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Sharar Burla. 2013. Political Imagination in the Diaspora: The Construction of a Pro-Israeli Narrative.

Sharar Burla. 2013. Political Imagination in the Diaspora: The Construction of a Pro-Israeli Narrative. Tel Aviv: Resling. Pp. 216. NISheqels 84.


Dr Shahar Burla is an Israeli academic living in Sydney. His book Political Imagination in the Diaspora: The Construction of a Pro-Israeli Narrative is an adaptation of his doctoral thesis in political science, submitted at Bar Ilan University.

Burla's research aims to decipher segments within the code that Israel uses in its discourse with the Diaspora. The code consists of a language full of symbolism, historical references and ritualism. It endeavours to construct, sustain and preserve a "national story" consisting of images and perceptions, which when combined, form a "political imagination" of Israel amongst Diaspora Jews (Galut Jews). The code's objective is to motivate Jews of the Disapora to take action which Israel considers the responsibility of the Disapora towards the Jewish homeland.

The first half of the book is dedicated to an attempt to lead the reader through the muddy waters of philosophical and theoretical infrastructure. This is a challenging task to perform in Hebrew. The opening chapters of the book include a lengthy review of the shifts in philosophical perception surrounding "political imagination" from Plato onwards and the interaction of this concept with the idea of "nationhood". Burla subsequently presents a flowchart that encompasses his own definition of the concept of "political imagination," amalgamated with Benedict Anderson's "imagined community" and Charles Taylor's "social imaginaries."

A simplified explanation of Burla's working definition of "political imagination" might be: a set of values, symbols and other elements which are rooted in the shared imagination of a community. Political imagination is constructed in two ways, either individually or collectively. That is, either through the interpretation of events in the mind of each community member and/or by the presentation of these events by "imagination agents." In the context of nationhood, the elite selects these "agents" (individuals and institutions) to actively engage with the community, in order to shape the characteristics of national social cohesion. The expected end result of this process is the formation of a narrative; the fundamental homogeneous "story and history" of the nation. This narrative can then be leveraged by the elite to encourage political activity by the community.

The book goes on to provide a brief introduction to the evolution of Diaspora studies in recent times. The review is heavily based on Rubin Cohen's canonical second edition of Global Diasporas: An Introduction (2008). The pinnacle of the philosophical discussion is outlined in chapter four, as Burla asserts the correlation between "political imagination" and its manifestation in the context of diasporism. The focus is on the method by which the home country (in this instance, Israel) uses "agents of political imagination" to influence, shape and determine identity features of its (Jewish) Diaspora communities.

Burla introduces a graphic representation of the process by which "agents of diasporic imagination" are chosen by the elite in the home country. These agents--myths, images or historical events--are intended eventually to lead the Diaspora into an "expected political goal" determined by the home country. According to Burla, the factors calculated in this process include the relationship between the Diaspora and the host country (where the Diaspora now resides), the "trauma" or "formative event" which initially leads to the creation of the Diaspora (such as displacement or forced migration) and issues relating to transnationalism, globalism and trans-border interaction. Omitted from Burla's model are a few determinants, most significantly the links and interests between the home country and the host country, as perceived by the home country's elite.

Following a very brief historical and contemporary review of Israel's relations with the Jewish Diaspora, Burla presents the research work he himself has conducted. In an effort to examine Israel's "agents" in the construction of the Jewish diasporic narrative, he uses several methodologies to gather sources. The first is fieldwork, by attending United Israel Appeal (UIA) events in Sydney in 2009 and 2010. The second is analysis and participant observation of public events both online (websites, email, online advertising) and in print. He examines the reports on Gaza's flotilla incident in June 2010, as issued by official Israeli entities, such as UIA and The Jewish Agency for Israel, as well as representatives of local Jewry, such as the Zionist Federations. He then refers to a mostly textual-based analysis of the "Partnership 2000" program between the Jewish Federation of Colorado, the Union of Jewish Communities (UJC), the Union Appeal and the local council, Ramat Hanegev.

Each of the test cases is explored through a series of questions intended to identify the "imagination agents." For each event, Burla: (a) inspects the interaction between the motherland and the Diaspora; (b) examines whether there is an appeal to the personal dimension; (c) looks for a trauma or a formative event typical of Diasporas; (d) attempts to discover whether political action is requested of the Diasporants; (e) determines the borders for inclusion and exclusion. The result of the analysis pursued by Burla is the unveiling of an intrinsic contradiction which constitutes the heart of his thesis. He asserts that two conflicting official Israeli narratives are used when approaching Diaspora Jewry, specifically in Australia. In both cases, antisemitism and its personification in the Holocaust are central "imagination agents". Moreover, in both cases, the political objective sought from Diaspora Jews is predominantly financial donations to Israel.

The first narrative describes Israel as "protective and salvaging," as the powerful guardian of physical and spiritual Jewish existence. According to this narrative, the State of Israel is the answer to the never-ending threat of antisemitism or the occurrence of another holocaust in the Diaspora. Therefore, immigration to Israel (Aliyah) is considered an achievement, a process for Jewish salvation and the realisation of true Jewish identity. Diaspora Jews who decide not to make Aliyah are required to "compensate" for this by donating funds to Israel, in order to ensure Israel's strength and its existence as a safe haven for Jews in case of future danger. This narrative is based on the idea that funds to Israel are an "insurance policy" for Jewish continuity.

In the second narrative, Israel is "a nation that lives in isolation." It is epitomised as vulnerable and under constant existential threat. It depicts Israel as being isolated as a result of anti-Israel sentiments, which are the new form of centuries-old antisemitism. Diaspora Jewry is once again called upon to support Israel financially, as well as politically.

