tourists and shop…but for many, that routine fidelity is wavering because of Israel’s dismissive treatment of the Diaspora community.

The marriage between the Diaspora and Israel is in desperate need of marital therapy

The Diaspora has been a loyal, generous, unflinching supporter and defender of Israel for years, but it now feels betrayed. Additionally, the younger generation has no memory of 1948 or 1967 when Israel was surrounded and beleaguered. Like it or not, the propaganda has been effective, and many young Jews today, including rabbis, are not enthusiastic supporters of Israel. The marriage between the Diaspora and Israel is in desperate need of marital therapy. Israel has changed and expects the romance to continue as it was. The Diaspora is moving into another bedroom.

Joe Kolakowski, Orthodox, Koblentz-Richmonder Rov:

Eretz Yisrael has religious significance to our faith, as it does to other faiths. I think Israel should focus on its own citizenry, of any faith, not caring what Jews outside Israel think any more than what a Christian thinks. I don’t think a diaspora Jew (or pious Jews in the Holy Land) should feel any different than a Christian toward Israel.

Working as a chaplain in a mental health setting, I see Israel as being conducive to a great amount of mental illness, such as “Jerusalem Syndrome,” but also in lesser exhibitions. The government of the current State of Israel is the business of Israelis. From a religious point of view, the Israeli government should not be seen any differently than the Ottomans before World War I.

Avram Mlotek, Orthodox, Co-Founder of Base Hillel:

Often one’s relationship with Judaism will dictate the passion or dispassion the diaspora Jew feels towards Israel, nevertheless, the diaspora Jew is not and should not be monolithic in our role vis-a-vis Israel.

The diaspora Jew’s role vis-à-vis Israel is as varied as the Israeli parliament. The diaspora Jew is apathetic and passionate about Israel’s history and current politics. The diaspora Jew is a harsh critic and fierce advocate of Israel’s government. The diaspora Jew is religious, secular, Zionist, anti-Zionist, a BDS supporter, a ZOA donor, a J Street volunteer and an AIPAC representative. The diaspora Jew feels at home and like a stranger in Israel. The diaspora Jew has no memory of Israel before 1967 and no memory of life without Birthright. The diversity in these approaches magnifies the energetic pulse Israel still holds for the diaspora Jew.

Rachel Barenblat, Renewal, Author of “The Velveteen Rabbi”: As Diaspora Jews, we’re connected with Israel whether we want to be or not. That’s a deep gift, if we can open ourselves to it. Our tradition’s name for ourselves, Yisrael, can be parsed as “God-wrestlers” — and one of the places where we often need to wrestle with God is in relationship with the modern state of Israel.

It’s our job to engage, to visit, to be informed, to learn, to seek out perspectives that discomfit us (both on the left and on the right). And we have the opportunity and the obligation to join with our Israeli cousins in the pursuit of an Israel that lives up to our deepest dreams and our highest ideals.

Gil Student, Orthodox, Editor of TorahMusings.com:

Diaspora Jews are guests in Israel because, while it is our home, we don’t live there. We need to act like visitors and respect the local practices. Israelis are doing the hard work of building and maintaining the Jewish country, work that we Diaspora Jews refuse to do for a variety of reasons. Instead, with financial and moral support, we help them do the holy work that really we should be doing.

Personally, I live in daily embarrassment for failing to live up to my obligation to move to the Jewish homeland. It would take some gall to tell Israelis how to manage the country I fail to live in.

Michael P. Sternfield, Reform, Temple Beth El:

Without the support of Jews in the Diaspora, there never would have been an Israel. This fact is incontestable. American Jews, in particular, were the driving force that impelled the U.S. government and the United Nations to recognize the Jewish state. For the 70 years of Israel’s existence and long before, Jews of the Diaspora have contributed generously, assisting the new state to develop a strong and vibrant infrastructure.

Today, Israel is much more self-sufficient economically, with the great exception of its security. Until a lasting peace is attained between Israel and its neighbours, Israel will continue to need military and diplomatic assistance from the United States, in particular.

It is our role to vouchsafe the unwavering support of our government to stand with Israel. We owe this to Israel itself, and to Jews around the world for which Israel must always be our people’s safe haven.

There are five more “We asked Rabbis….” on a range of subjects. Go to original to find the links.

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