Creating people's geographies
The relationship between diaspora Jewry and Israel is a tale of mutual exploitation, Jeff Halper writes. The ICAHD director, Israeli academic and a participant on one of the Free Gaza voyages visited Australia last month. For his efforts, he was thanked by the self-appointed representatives of the local Jewish community with an ostensibly progressive Sydney synagogue withdrawing its invitation for him to speak, and the Australian Jewish News (AJN) refusing to run advertisements for his speaking tour. Here, Halper responds to his critics. The following is slightly truncated and can be read in its entirety at New Matilda.
Why was I banned from Temple Emmanuel 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 staff in a darkened room far from the halls of intellectual discourse? …
Given the support for my right to speak that was evident in many of the letters published in the AJN, this all raises disturbing questions over the right of Australian Jews to hear divergent views on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians held by Israelis themselves.
It raises an even deeper issue, however. What should be the relationship of Diaspora Jewry to Israel? Whatever threat I represented to the organised Jewish community of Australia had less to do with Israel, I suspect, than with some damage I might to do to the idealised “Leon Uris” image of Israel that they hold onto so dearly. This might seem like a strange thing to say, but I do not believe that those in the Diaspora have internalised the fact that Israel is a foreign country that is as far from their idealised version of it as Australia is far from its image as kangaroo-land.
Countries change, they evolve. What would Australia’s European founders think — even those who until very recently pursued a “white Australia” policy — if they were to see the multicultural country you have become? Well, almost 30 per cent of Israeli citizens are not Jews; we may very well have permanently incorporated another four 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 for Israel to make peace with its neighbours, mean something. They mean that Israel must change in ways Ben Gurion, Leon Uris and Mark Leibler never envisioned — even if that’s hard for the Jewish Diaspora to accept.
Yet I see this as a positive thing, a sign of a healthy country coming to grips with reality, some of it of its own creation, even if it means that Israel will evolve from a Jewish state into a state of all its citizens — a bi-national or democratic state. Rather than “eliminating” Israel, this challenge is in fact a natural and probably inevitable development. It will not be easy, but if Australia can become multicultural, so can we.
But that’s our problem as Israelis. So what’s the Jewish Diaspora’s problem? Why should discussing such important issues for Israel be the cause of such distress for them? Because, I venture to say, they have a stake in preserving Israel’s idealised image. In my view, Israel is being used as the lynchpin of their ethnic identity in Australia; mobilising around a beleaguered Israel is essential for keeping their kids Jewish.
I would even go so far as to accuse them of needing an Israel in conflict, which is why they seem so threatened by an Israel at peace, why they deny that peace is even possible, why a peaceful Israel that is neither threatened nor “Jewish” cannot fulfill the role they have cast for it, and thus why they characterise my message as “vile lies”.
This, to be honest, is the threat I represent. Only this can explain why rabbis, community “leaders” and Jewish professors choose to meet me secretly rather than have me, a critical Israeli, in their synagogues or classrooms.
… Israel can no more define Diaspora Jewish life than they can define Israel. …And they have to get a life of their own. They have to develop alternative Diaspora Jewish cultures and identities. Ironically, after all I have said, the Israeli Government will resist that, for it uses them as agents to support its policies, often extreme right-wing and militaristic policies that contradict the Jewish Diaspora’s very values of cultural pluralism and human rights. Remember: Israel does what it does in the name of the world’s Jews. Unless they take an independent position, they are complicit.
What befell me in Australia is just a tiny piece of a sad story of mutual exploitation: the Jewish Diaspora using Israel to keep their community together; and Israel using them to defend its indefensible policies.