Sunday, April 12, 2009

COMMENT: Jeff Halper on Israel and the diaspora ...

In his recent op-ed for the Sydney Morning Herald, Jeff Halper raised some interesting points on how many ordinary Jews (or at least those linked to public community organisations) see their relationship with the modern state of Israel. For me as an Australian gentile of Indo-Pakistani heritage, it has always been an interesting process to watch, if for no other reason than that it has some similarity to the relationship between overseas Pakistanis and modern Pakistan.

The problem seems to be that Diaspora Jewry uses Israel as the lynchpin of its ethnic identity, mobilising around a beleaguered Israel as a way of keeping the community intact. But this does not foster a healthy relationship. Israel cannot be held up as a voyeuristic ideal by people who, though professing a commitment to Israel's survival, actually need an Israel at conflict for their own community's internal survival.

That is why I, as a critical Israeli, am so threatening. I can both conceive of an Israel very different from the "Jewish state" so dearly valued at a distance by Diaspora Jewry - and I can envision an Israel at peace. Ironically, it is precisely such a normal state living at peace with its neighbours that is so threatening to Jews abroad, because it leaves them with no external cause around which to galvanise.

But Israel cannot fulfil that role. Diaspora Jews need to revalidate Diaspora Jewish culture (that Zionism dismissed as superficial and ephemeral) and find genuine, compelling reasons why their children should remain Jewish. Blindly supporting Israel's extreme right-wing and militaristic policies is not the way to do that. Such uncritical support contradicts the very liberal values that define Diaspora Jewry, driving away the younger generation of thinking Jews.

So many Pakistani diaspora elders I see feel compelled to defend their idealised vision of Pakistan as they left it during the 1950's or '60's. They cannot tolerate even the midlest criticism of Pakistan, to the extent of even defending the indefensible.

(Then again, they at least grew up in Pakistan. I'm not sure how many Australian Jews have spent significant amounts of time growing up in Israel.)

Indeed, perhaps the healthiest trend I see among the local Pakistanis here is a greater exposure to Pakistani media. If General Pervez Musharraf did one thing right, it was to allow a freeing up of the Pakistani media. A variety of cable news channels such as GeoTV and Aaj are now challenging the idealised version of Pakistan previously held dear by so many of my "unklez" and "aunteez". Halper doesn't seem to believe a similar process is in place among Australian supporters of Israel.
The uproar caused by the prospect of my speaking to the Jewish community in Australia is truly startling to an Israeli. After all, opinions similar to mine are readily available in the mainstream Israeli media. Indeed, I write frequently for the Israeli press and appear regularly on Israeli TV and radio.

The level of healthy debate and indeed criticism of various political and social trends among both diasporas is almost inevitable. Resistance to such criticism may be understandable but certainly isn't healthy in the long run.