Melanie Phillips
Melanie PhillipsCourtesy

(JNS) Links between Israel and Diaspora Jews have been put under increased strain by the coronavirus pandemic.

This relationship has always been edgy. True, each side is careful to pay the other compliments and make professions of loyalty.

Diaspora Jews express love for Israel, take pride in its achievements and defend it against vilification and bigotry. Israel regards itself as the ultimate protector of Diaspora Jews and acknowledges the importance of their financial and emotional support.

Underneath these surface pieties, however, ripple numerous tensions. Of course, a proportion of Diaspora Jews are staunch Zionists. But many have always been uneasy that Israel’s existence makes them vulnerable to the charge of dual loyalties.

In recent years, an increasing number have bought into the falsehoods with which Israel is demonized and delegitimized. To others who think of themselves as totally integrated into America, Britain or elsewhere, Israel is of only peripheral interest whether in irritation or approval.

Many in Israel, for their part, view the Diaspora with a mixture of indifference, bemusement and irritation. There is no small resentment that Diaspora Jews are strident in their criticism of Israel and yet overwhelmingly choose not to make aliyah. They thus choose not to share the great project of Jewish nationhood, and not to endure the sacrifices made by Israelis—the most obvious of which is that their children are conscripted into army service, where many are put directly into harm’s way.

These tensions have surfaced recently because of the Israeli government’s strategy of closing its airport to foreign travelers for much of the COVID crisis.

This has caused significant distress and hardship to many diaspora Jews who have been prevented from visiting their children and grandchildren in Israel and, most painfully of all, prevented from attending funerals, weddings and other significant family events.

Two weeks ago, William Daroff, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, delivered a strong protest against these restrictions, accusing the Israeli government of “random, capricious, irrational and not very logical” rules, and of failing to recognize the sense of disconnection this policy was causing among American Jews.

Both sides have a point. Israel’s government believed that curbs on visitors from abroad were essential to keep the rate of infection down. Diaspora Jews were exasperated by the exceptions made to this strategy, such as allowing contestants into the country from all over the world for last month’s “Miss Universe” beauty pageant and the Flag Football Championships.

But what really raised an eyebrow was Daroff’s suggestion that Israel has a duty to accept Jews at all times, regardless of circumstances. For he also said: “The State of Israel has a contract with the Diaspora, wherein Israel is a place of refuge for us, where there is a safety net that exists for all of us. That contract has been suspended.”

Since people coming from abroad carried the risk of bringing the virus with them from countries with high rates of infection, the suggestion that Israel was under an obligation to accept those potential carriers just because they were Jews went down badly among some Israelis.

Conversely, among Diaspora Jews, the idea that Israel views them as foreigners is deeply neuralgic. After all, they point out, Israelis have been able to fly out from Israel and back (other than to “red” countries), even though they might equally have brought illness in with them.

Here, though, lies an even more neuralgic fallacy.

True, Israel has a unique relationship with the Jewish Diaspora. Famously, all Jews have the “right of return” to Israel. It is the unequivocal refuge for a people who were persecuted and made to wander across the world for almost two millennia until their ancient homeland was restored to them.

But unless they make aliyah, Diaspora Jews are not citizens of Israel. The entitlement of shared peoplehood does not negate the particular compact of citizenship made between Israel’s government and its citizens alone.

This compact—common to all democratic nations—confers reciprocal duties and responsibilities on each party. The most important duty of any government is to keep its citizens safe.

And although the strategy of keeping foreign nationals out was always open to criticism, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was entitled to take the measures he believed to be essential to keep Israelis safe from the virus.

With this strategy having now fallen apart under the huge wave of Omicron infections, these travel restrictions have just now been lifted. But the tensions brought to the fore by Daroff’s remarks go deeper.

In a thoughtful post on his Substack blog, Daniel Gordis writes that there has never been an honest conversation between Israel and the Diaspora about the obligations and prerogatives of each side.

What has been obscured as a result is something that many Jews outside of Israel find unpalatable—the absolute centrality to Israel of aliyah. The country’s founders, writes Gordis, had called for nothing other than an end to the Diaspora altogether.

Gordis is undoubtedly correct to identify this issue as important, ignored and still unresolved.

However, there’s surely a yet more crucial and unanswered question that threatens to undermine the future of the Jewish people. This question, which is setting Jew against Jew, is how Judaism can stop Western hyper-individualism from snapping the cords of cultural memory and observance that have ensured Jewish survival up till now.

In America, there’s particular concern over the very high rate of assimilation. This is being driven by the majority of American Jews embracing liberal ideologies such as moral and cultural relativism, victim culture and identity politics, which all repudiate Jewish moral codes.

But assimilation is also eroding Britain’s Jewish community as elsewhere in the Diaspora. And these anti-Jewish ideologies are gathering pace in Israel, too.

Jews are no stranger to this problem. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the rabbis of the Talmud performed the astounding feat of reconstructing Judaism as a communal, synagogue-based religion. But what they also set out to do was fight off what they considered the greatest threat to Jewish survival—the pagan and idolatrous practices of the Diaspora’s host communities, practices to which so many Jews were drawn by the seductive, material attractions those communities had to offer.

Today, the threat is similar although also different. Religious adherence in general is under siege, with the dominant secular culture placing religion, obscurantism and authoritarianism in one box and reason, science and freedom in another.

Yet the values that the West holds most dear—tolerance, compassion, liberty, the rule of law, reason and science—can plausibly be said to owe their existence to the Hebrew Bible.

The problem is that the great task of putting these things together in the same box isn’t even being attempted in today’s Jewish world.

This has chosen instead to erect barricades around two irreconcilable camps—progressive Jews who view Torah law as a barrier to essential cultural change, and Orthodox Jews who view cultural change as an existential threat to Torah law.

Just as the rabbis of the Talmud understood the magnitude of the threat to the Jewish people and responded with insight and genius, so the rabbis of today need to demonstrate that authentic Judaism offers an infinitely more reliable way of meeting people’s need for contentment, rationality and purpose than the ideologies that merely offer holograms of freedom and social justice.

There’s an urgent need to steer between the Scylla of progressive Judaism and the Charybdis of ultra-defensive orthodoxy. Modern Orthodoxy might be thought to provide just such an intrepid craft to lead the way through these turbulent seas.

Whoever plots the route, though, how to navigate this particular journey is surely the most important conversation the Jewish world needs to be having right now.

Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir, “Guardian Angel,