Jews in diaspora quick to desert

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The Israeli poet and writer A.B. Yehoshua once said that diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews have the same history but a different destiny. His comments came in the wake of the Persian Gulf war, a time when diaspora Jews abandoned Israel en masse.

Yehoshua's statement, if true then, is equally so now; once again, in light of the recent wave of suicide bombings, diaspora Jews are distancing themselves from Israel, even as they make their brave statements of solidarity.

Diaspora Jews, particularly those from America, see Israel as a place they must visit to strengthen their rather tenuous Jewish identity. But as soon as their physical safety is endangered, these same Jews quickly put aside their need for an infusion of Jewish self-identification.

What really troubles those of us who live in Israel is the clear distinction that this absence of our American Jewish brothers and sisters draws between "us" and "them."

The guidelines followed by American Jews are the ones set down by the U.S. State Department. If, as during the Persian Gulf War, the State Department believes that it is unsafe for Americans to travel to Israel, it issues one of its advisories warning U.S. citizens to stay away.

As soon as an American Jew opts to stay away or leave Israel, he or she is making a definitive statement of identity.

Thus the answer to the age-old question "Are you a Jew first or an American first?" is ultimately resolved. Identification with the American State Department and not with the Jewish people determines these Jews' behavior.

I felt this separation more acutely than I expected when I was party to a discussion among some Jewish leaders who were visiting from abroad.

The tragic deaths of two young American Jews, Sara Duker and Matthew Eisenfeld, in the first of the four recent bus bombings in Israel, had brought home to these Jewish leaders the danger at hand. Most of them turned to me and other Israelis present, asking us to understand how frightened they felt after these two "fellow Americans" became victims.

At no point in their sorrowful lament did they allude to the many Israeli Jews who also lost their lives in the bombing.

And so the question that needs to be asked is: How do I and other Israelis feel when visiting American Jewish leaders like these distinguish between Jew and Jew? There is almost a racist quality to their apprehension, to their expressions of fear and loss. So much for the United Jewish Appeal theme of "We are One!"

It is not as if American Jews are unused to danger. What Jew living in any major U.S. city isn't fearful of muggings or shootings?

While we were on sabbatical in Washington,D.C., a few years ago, my then 6-year-old daughter received instructions on what to do if she were accosted by someone as she walked to or from school. American Jewish parents live with the very real fear of their child's picture ending up on a milk carton as a missing person.

Yet American Jews are more than willing to risk a threat to their lives every time they step on a subway or send their child to public school. Better, it seems, to expose oneself and one's family to the risk of an arbitrary act of violence than to take a risk for the sake of Jewish solidarity.

All this points to a deeper issue, one that shapes the relationship between Israel and the diaspora, determining the nature of commitment each community has to the perpetuation of the Jewish people.

When Israel sends a rescue team to Entebbe, flies Ethiopians out of war-torn Addis Ababa, or absorbs hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews, it does so for the Jewish people. And when Israel wages wars of survival or combats terrorism, it does so not only to maintain its own existence, but also to guarantee that the Jews of America can come here to re-energize their Jewish batteries.

Yet every time Israel is in crisis, American Jews either pack their bags and leave, or don't pack their bags and don't come. Of course there are exceptions; but that is what they remain — exceptions. And so we in Israel feel abused, as our supposedly intimate relationship is reduced to a symbiotic one.

The definition of symbiosis is the living together of two dissimilar but closely bound organisms, especially when the association is beneficial. In short: Come to Israel for a necessary injection of Jewish identity — but only when it is beneficial and safe to do so.

This two-tiered approach to Jewish life will no longer do. Either you're in, or you're out. You can't step in and out of Jewish life every time you're scared. We Israelis don't do it, and neither should American Jews — not as long as they're using us to spruce up their Judaism.

And as for those Jewish leaders with whom I spoke, I'd like to tell them that I don't want to be exploited any more. I don't want crocodile tears. I don't want distinctions made between "you" and "me."

I understand fear. I, too, am afraid. But don't expect me to suspend judgment should you leave Israel now.

No one is asking you to make aliyah or be Zionists. But if you can't join the Jewish people during perilous times, then you can't be leaders of the Jewish people. In fact, you'll not equal the leadership quality of any Israeli who rides the No. 18 bus in Jerusalem tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that.

By your attitude you belittle our common history, a history laden with dangers. Sadly, as a result, you forfeit any common destiny.