A View from the Bleachers: The relationship between the Diaspora and Israel

A View from the Bleachers: The relationship between the Diaspora and Israel

By Rabbi Steven Garten

Summer provides perfect opportunities for two kinds of reading. Long lazy days at the cottage or beach or even in the city offer time to read mysteries or spy thrillers. It takes a quiet and relaxed soul to ponder the subtleties of a great mystery/thriller writer. However, summer can also offer abundant possibility for pondering more significant mysteries than those offered by the new Rebus, Bosch or Banks novel.

We might want to investigate the issue of gun violence and mass shootings in the U.S., or the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and North America and wonder about its impact on our security as a people. Events in France and Poland certainly cause us to pause and ponder.

But perhaps the most challenging mystery for which summer might offer ample thinking time is what happened to the relationship between Diaspora Jews and the State of Israel. There is a growing disconnect between Israel and the Diaspora. It is palpable not only in the intensified criticism of the Netanyahu government, but the ongoing discomfort with the increased power of the Orthodox religious authority, and certainly the discomfort expressed by North American Jews about the “occupation.” The recent case in which the Federal Court of Canada ruled that it was “misleading and deceptive” to characterize wines from West Bank settlements as “products of Israel” was brought by one individual Jew and at least one [nominally] Jewish organization. Though it could be argued that neither party has ever had a strong relationship with the State of Israel, it is beside the point. The indicators are obvious to any and all who wish to look.

Matti Friedman, author of the Aleppo Codex and Pumpkinflowers, has written a most unusual book, Spies of No Country. It is about Israeli espionage at the time of the state’s founding. It is unusual for two reasons. The usual story of the Mossad or Shin Bet begins or ends with the white European “founders” as the heroes of Israel survival. But in this book the protagonists are Israelis born in the Arab world who, due to their appearance, language and cultural understanding, will venture back into what was once familiar and now highly dangerous territory. Many will die for a country they scarcely knew. Many will be forgotten by the country they gave their lives for.

In following the story of four heroes of what was known as the “Black Section,” the reader is challenged not only to learn a bit about a little known story of Israeli history, but to better understand the burgeoning disconnect between Israel and western Jews.

Friedman, a Canadian by birth, writes, “I came from the west, with the European stories of Israel – the kibbutz, the Holocaust, the Labour Zionist mystic. The longer you are here, the more you realize that those stories do not fully represent Israel. Half the country came from the Muslim world and that informs everything about Israel – cuisine, behaviour, music, religion, politics. Many Jews think the basis of the country is the European Jewish world – Herzl/Ben-Gurion – and that the Jews from Muslim countries came and joined that story. I think it’s the opposite: Israel is part of the continuum of Judaism in the Muslim world, together with remnants of the European Jewry.”

Friedman argues most North American Jews try to gauge the country through outmoded categories such as religious or secular, right or left and he suggests Israelis are neither. He quite convincingly posits that Israel does not rest on socialism and secularism. It rests on a bedrock of Jewish identity that has a lot to do with people who came from Baghdad, Aleppo and Casablanca, whose understanding of being Jewish is informed by life in the Middle East and the Arab world.

He suggests that early on the state ignored the wisdom and experience of its “black” founders but now, 70 years later, that experience and world view permeates the Israeli experience.

“Israel is part of the Middle East,” he writes. “Herzl’s dream of Vienna and Ben-Gurion’s dream of cultured Europe might have held sway once, but they no longer hold the power to mould the policies and life of most Israelis.”

Friedman challenges North American Jews to dislodge the old paradigm and see that what is there is not what we hoped would be there.

In mystery novels there is often a formulaic and complete ending. Not so in Spies of No Country, but there is lots of great Middle Eastern ‘food’ to digest.