Deep rift opens between Israel and Jewish diaspora: Security and affluence herald a parting of the ways between Israel and its supporters abroad, writes Sarah Helm in Jerusalem

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The Independent Online
CALLS within Israel to break the state's dependency on United States 'charity' as it enters an era of peace, and US Jews' fears of Israeli 'isolationism' have exposed a deep rift between Israel and the Jewish diaspora.

US Jews, who have traditionally expressed their 'Jewishness' by giving financial and political support to Israel, are worried that moves by the Israelis to become a 'normal' self-reliant state could lead to a fragmentation of the 12.8 million-strong world-wide Jewish community.

The issue has been brought to the fore for the first time in a conference in Jerusalem on Israeli relations with the Jewish diaspora, organised by Ezer Weizmann, the Israeli President. The conference, attended by leading Jewish figures from Israel and abroad, heard how Israel's new sense of security and relative affluence had changed the state's priorities from survival to domestic concerns and identity. As a result, Israel wants to stand on its own two feet.

Yossi Beilin, the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, called at the conference for the abolition of the Jewish Agency, the body primarily responsible for bringing Jews to live in Israel and viewed by many as a corrupt pillar of old-style socialist Zionism.

Mr Beilin has also proposed Jewish communities abroad in future raise money for their own activities rather than for Israel. Mr Beilin has spoken of Israel's new goal of achieving 'normalcy'.

Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, and traditionalists in the government have attacked Mr Beilin for suggesting that Israel do without US charity, as this may lead to an end to US government aid, without which the state could not survive. Jewish leaders from the US, as well as Britain and other smaller communities, are warning Israel against severing traditional links with the diaspora. There are growing fears, particularly among US Jews, about assimilation into the communities where they live, which could accelerate if Israel gives them the cold shoulder.

It is no coincidence the debate has come to the fore just as progress has been made on the road to Middle East peace. Throughout the 20th century, but particularly since the Holocaust, survival has been the driving force for Jews world- wide, and Israel's survival has guided policy-making within the Jewish diaspora, giving a focus for Jewish identity.

US Jewish bodies donate more than pounds 500m each year to Israel, while the US government provides funding to the tune of dollars 3.2bn a year. Mr Beilin told the conference that fund-raising among the Jewish diaspora, 'based on the imminent and perhaps mortal threat to Israel's security', was now outdated.

While Israel has become more secure, so too have Jews in the diaspora. With the decline in anti-Semitism, US Jews hold positions of power in every walk of American life. But there is startling evidence the affluence and security among them has served to weaken 'Jewish solidarity'.

In what is described as a 'demographic holocaust', surveys in the US recently showed that up to 52 per cent of US Jews marry non-Jews. About 32 per cent of British Jews marry Gentiles. There were 400,000 Jews in Britain after the Second World War; now there are about 300,000.

'Paradoxically, the greatest threat to Jewish survival since the Holocaust has been freedom and affluence, which has lead to assimilation,' says Michael Oren, director of the American-Jewish committee in Jerusalem.

'There was a time when Jewish people in the diaspora cared about the Jewish state,' said Ephraim Sne, the Minister of Health. 'Now the time has come that the Jewish state must take care of the Jewish people in the diaspora.'