Examining the Partnership 2000 project in the United States reveals an almost mirror image of Burla's findings regarding Australia. The main narrative in this case is Israel as a "light unto the nations"-a success story in global terms, not confined to Jewish objectives. Greater emphasis is placed on positive "imagination agents" such as community, connectivity amongst Jews, Israel's leading status in economic and ecological aspects and the successful absorption of new immigrants into Israeli society. At the same time, the Holocaust rhetoric is also present and the underlying message of Israel's superiority over the Diaspora remains. The end result is also similar, with the final request being financial contribution to Israel. However, in contrast to the Australian model, these donations to Israel are made according to a model applied in the United States for more than a decade. Instead of a general fund where the donors have no control over the destination and usage of their money, a more transparent, personal and specific model is implemented. Funds are directed to specific projects in Israel and the donors are eligible to receive updates on the fruits of their donations, and may even visit Israel to experience them firsthand.

Burla refrains from taking his thesis even further. The narratives he portrays in the conversation between the Diaspora and Israel suggest that Diasporic Jews are inferior to Israeli Jews in Israel because Galut Jews are not true Zionists, as demonstrated by their choice to exchange the harsh life in Israel for a calm and prosperous life in the Diaspora (sitting around "pots of flesh"--Exodus 16:2-4). Accordingly, Israel still expects Diasporic Jews to "compensate" with money for being "weaker". The core message is that Diasporic Jews are of lesser morality and character than the Israelis who reside in the Holy Land.

This perception of class stratifications, where the Israeli-born Jewish Sabra--the new Jew--is superior to the Jews in the Galut, has been heavily entrenched in the Zionist ethos from its earliest days. My own study of the Israeli community in Australia indicates that the notion of "Negation of Diaspora" is a factor which shapes interaction between Israelis abroad and Jews in the Diaspora to this very day. This concept, which considers Jewish Diasporic life as obsolete after the birth of the State of Israel, was a dominant notion for cohesion in the nation-building story of Israel. It was successfully incorporated into the Israeli national identity with the rejection of way of life and religious practices of the Jewish Diaspora.

Recently, I attended an Aliyah ceremony in Melbourne, celebrating the imminent immigration of a handful of local Jews to Israel. The speeches made on that occasion echoed Burla's thesis and resonated with me. Both narratives, Israel as the protector and Israel in danger, were mentioned repeatedly by the Aliyah emissary and the immigrants (Olim) themselves. I could not avoid the impression that the discourse sounded archaic and detached from the Twenty-First Century realities of global immigration and the decline of classic Zionist perceptions in Israel. The question remains, why does Australian Jewry accept, without challenge, being framed within the context of these out-dated archetypical narratives? Is it a case of desired self-perception which serves both Israel and the leadership of Australian Jewry?

The answer to this question is strongly related to identity. In fact, Burla's study is about an important force, the homeland imagination agents, in the ongoing, interminable process of shaping and reshaping ethnic and/or Diasporic identity. His conclusions point to the inner tension between some of the elements that construct this identity: religious, ideological or in this case, the mixed messages sent from the ancestral imagined homeland. With regards to the Jewish Diaspora, the narratives unveiled by Burla indicate a growing dependency on Israel as the prime factor sustaining and influencing what it means today to be "a Jew in the Diaspora." This is why, for example, the "Birthright-Taglit" program, which sends young Jews from around the globe to experience Israel firsthand, is extremely popular as a method to bequeath Jewish identity to the next generation of Diaspora Jews.

Following the publication of his book, Dr Burla was interviewed by Israel's Haaretz newspaper on 23 July 2013. Burla made a bold, potentially explosive and certainly non-conformist statement, arguing against Israel's long-time norm of appeals for financial donations from Diaspora Jewry. "Israel doesn't need this money; it would be better used here in the Diaspora [...] Why do we need the United Israel Appeal to raise money for us? It's not in Israel's interests and it's not in Australian Jewry's interests [...] In fact it's against Israel's interests and the Diaspora's interests. The money should be used to subsidize the cost of Jewish education," he said.

In this statement, Burla follows a shift in the perception of Israel's relationship with the Jewish Diaspora which started several years ago and has already been noted by scholars. For example, the 2006 book, Who is the Leader? On Israel's Relations with the Jewish Diaspora, ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Hebrew). Current CEO of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, often states that the preservation of the Jewish Diaspora is a fundamental Israeli interest and that resources should be diverted into supporting Jewish communities to maintain continuity. Indeed, the Jewish Agency has taken a leading role in implementing the conceptual change into policy.

One of the recent implications of this new strategy is reflected in the outreach efforts initiated by the Jewish Agency to reconnect with the new, and possibly the true, Israeli Diaspora: Israelis living abroad. The aim is to work to preserve elements of Israeli identity, both ethnic and symbolic, in offspring of Israeli emigrants across the globe--in Burla's terms, to work with the leadership of Israelis abroad to facilitate the relevant imagination agents vis-a-vis the Israeli Diaspora.

There are a few aspects of Burla's study that might have been better served if dealt with differently. The main weakness of the study is perhaps its methodological aspect. Specifically, the rationale behind selecting the test cases is not entirely clarified. As in many studies, feasibility, or the ability to "be there" and "do it," seem to be crucial in the choices Burla made about "what to examine". While it hardly affects the analysis in relation to Australian Jewry, it is more relevant with regards to the United States: a single case study, in one community, without sufficient contextualisation of the rationale for focusing on this specific project as a representative case. Thus, drawing far-reaching conclusions based on this project alone may be overstretching its validity.

At the same time, Burla's book is a worthy, new addition to the corpus of studies examining Israel-Diaspora relations. Most such studies focus solely on Israel and the United States. It is rare to see such a study on the Australian Jewish scene, and thus deserves more attention from local Jewry.
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Author:Porat, Ran
Publication:The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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