When we moved to our new home in Rehovot, one of the first things we noticed was how often we heard sirens. It turned out that we live down the block from a facility shared by the ambulance services Magen David Adom and Ichud Hatzalah. Considering what their dedicated workers and volunteers do, we aren’t complaining.
Almost every morning we pass it on our way to pick up our free Israel Hayom newspaper (thank you, Sheldon Adelson). You can’t help but notice that on virtually all of the ambulances, mobile intensive care units, and motorcycles – the quickest way to get a trained EMT and lifesaving equipment to an accident in the middle of one of Israel’s massive traffic jams – are the names of donors who bought it for us. You can buy us one online if you like; one of the mobile ICUs costs $125,000, but you can fund a motorcycle for only $36,000.
The donor’s home towns are also painted on the vehicles. I recall seeing them from all over the US and Canada, France, Australia, the UK, South Africa, and more places that I don’t remember. Most of the names are Jewish, although I’m sure there are non-Jews that have helped in this way as well. Thank you all.
I got to thinking about the help that Israel received from the Diaspora and non-Jewish friends during its early years. There were, for example, the 3500 or so machal volunteers from 55 countries, many of whom were WWII veterans who came to help defend the Jewish state or to assist with the illegal immigration prior to the founding of the state. More than a hundred of them gave their lives (the first machal casualty was an American named Bill Bernstein, who was beaten to death by British soldiers on the deck of the Exodus). I was surprised to read that during the war more than two-thirds of the personnel in the new Israel Air Force were volunteers from outside the country, and that English was “the operational working language!” Arguably, we wouldn’t have won the war without them. There aren’t many of them left; a twenty-year old in 1948 would be 90 today. We are grateful to them too.
There are other ways that the young country got help from its relatives and friends outside. Many years ago, my grandparents had a blue pushka, a little charity box, on their kitchen table. The money went to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees and develop the land in Israel. The ORT network of schools (one of which my daughters attended), Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, and countless other institutions throughout the country, were all built with overseas contributions – many raised by Jewish women’s organizations, as the ubiquitous bronze plaques testify. I can’t count the Hadassah fundraising events that I accompanied my very active wife to.
I think the days of mass support for Israel from overseas Jewish communities are over. For one thing, these communities are smaller and weaker than in the past, as assimilation in North America and the pressure of antisemitism in Europe have taken their toll. The large organizations in the US like Hadassah and the Jewish Federations grew too large, hired expensive professional non-profit managers, and focused more and more on domestic causes and less on Israel, in part because the increasingly controversial nature in the liberal Jewish sector of anything connected with Israel. Orthodox Jews in North America are increasingly stressed financially by the very high cost of Jewish education for their children. In both groups, a decrease in support of all kinds for Israel among the younger people implies that there will be less support overall in the future.
There are various causes of friction between Israel and the Diaspora. Diaspora Jews are annoyed when Israelis tell them that their communities are doomed (although the Israelis are right about this) and that they should make aliyah immediately, even though they will have a difficult time getting jobs in their professions in Israel because of dense Israeli bureaucracy. They are infuriated when the Israeli Chief Rabbinate tries to appoint itself the arbiter of who is Jewish and who is a legitimate rabbi. Their upset about matters of state and religion is to a certain extent stimulated by groups with political axes to grind, but despite this, it is not unreasonable.
Israelis, on the other hand, are irritated by the arrogance of Diaspora Jews who pontificate about what policies Israel should follow – particularly with respect to the conflict with the Palestinians – without any real understanding of the facts and without the personal stake in the outcome that Israelis have.
The good news, of course, is that Israel doesn’t need the kind of help it needed to win the War of Independence or to integrate the immigrants of the 1950s and 1960s. With its strong economy, Israel can afford to build its own hospitals, and there are plenty of Israeli pilots to staff our Air Force. There are still “lone soldiers,” volunteers from various countries that come to Israel to serve in the IDF, but they are no longer essential to the survival of the country.
The relationship of Israel and the Diaspora is changing rapidly, and both sides need to adapt. Jews outside of Israel should understand that Israel is an independent nation, not an extension of the Diaspora. And Israelis should understand that we can’t go to the Diaspora for help if we get into trouble.
Because the truth is that Diaspora communities will not survive as such. In North America, the liberal Jewish community is fading rapidly in every dimension of “Jewishness” except the most trivial cultural sense. Orthodox communities seem to be more cohesive, but they are comparatively tiny and have their own concerns. In Europe, disintegration in the face of increasing antisemitism both from Muslim immigrants and “old-fashioned” native Jew-haters is already under way, with Jews increasingly making plans to flee (from France, Britain, Germany, and even Russia).
Israel, despite the efforts of some extreme Diaspora secularists, is now the center of Jewish culture in the world. And it will become more so as time passes.
I still get a warm feeling when I walk by the yard where the ambulance donated by “Mr. & Mrs. Irving Bloomgarten, Peoria, IL” is parked. Israel is grateful to the Bloomgartens who contributed their hard-earned money, the machal-niks who fought and sometimes died for us, the Hadassah ladies who baked and held silent auctions to build our hospital, and to everyone else without whom there would not be a Jewish state.
Someday it may be their grandchildren who need our help.