Diaspora Jews offer a rare chance for hope in the Middle East

Posted By: November 15, 2015

Irish Americans helped settle the conflict in Northern Ireland. Jewish communities could play a similar role for Israel and Palestine

Jonathan Freedland. The Guardian. Friday, November 13, 2015

Diasporas can be trouble. Whether it was the German-Americans who agitated to keep the United States out of the war against Hitler, the Irish-Americans who bankrolled the IRA’s “armed struggle”, or the Cuban-Americans who lobbied to keep the US shackled to a pointless embargo of the island, émigré communities have a checkered record when it comes to the influencing of foreign policy.

The scholar Fred Halliday used to joke that there was a doctoral thesis waiting to be written on “irresponsible diasporas”, focusing on those who, when it comes to the affairs of the old country, strike poses that help no one.

It’s obvious why the place to mine for such a dissertation would be the US. It’s a nation of immigrants, a country made up of communities that can point to any place on the globe and regard it as, if not quite home or “the old country”, then not quite foreign either. In the US, foreign policy is domestic politics.

Until relatively recently, that set America apart. But now that we live in the age of great migration, more societies are becoming like the US. Germany has a Turkish diaspora. Sweden has an Iraqi, and now a Syrian, diaspora. And as 60,000 people demonstrated when they packed into Wembley stadium today to hail Narendra Modi, Britain has a large, centuries-old Indian diaspora.

Usually the debate about these changes concentrates on the societies that took in the newcomers, how they’ve become more diverse and plural. But what about the impact these new diasporas have on the countries they left behind? The Halliday anxiety was that they often play a wrecking role. There’s a tendency to be more hawkish than those in the old country, to adopt a dogmatic stance unaltered by day-to-day experience on the ground. In the early 90s I remember hearing a more hardline strain of Irish republicanism on the streets of Brooklyn than I’d picked up in Belfast. It was often said that it was Irish America, with its pubs passing round the Noraid bucket to raise money for the boys back home, that helped prolong the conflict.

The phenomenon can be particularly sharp among those who never lived in the old country in the first place – the second or third generations who become more hardline than their parents. It’s the process Hanif Kureishi captured in his short story My Son the Fanatic, which swapped nationalist extremism for dogmatism of the religious variety.

It’s the story we’ve seen played out for real, in the much publicised cases of young British Muslims heading for Syria, leaving behind their uncomprehending, less doctrinaire parents. It’s the story we think of when we read of Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait but raised in London as a fan of Manchester United and S Club 7, who ended up in the crosshairs of a drone, targeted and apparently killed as Jihadi John.

But it doesn’t always have to work this way. Discussed too rarely is the role the Irish-American diaspora played in the Northern Ireland peace process. Long before the first IRA ceasefire of 1994, several Irish-American luminaries made the case to Belfast’s republican leadership that diplomacy and politics was the path to pursue – and that they would support them in that effort. Quietly and behind the scenes, they won over Bill Clinton to that cause before he had even reached the White House. In other words, Irish America acted as a responsible diaspora.

This week came an admittedly small sign offering similar hope in a very different context. London’s City University published a new and comprehensive survey of British Jewish attitudes to Israel. Unsurprisingly, it found that Israel is central to Jewish lives: some 93% said it forms some part of their identity as Jews.

That, incidentally, should be noted by those anti-Israel campaigners who insist there’s no connection between the two, that it’s perfectly possible to despise everything about Israel – the world’s only Jewish country – without showing any hostility to Jews. Jews themselves usually don’t see it, or experience it, that way. Most of them are bound up with Israel, one way or the other. As the great British Jewish novelist Howard Jacobson puts it, Jews see in Israel “a version of themselves”.

Still, what was arresting about the survey was the level of criticism this same British Jewish community levels at Israeli government policy. Three-quarters regard expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a “major obstacle to peace”, with 68% admitting to feeling “a sense of despair” every time there’s a further expansion.

Around half of those surveyed said they believe the Israeli government is “constantly creating obstacles to avoid engaging in peace negotiations”, with 73% clear that this approach is damaging Israel’s standing in the world.

The research suggests that Jews are eminently capable of holding two views at the same time that are often – wrongly – held to be contradictory. They are capable of supporting Israel’s right to exist, taking pride in its achievements on the one hand – and lambasting Israeli policy on the other.

They favour compromise, rejecting the suggestion that concessions should wait until the wider region calms down. They are unimpressed by the Palestinian leadership, blaming it for incitement against Israel,nd accepting the view that there is “no credible Palestinian partner”, even as majorities still believe in the two-state solution still maintain that Israel should give up land for peace, and do not shrink from the fact that Israel is “an occupying power”.

This is heartening. When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, there are not many optimists left. Tony Blair says he’s one: today he announced that, six months after stepping down as the official envoy of the so-called Quartet, he’ll keep working on a new initiative of his own, predicated on the belief that the way to make Israeli-Palestinian progress is through a wider regional understanding between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

But the outlook of most of those involved is much bleaker, especially as the recent wave of stabbings and shootings has seen the enmity between the two sides become more direct, even more intimate.

In this context, we need Halliday to be wrong. In Northern Ireland a key part of the diaspora eventually proved it could be responsible and constructive, rather than wreckers. This week’s City University survey was commissioned by Yachad, a British Jewish group that defines itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace”. In the US J Street promotes a similar message: supportive of Israel, hostile to the occupation.

Such groups may not shout as loud as others who claim to speak for their community. We know already how diasporas can be part of the problem. But history – and hope – suggests they can be part of the solution too.