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The view from Israel: European Jews deserve better

American Jews are “interested in Israel but not about Jewish communities in other countries except as it reinforces our own stereotypes about other countries”

    On a Shabbat morning in Bet Shemesh several years ago a friend approached me with a question.

    “Why do you care about Ukraine so much,” he asked, referring to my ongoing work chronicling the travails of the Jewish communities in the east of that war-torn country.

    By way of explanation he said that Jews were given a chance to move to Israel following the fall of the Soviet Union and didn’t take it. As such, he continued, there was no reason to continue to pay attention to their suffering.

    I was shocked, but not surprised. Over the years, I had received numerous comments along the same lines, posted under my dispatches on the Jerusalem Post’s website.

    The consensus, it seemed, at least among many in Israel and the United States, was that following the Holocaust, there was no justification for a Jew to live in Europe. Choosing to do so was to invite disaster — and those who remained bore responsibility for whatever befell them.

    Speaking at the Jewish Media Summit, a gathering of Jewish reporters and editors held in Jerusalem this week, Israeli diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett painted a stark picture of a Jewish state whose residents simply were not interested in many aspects of their co-religionists’ lives in the diaspora.

    “The reality is that your average Israeli does not think much about diaspora Jews,” he claimed.

    This grim assessment was seconded by Zvika Klein of Israeli daily, Makor Rishon. Well known for walking through Paris wearing a kippah and filming the resultant harassment with a hidden camera, Klein is the only full-time diaspora reporter working for the Hebrew language press.

    “For a human interest story, it is difficult to convince my editors, but for antisemitism it’s very easy,” he said. “It’s annoying for me. There is not enough of that sense of peoplehood.”

    Like mine, Klein’s articles have also become magnets for criticism by readers who believe that victims of antisemitism “deserve it” and have no one but themselves to blame.

    “From the perspective of the average Israeli who is informed by the Israeli media, [countries like] France [are] war zone[s] just as Israel is [portrayed] if you live anywhere else in the world,” Klein continued.

    As for diaspora affairs unconnected to antisemitism and BDS, there seems to be very little interest, a phenomenon he attributed to the dominant Zionist ethos of Israel.

    Like Klein, I believe that this indifference stems from the belief that Israel was founded to “negate” the diaspora and stands as the ultimate solution to antisemitism. Israelis do not believe that there is any justification for living elsewhere, especially in a post-Holocaust Europe.

    Jewish journalists from around the world have also expressed frustration at what they believe is a lack of in-depth coverage of their communities in the American Jewish press.

    “It’s understandable because the United States is the biggest [diaspora] community but there is an overemphasis on US Jewish themes and stories at the expense of very important things happening in Europe, South America and other countries,” Michael Kuttner, a journalist with Australia’s J-Wire told me at the conference.

    A lack of resources preventing Jewish papers from covering European Jewry on the ground accounts for part of this trend, but there is also a “lack of interest,” he said.

    American Jews are “interested in Israel but not about Jewish communities in other countries except as it reinforces our own stereotypes about other countries,” added Sue Fishkoff of JWeekly, a California paper. “As American Jewish journalists it behoves us to run more stories and interviews with Jewish communities about their daily life.”

    While the consensus about the United States tended to be rather pessimistic, not everyone was convinced that American Jews are as apathetic as all that.

    According to Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor in chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, online readers are “fascinated by stories of Jewish life in Europe, [especially] more personal stories of revival and Jewish cultural phenomena.”

    However, a look inside any random American Jewish newspaper tends to show that such stories probably aren’t gaining the traction one would wish. European Jews deserve better.

     

    Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist living in Israel. He is currently writing a book on Ukrainian Jewish refugees.

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