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Diaspora Jewry needs to let go of idealised Israel

By Jeff Halper - posted Monday, 20 April 2009

A funny thing happened to me on my way to synagogue in Sydney; my scheduled talk was cancelled.

Granted, I am very critical of Israel's policies of occupation and doubt whether a two-state solution is still possible given the extent of Israel's settlements. But this hardly warrants the demonisation to which I was subjected for weeks in the pages of the otherwise respectable Australian Jewish News.

The uproar caused by the prospect of my speaking to the Jewish community in Australia is truly startling to an Israeli. After all, opinions similar to mine are readily available in the mainstream Israeli media. Indeed, I write frequently for the Israeli press and appear regularly on Israeli TV and radio.


Why, then, the hysteria? Why was I banned from Temple Emanuel 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?

And why, when the "leaders" of the Jewish community were excoriating me and my positions, did the Israelis who attended my talks - together with many Australian Jews - express such appreciation that "real" Israeli views were finally getting aired in this country, 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 Israel's conflict with the Palestinians held by Israelis, especially, again, since it is a phenomenon that critical Israelis encounter from self-appointed Jewish "gatekeepers" throughout the world.

But the controversy in Australia raises an even deeper issue: 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 idealised image of Israel - which I call the "Leon Uris" image of an Israel that, if it ever existed 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 Diaspora Jews have internalised the fact that Israel is a foreign country, as far from their idealised version as Australia is from its image as kangaroo-land.

Countries change, they evolve. What would Australia's European founders think - even those who, until 1973, pursued a White Australia policy - if they were to see the multicultural country it has become?


Well, almost 30 per cent of Israeli citizens are not Jews, we may have permanently incorporated another 4 million Palestinians - the residents of the Occupied Territories - into our country and, to top it off, it's clear by now that the vast majority of the world's Jews are not going to emigrate to Israel.

Those facts, plus the urgent need of Israel to make peace with its neighbours, mean something. They mean that Israel must change in ways David Ben-Gurion and Leon Uris never envisioned, even if that is hard for Diaspora Jews to accept.

The problem seems to be that Diaspora Jewry uses Israel as the lynchpin of its ethnic identity, mobilising around a beleaguered Israel as a way of keeping the community intact. But this does not foster a healthy relationship. Israel cannot be held up as a voyeuristic ideal by people who, though professing a commitment to Israel's survival, actually need an Israel at conflict for their own community's 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 neighbours that is so threatening to Jews abroad, because it leaves them with no external cause around which to galvanise.

But Israel cannot fulfil that role. Diaspora Jews need to revalidate Diaspora Jewish culture (that Zionism dismissed as superficial and ephemeral) and find genuine, compelling reasons why their children should remain Jewish. Blindly supporting Israel's extreme right-wing and militaristic policies is not the way to do that. Such uncritical support contradicts the very liberal values that define Diaspora Jewry, driving away the younger generation of thinking Jews.

This is the threat I represent. 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 historical commitment to social justice and human rights. It may wish Israel well, but it must support an end to Israel's occupation and a just peace with the Palestinians. As for me, I'm going home to Jerusalem to continue the good fight.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 10, 2009.

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About the Author

Jeff Halper is director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. His latest book is An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel (Pluto Press, 2008).

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Jeff Halper

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