Economical with the truth
The Economist’s analysis of the ties between Israel and diaspora Jews misses the point
When it comes to arrogance in the media, The Economist has no match. Its forceful editorials pronouncing on every issue from Chinese business to European energy are written with a confidence and brio which leave the impression that they must be right. Such overwhelming self-belief is infectious and it is among the reasons that a journal with such an unpromising name is such a roaring success, selling over one million copies weekly, half in the United States.
In recent times the journal has not been notably Israel-friendly. Indeed, the country briefing on its website gives a fairly clear view of the starting point. It notes that “Israel’s harsh occupation policies, the accelerated construction of Jewish settlements, the plight of refugees and the dispute status of Jerusalem” continue to block progress on the peace process — echoes of the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen.
In its latest contribution to the debate on the Middle East, it seeks to drive a wedge between Israel and diaspora Jewry. It is difficult to quarrel with the magazine’s reporting over three pages in the “International” section. It is a thorough survey of the Jewish world from Moscow to Paris and from New York to London. Yet despite numerous quotes from well-regarded sources, there is no real awareness of the present debate in Israel over ways of giving the diaspora a greater say in Israel affairs.
Indeed, before his future was clouded by misconduct allegations, this was one of the pet causes of President Moshe Katzav. He has been seeking to promote the idea of a World Jewish Forum, a sort of second chamber of the Knesset, which would bring together leading scientists and scholars of the Jewish people. Organisation of the project, still scheduled for this year, has been delegated to the Interdisciplinary Centre, a Herzliya-based university.
I t i s the editorial, headed “Diaspora blues”, which has raised the hackles of Anglo-Jewry and will no doubt provoke a similar debate in the US if The Economist, which graces the waiting rooms of most major corporations, is actually opened and read. The leader opts for glib generalisations. It observes that “Israeli secular Jews found Israeliness a handy substitute for religious observance. Some religious Jews revived the previously fringe creed of Messianic Zionism” by settling Biblical lands.
There is an element of truth in both assertions, but they fail to understand a rich tapestry of ideas and motivations among both secular Jews and their religious counterparts. Moreover, it is hard to square messianic Zionism with the withdrawal from Gaza and the end to the Greater Israel agenda propagated by Ariel Sharon and adhered to by Kadima.
The greatest canard is the assertion that “as the threat of genocide or Israel’s destruction has receded, a growing number of diaspora Jews neither feel comfortable with always standing up for Israel, nor feel the need to invoke Israel in defining what makes them feel Jewish.”
As a member of the recent Board of Deputies mission to Israel, I am acutely aware that the threat of genocide is currently more real than it has been for decades. Iran has Israel surrounded. On the northern border, Hizbollah, financed by Iran (to the tune of an estimated $200m), threatens the northern cities. In the West Bank and Gaza, Iran has been stepping into the financing breach left by the US and Europe by funding Hamas.
Iran, in an echo of the Shoah, threatens to wipe Israel of the map. At the same time, the ayatollahs are galloping towards the development of nuclear weapons while the West looks on apparently helpless. Far from the genocide threat having retreated, it has increased and the fear is energising the Jews of the diaspora.
The Economist somehow suggests that the only people outside Israel who are now supporting the Jewish state are the “pro-Israel lobbies” in an “unholy alliance” with Chris- tian evangelicals. The idea that pro-Israel lobbies live in splendid isolation with no connection to diaspora Jews is unsupported. They are grassroots organisations, with strong support in each of the 50 American states, which during the Lebanese war managed to raise $348m for Israel in 33 days. As for the evangelical Christians, they are not a fringe minority, but a huge political force which provides the ballast in most presidential elections in the South and the MidWest.
In its final peroration, The Economist demands that diaspora Jews should be free to criticise Israeli politicians such as Avigdor Lieberman and add their voices to those of millions of Israelis who believe it is time to leave the occupied territories.
The idea that somehow diaspora Jews find it hard to be critical of Israeli politicians is risible. After all, the JC last year displayed on its front page pictures of the present batch of ethically flawed Israeli leaders and the charge sheets against them.
The withdrawals from Sinai, southern Lebanon and, most recently, Gaza, demonstrate that Israel does not have imperial ambitions. Ending occupation is not a point of difference between Israel and the diaspora but one of agreement between the Jews outside Israel and within. Israel is already a safe haven for democracy and peace would make it even more so.
Aside from the exceptionalism of Neturei Karta, the right of the State of Israel to exist, occupation or not, is not in dispute in the diaspora.
Alex Brummer is city editor of the Daily Mail