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Israel losing its appeal for Jews
Saleh Al-Naami -
Al-Ahram Weekly
7-13 October, 2010

Dov Weisglass, an Israeli lawyer who was bureau chief to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, admits that he is losing sleep over deteriorating relations between Israel and the world.

Weisglass, who was considered a pivotal channel of communication between the Israeli government and Jewish communities around the world during Sharon`s tenure, stated that changes in ties between Israel and Jews around the world would cause a fundamental transformation in Israel`s standing in the world.

In Israel, some believe this is a result of alterations in the lifestyle of Jews around the world in comparison to those living in Israel. Others fault the actions of the ruling political elite in Israel, who appear to be willing to sacrifice Israel`s ties with Jewish communities around the world for narrow domestic political gains.

An important development that widened the gap between Israel and Jews around the world, especially in the US and Canada, is the Knesset`s approval of legislation on the definition of `Who is a Jew`, which regulates conversion into Judaism. American Jews, who represent the largest Jewish community outside Israel, strongly condemned the legislation and some leading American Jewish figures threatened to abandon their support of Israel and protection of its interests.

The legislation resulted in a violent backlash because it permits the Chief Rabbinate, Israel`s official religious authority, the sole right to decide on the requirements for someone to convert to Judaism. American Jews are sensitive to this issue because the Chief Rabbinate is influenced by an extremist Jewish doctrine known as Haredi, which embraces more hardline interpretations in deciding `who is Jewish`. It is also very exclusive in choosing who may convert to Judaism, and does not recognise anyone who converted with a reformist or conservative rabbi (who form the majority of rabbis in the US and Canada). Accordingly, the Chief Rabbinate would virtually strip all American Jews of their religion.

While Haredi Judaism recognises only Jews who are born to a Jewish mother, the results of a recent study in the US revealed that 50 per cent of American Jews marry gentiles, which means they are not recognised as Jews according to radical doctrines. Many leaders of the American Jewish community believe that the legislation delivered a stab in their back even though they play a pivotal role in protecting Israel`s strategic interests. They are indignant that the legislation only passed to appease hardline Haredi parties participating in the coalition government in Tel Aviv. Party followers mostly refuse to serve in the army and live in isolation from Israeli society.

Meanwhile, there are many indicators that Israel is no longer appealing for Jews around the world. According to figures from Israel`s Central Bureau of Statistics, Jewish immigration to Israel has dropped markedly to 18,129 immigrants every year -- the lowest level since 1988. Although the US is home to the largest number of Jews in the world, the average number of American Jewish immigrants to Israel is 2,600 per year, while Jews from former Soviet states have dropped to 6,600. The latter were used as the main source for creating a new Jewish demographic presence in occupied Palestine.

The issue is compounded by signs that Israel`s status among Jews around the world, especially in the US, has dropped. According to a survey by the office of the Israeli prime minister, 50 per cent of American Jewish youth do not care if Israel ceases to exist while only 20 per cent of Jews in former Soviet states uphold Jewish rituals. All these factors have caused the Jewish Agency responsible for relocating Jews from around the world to Israel to take an unprecedented decision to revise its priorities. The agency`s board meeting which recently took place in the Ukrainian capital Kiev decided to drop its number one priority of sending Jews to Israel to be second to improving ties between Jews around the world and Israel.

Another clear indicator to unravelling ties between Jews and Israel is the conference held in Moscow in April, sponsored by hundreds of young Russian Jews who had emigrated to Israel at the end of the 1980s but returned to Russia after economic and security conditions improved. One of the most prominent conclusions at the conference was that Jews around the world could live without Israel, especially after personal disappointments they experienced during their stay in Israel.

Ironically, a number of Israeli public figures attended the conference although they were aware of the conference`s agenda. These included former Knesset member Dalia Rabin, daughter of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Yael Dayan, daughter of former Israeli defence minister Moshe Dayan.

One of the developments which is worrying Israeli decision-makers is the liberal inclination of American Jewish youth, which diminishes Jewish support of Israel. Jewish academic Guy Bechor, professor at Harvard University, asserts that the majority of young American Jews are liberals who reject Israeli aggression against the Palestinians on principle. They even rally against it inside the US. In an article on the Hebrew-language website Gplanet, Bechor states that the war on Gaza in late 2008 and the crimes committed against Palestinian civilians were a turning point for most young American Jews. He asserts that the majority of this group `is ashamed of mentioning Israel and prefers not to speak of it`.

In a recent article published in The Nation, two Jewish researchers, Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss, argued that this change in the attitude of young American Jews, especially among college students, towards the Palestinian cause became pronounced after the war on Gaza. `Every student at any university campus in the US who does not identify himself as a sympathiser with the Palestinians is branded [a racist],` which caused Jewish students to `eagerly shed the shame which Israel has brought upon them as Jews.`

One of the elements that strengthened the demand for a `homeland` by the Zionist Movement was that this `nation` would be a safe haven for Jews after being persecuted in Europe, especially at the hands of the Nazis and rising anti- Semitism. Today`s drop in immigration numbers to Israel and rise in the number of people leaving the country implies among other things that this principle is no longer true.

Avraham Tirosh, former secretary of the Israeli government, explained this reversal by saying that in the eyes of the majority of Jews around the world, Israel has become `an endangered state, its existence ambiguous, and is more frightening for Jews than anti-Semitism in their own countries.` Tirosh relayed what he often heard from some Jewish leaders in the US: Israel needs the Jews in the Diaspora more than those in Israel.

Weisglass agrees that Israel`s stature is diminishing in the eyes of American Jews, especially the young who no longer view Israel as a place of residence, or a spiritual and ideological epicentre, or even a destination for tourism.

Israel is no longer a safe haven even for a large number of Jews who were born and grew up there. According to official Israeli figures, 750,000 Israelis have left Israel to live in the US, Canada and Europe. What is more indicative of unsafe living there is the rush by Israeli citizens to acquire foreign passports to use in times of need. The numbers have been so great that Knesset Speaker Rubi Rivlin wrote a stinging article about the phenomenon, its dangers and `tragic` implications for Israel.

The dangers of a clear disconnect between Israel and Jews around the world are many and serious, most importantly the demographics resulting from a retreat by Jews from immigrating to Israel. The Zionist project was based on two basic principles: controlling Palestinian land and relocating Jewish immigrants. When immigration figures drop, the ability to control the land becomes weaker, but it also means that Israel will become more dependent on non-productive Jewish groups such as Haredi followers who embrace two main tenets: procreation and abandoning trade while living on state subsidies furbished by pressure from their parties who participate in coalition governments. Meanwhile, most of them do not serve in the army.

The anger of American Jews about `Who is a Jew`, as well as changes in the attitude of Jewish youth there, imply a strategic danger because it deteriorates the support and unlimited backing by American Jewish organisations which everyone in Israel agrees represents one of the mainstays of Israel`s existence because of the ability of these groups to influence Washington`s foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East. These developments are unfolding at a critical time for Israel, whose stature amongst the world`s nations dropped after its war on Gaza in 2008 and in the wake of the Freedom Flotilla massacre.

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