Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely lauded a new project of “diaspora diplomacy” as she hosted dozens of representatives from some 30 countries at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem to share best practices for strengthening diaspora communities.
Israel would not exist were it not for overseas Jews, she said on Tuesday, addressing the international audience ahead of a panel discussion held as part of a three-day conference.
The event, the International Seminar on the Diaspora-Homeland Relationship, ended on Wednesday and was hosted by the ministry in collaboration with the Jewish Agency and the Knesset.
Hotovely told the story of the founding of Birthright- Israel, the brainchild of former minister Yossi Beilin, who she said campaigned for the idea for 10 years before gaining the support needed to turn his vision of free trips to Israel for Americans into reality.
Hotovely said the project has done wonders for strengthening the identity of Jewish Americans, and that today Israel is looking for a new initiative to inspire “a deeper way of getting a connection.”
“Many feel that globalization is erasing identity, and people don’t want that,” she said, raising a recurring theme of the seminar.
Speaking on the panel that ensued, the ministry’s head of the Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions, Akiva Tor, said the issue of identity is the main problem plaguing Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora.
“The majority of Jews outside of Israel marry non-Jews,” he said. While noting that this is a natural component of a free and open society, he said the “end result is that we are worried those Jews won’t feel Jewish enough.... The dilution of identity is our biggest problem, and it’s the one we deal with the least because it’s the hardest.”
“Our main issue is how to have youth keep their national identity,” said Photis Photiou, Cyprus’s presidential commissioner for humanitarian issues and overseas Cypriots. The biggest Cypriot diaspora community is in the UK, Photiou said, but there are also strong and organized communities in countries including the US, Australia, South Africa and Canada.
On Monday, Photiou, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Terens Nikolaos Quick held their first trilateral coordination meeting on diaspora issues.
The meeting was held according to the relevant provisions of the Second Trilateral Heads of State and Government Declaration, which was concluded in Jerusalem in December.
Monday’s meeting established a formal dialogue and marked the ongoing cooperation, through joint programs between the diaspora communities, in parallel with the intergovernmental dialogue, as an expression of the deep friendship between the peoples, both in their countries and in their diasporas around the world.
“We believe through joint programs abroad we can achieve our goals, and believe me, these people can promote our interests in the best way,” Photiou said.
“I have underlined that Israel, Greece and Cyprus – we are the real democratic countries in the region,” Quick said. “This is a partnership that will contribute to stability in the region which is very much needed, and I think diasporas cooperating all over the world will help... should help to keep a peaceful environment, which we all need these days, especially with fundamentalists like ISIS [Islamic State].”
Quick also noted the importance of treating each diaspora community individually, adding: “You can’t handle the diaspora in Egypt in the same way as those in Congo, Israel or Tanzania... not even those in Los Angeles and those in New York City – they have completely different attitudes.”
The only firm link between Greece and its diaspora is the church, he said, which he commended for helping the relationship in many ways.
Meanwhile, Ambassador Giovanni Maria de Vita, head of the policies for Italian communities abroad of Italy’s Foreign Ministry, discussed Italy’s 70 million-strong diaspora.
“We always had good ideas which unfortunately weren’t part of a global vision of how to deal with the diaspora,” he said.
Ambassador Jorge Alavarez-Fuentes, director- general for Africa and the Middle East of the Mexican Foreign Ministry, discussed the “success story” of Mexicans abroad.
“We are part of the fabric of America,” he said, stressing that throughout the country, “you can see what Mexico is really about.”
Noting that many Mexicans left their country for lack of job opportunities, he said Mexico shares with the other countries the challenge of building a “common agenda” with its communities abroad.