Israel needs to overhaul its relations with the Jewish Diaspora, adopting a more collaborative approach in its policy formation, several high-ranking government officials stated during a strategic planning summit on Diaspora affairs on Wednesday.

The summit brought together senior Diaspora leaders and officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the Jewish Agency.

The summit, which concludes on Thursday, follows several months of government consultations with senior Jewish leaders representing federations, foundations and organizations. The two-day gathering, held immediately prior to the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) General Assembly set to convene next week, is meant to formulate a new approach to Diaspora relations. Representatives of all government ministries that deal with the Diaspora were present.

The government is looking to “create a strategic plan for the upcoming 25 years that will include a common vision and more importantly an implementation of new projects for the Jewish people,” Dvir Kahana, director-general of the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Office, announced during the gathering.

Israel must place its relationship with the Diaspora at the “core of its national agenda,” he added. “I can tell you that for us the paradigm has shifted. It is no longer just a question of what the Diaspora can do for Israel, but what Israel can do for the Diaspora.”

The government, he said, is committed to allocating “significant resources” to make this possible.

“In Israel we typically view the world as a source of aliya and a big fat wallet, and that’s got to change,” Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett said, further explaining the rationale of the government’s direction.

“Clearly things have got to change. It’s got to work differently,” he averred, remarking that dialogue with Diaspora communities is a must and that in Israel there is little understanding of the problems the younger generation of American Jews have.

Bennett emphasized that this week’s summit cannot be the end of discussions if a collaborative relationship is to work, saying that “if it’s a one-off it’s meaningless.”

It is a shame that the prime minister is considered only the leader of the Jewish state and not a leader of the entire Jewish people, he added.

According to a draft document outlining the issues being discussed at the summit, the State of Israel is looking to provide up to onethird of the total costs of implementation of any program approved in the framework of these talks.

“Over the last few years the Jewish identity among Jews in communities around the world has weakened,” Harel Locker, directorgeneral of the Prime Minister’s Office, told attendees, in explanation of the policy. “This shift is opening a gap between the Jews of the Diaspora and Israel, especially among the young generation, and it poses a great threat to the future of the Jewish people around the world.”

According to the working paper provided to The Jerusalem Post, the government is seeking to strengthen “Jewish peoplehood bonds, personal Jewish identity, engagement with Israel among young Jews and strengthening aliya of choice,” with a special focus on the 12 to 35-year-old demographic.

“Israel cannot be responsible for saving the Jewish people. The government is an important resource and partner, but it has to be a partnership – especially regarding the question of how to bring more people to the circles of Jewish belonging,” the report cited one interviewee as stating.

A senior source in the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry told the Post that the government is seeking to implement a “road map” of engagement for young American Jews that would continue until they reach their 30s as well as a “Jewish leadership program” and frameworks for following up with Taglit-Birthright Israel participants.

Speaking with the Post during the summit, JFNA president Jerry Silverman said that he believes that Israelis “don’t have a clear idea or picture of American Jewry and they are trying to figure out what they can do.”

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, agreed with Silverman, telling the Post that Israel is seeking to eradicate what he called its “paternalistic approach,” in which Israelis “felt that we are saving world Jewry by giving them the opportunity to make aliya.”

By the same token, Sharansky stated, Diaspora Jewry felt that “they were saving their poor relative Israel by giving them money and power.”

In contrast to this approach, Sharansky asserted, is the path of “guaranteeing our future together [through] absolutely equal dialogue.”

“I know there is skepticism and there was skepticism before the interviews and there is still skepticism in the room today,” agency director-general Alan Hoffman told attendees, addressing concerns that the government’s apparent turnaround, bucking years of entrenched thought, was a chimera.

Asked if Israelis would be able to overcome previous patterns of engagement with the Diaspora, Steven Cohen, a sociologist specializing in the American Jewish community who participated in the conference, told the Post that he didn’t think that the feelings are all that much of an obstacle.

“What’s critical in any relationship is the opportunity for interaction. Given the relatively lower cost of travel, given the higher rates of exchange of populations, given the technology of communication, we can now see vast numbers of people on both sides of the Israel-Diaspora boundary interacting in ways they couldn’t expect to do before,” he said.

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