Israel Education 'Blitz'

To help Israel, Jews must broaden the tent

Eran Shayshon

Amid global events of the past few years that are changing the world -- the rising power of the BRICs economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China), the global economic crisis, the rise of social networks and, most recently, the popular uprisings in the Middle East -- Israel and the Jewish world are facing a uniquely difficult challenge with the ongoing assault on Israel’s right to exist. This year, the assault coincides with the Palestinian campaign to secure U.N. recognition of statehood. The assault on Israel’s legitimacy, which is attacking the Jewish people's right to national self-determination, is being waged by a relatively small number of ideological organizations from the radical left and fundamental Islam.

While these "eliminators" are usually a peripheral force wherever they operate, the hallmark of their success has been in their ability to create a zeitgeist -- a spirit of the times -- of increasing hostility toward Israel. Moreover, their effort to brand Israel as the “new apartheid” has made inroads in alienating Israel from liberal and progressive circles, some of which have often unknowingly fueled the political assault on Israel by engaging in "acts of delegitimization."

In the context of the current political challenges and a declining sense of cohesion in the Jewish world, Israel in a number of Jewish communities has turned from a unifying issue into a polarizing one -- even into one that is no longer discussed. The result is that an increasing number of Jews becomes agnostic toward Israel.

Furthermore, for many -- especially among younger generations -- Israel is not a crucial aspect of their identities, nor does it play a role in their day-to-day lives. Ultimately, the assault on Israel’s legitimacy has exploited existing dynamics to further drive a wedge between many Jews and Jewish communities and Israel.

The instinct of some Jewish communal organizations to justify Israel’s actions at all times in reaction to the political assault on Israel has only backfired. These organizations at times have pushed outside the community's tent those groups that did not unreservedly support all of Israel's actions.

Such a closed-tent approach has alienated those concerned with specific Israeli policies. With no room for them in the community's tent, these critical voices have sought alternative forums in which to air their concerns.

It is in the past year, at this fragile time in Israel-Jewish world relations, that the  Palestinian campaign to secure U.N. recognition of statehood has emerged. It remains unclear how events in September will play out. What is clear, however, is that if Israel is perceived to be standing alone against the world, the rift between Israel and Jewish communities worldwide is likely to widen.

Indeed the penetration of this debate to the heart of some Jewish communities creates a unique challenge for Israel-Diaspora relations in the year ahead. This is especially the case within progressive Jewish communities, in which it is already harder to support Israel.

There is a broader imperative that underlies the need for a unified global Jewish response. The assault on the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination challenges the most basic components of Jewish identity and the notion of affiliation. In an era of individualism and globalization, many Jews are searching for the common strands that underlie the experience of Jewish peoplehood.

Therefore, a focus on standing together to confront a common threat is also an opportunity for Jewish communities to reconnect across dividing lines and re-engage with Israel in new ways.

In order to win this fight, the diversity of the Jewish people should be embraced. This diversity has been a secret of survival for the Jewish people.

Standing together does not mean uniformity but unity. We need to have a broader Jewish tent, including all those willing to stand against the assault on Israel’s legitimacy and for the Jewish people's right to national self-determination based on the principle of two states for two people. Those in the tent should be expected to at least show a sincere "sympathy" and "empathy" for Israel, give it the benefit of doubt, and work to create a constructive discourse on Israel.

Broadening the Jewish tent is our opportunity to drive a wedge between those whose ultimate goal is Israel’s demise and those who hold legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies.

Critically, a broad tent is not an open tent. There are boundaries between legitimate criticism and acts of delegitimization. Local communities, synagogues, communal organizations and grass-roots organizations need to grapple with the question of setting these red lines through a bottom-up deliberation and on a contextual basis.

The red lines are not aimed at narrowing the discourse on Israel but rather the opposite: to create a code of conduct that increases the tolerance for diverse opinions on Israel. Responding to threats by seizing the opportunity within is the main challenge for the Jewish people in the year to come.

Eran Shayshon is the director of the National Security sphere at the Reut Institute.

This op-ed  originally appeared in the JTA on August 14, 2011.