Diaspora buckling under Gaza war strain

Beyond hate attacks, a more subtle form of racism is at work in the diaspora: the pressure on Jews to define their rapport with Israel

By Anshel Pfeffer, August 14, 2014

Two weeks ago, at the height of the Gaza crisis, a high-level meeting was convened in secret in Jerusalem by Economics Minister Naftali Bennett - who also holds the diaspora portfolio in the cabinet - and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.

The aim was to assess the level of antisemitic violence against Jews around the world, particularly in Europe, and whether Israel should or could intervene.

"We prefer to keep these meetings low-profile, that has been the practice in the past and I think it's better that way," said Mr Sharansky this week. "When there's a need for us to talk in a loud voice against antisemitism, we do so. Sometimes we need to be more discreet."

The meeting ended without any recommendations or operational conclusions: the assessment of all the experts was that, for now, governments were dealing firmly with the outbreak of attacks on Jews.

The only exception to this was Turkey, where the prime minister and, as of Sunday, president-elect, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has compared Israel to Nazi Germany and called on the local Jewish community to condemn Israel.

This round of fighting has left in its wake a divided and uncertain Jewish America

"There really is nothing Israel can do right now," said an official who attended the meeting. "We are very encouraged by the response of the governments who have spoken out against antisemitism. It's not as if anyone is asking us to organise an airlift."

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a letter to the Jewish communities thanking them for being "a source of great strength for the people of Israel" over the past two months. He acknowledged in the letter that "this has been a difficult period for Jews around the world, as many of you face increasingly virulent and sometimes violent manifestations of antisemitism".

While the most severe incidents have been in Europe, there has been violence and abuse in many countries around the world.

In the US, where antisemitic incidents have been less prevalent, the Gaza crisis has played out mainly in the media and in various Jewish movements, where the largely liberal community has been thrashing out its dilemmas. In addition, some of the more prominent figures criticising Israel's actions, such as comedian Jon Stewart, are Jewish.

While there have been large rallies in support of Israel in many US cities, there have also been reports of pro-BDS Jewish groups attracting more members.

Groups such as J Street have tried a middle path, expressing shock over the dead civilians in Gaza, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry's faltering attempts to reach a ceasefire, while recognising Israel's right to defend itself.

This round of fighting seems to have left in its wake a divided and uncertain Jewish landscape in America.

One of the central challenges to diaspora Jews in recent weeks has been pressure to say where they stand on Israel. It has come from within, but also from external players, such as the board of the Tricycle Theatre in London and European intellectuals, who have lambasted their Jewish neighbours for failing to condemn Israel's actions.

Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have created a battlefield of ideas for every individual, making each a Jew a partisan, willing or not.

No one has a right to demand this from Jews as individuals or communities - it is antisemitic to hold them responsible for Israel - but it is the reality that we have to live with, and it will almost certainly reappear and intensify the next time Israel goes to war.

Last updated: 4:19pm, August 15 2014