The relationship between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry has been strained by the global pandemic, which has brought into sharp focus the distinction between Israeli citizens and Jews who are citizens of other countries.
I speak from personal experience in the context of South Africa, but I’ve heard from leaders of other Jewish communities around the world that one of the traumas of dealing with this pandemic has been the sense of being separated from Israel.
For most Diaspora Jews, it has, until very recently, been almost impossible to enter the Jewish state, even in the most extenuating circumstances. Even now it is very difficult for non-citizens to gain entrance to Israel. Apart from the pain of families separated from each other, especially at key life moments, there is the emotional and spiritual trauma of Jews being barred from entering the Jewish homeland for the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel.
It goes beyond border controls. Back in December of 2020, Israel began its vaccination campaign before any other country, and vaccinated almost its entire adult population before other countries had even begun. Jews in the Diaspora took great pride in these achievements. There was an opportunity at the time for Israel to become a vaccination centre for those willing to come and be vaccinated and follow all isolation protocols.
Granted, these are complicated issues and complicated times, and we should never judge those who had to make such difficult life-and-death decisions, often without precedent and real data. And, obviously, like any other government, the Israeli government has a moral and legal responsibility to protect its citizens from harm. But that primary responsibility doesn’t preclude all other responsibilities.
And, more importantly, Israel is not like any other country. It is a Jewish state – the Jewish state. And as such, its duties extend beyond its own citizens. From the moment of its birth, Israel’s mandate has been to serve Jews around the world. This goes to the heart of Jewish identity. Our connection to the land of Israel goes back more than 3 800 years when God said to Abraham: “Go to the land I will show you”. Our peoplehood was firmly established at Sinai – where the Jewish nation gathered “like one person with one heart” and where we received our Divine mission, and where all Jews became, in the words of the Talmud, “guarantors for one another”. Even as we were flung into exile, scattered across the globe, we remained – and have always been – one People, “am Yisrael”, one family, “beit Yisrael”.
The modern State of Israel is the heir to all of this history, and to the national destiny, mission and purpose of the Jewish people which flows from it. It is a country that gives meaning and expression to an idea – it is not simply a political entity operating within designated borders.
Israel’s founders understood this deeper significance, manifested it in practical ways – most vividly through the “Law of Return”, which grants any Jew on earth the right to move to Israel at any point and receive Israeli citizenship. From the extraordinary efforts to resettle Soviet Jewry after the breakup of the USSR, to the dramatic airlifting of Ethiopian Jews from Sudan and Ethiopia in the late 80s and early 90s, Israel’s message to Jews of any country who are in distress or in need has always been: We are here for you.
And those feelings are mutual, that message has always been reciprocated. From the very beginning, the entire enterprise of the State of Israel has been a partnership with the Diaspora; a partnership in which Jews around the world have invested enormous resources – money, political capital, even blood.
Again, I speak from the perspective of the South African Jewish community, but the same would apply to virtually any other Diaspora community. At the time of the War of Independence, South African Jews volunteered in droves to join the IDF and protect the nascent country from invading armies. South African Jews have gone on to make extraordinary contributions to the Jewish State, building schools, hospitals and other infrastructure, including the more recently completed Samson Assuta University Hospital in Ashdod – Israel’s first fully rocket-proof hospital.
More than that. As proud Zionists, we’ve championed Israel’s cause in national newspapers and on national public forums. We’ve been on the frontlines of the battle against BDS and their efforts to delegitimise the Jewish state. We’ve challenged the distortions and lies in the media and among our elected officials; we’ve taken the fight to our own government in defence of our beloved State of Israel.
Our enemies recognise the paltry distinction between Jews and Israelis. In the most recent war in Gaza, like during all the other conflicts, antisemitic incidents spiked throughout the world. Because we are, indeed, one people. That is the founding principle of the State of Israel, and the grand compact between Israel and the Diaspora.
During this pandemic, in the government of Israel’s firm emphasis on the distinction between Israeli citizens and Diaspora Jews, we’ve seen that compact weakened. I am not suggesting that there are easy solutions. But I believe strongly that, at the very least, the welfare of Diaspora Jewry must be a major factor in any decision taken by the Israeli government.
There’s a breach here. But it can be repaired. Our relationship is robust. Even in these difficult times, South African olim (and, I suspect, those from other countries) have been arriving in ever increasing numbers and welcomed with open arms by the Israeli government and people. This is just one example of the depth of the relationship. The fate of Israel and world Jewry are intertwined. We share a common destiny and mission. We are brothers and sisters – “like one person with one heart”, guarantors for each other.