The state will spend NIS 1 billion a year on programming to bolster the identity of Jews living overseas, Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
The government’s strategic plan for the Diaspora, known as the World Jewry Joint Initiative, is a collaboration between Bennett’s ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency. It was publicly unveiled during an international summit of Jewish professionals in Jerusalem in November.
The amount cited by Bennet is significantly higher than the NIS 100 million initially reported by this newspaper in January on the basis of internal Jewish Agency documentation regarding the initiative. Given the twenty year timeframe given for the project by officials, Bennet's figure assumes a longterm disbursement of tens of billions of shekels from government coffers.
Its goal is to work with Jewish communities abroad to collaboratively formulate and fund programs to prevent assimilation. Bennett said it represents a “revolutionary change in the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.”
The new collaborative model, in which Israel and the Diaspora seek to approach each other as equal partners, is a response to a changing global landscape, he said.
“The whole relationship between Israel and Jews abroad needs to change and the objective needs to change, because the situation has changed,” Bennett said.
“I’d say the big objective now is to keep Jews Jewish and to keep them connected to Israel, and the younger generation is becoming less Jewish and less connected to Israel as we all well know,” Bennett told the Post. The government and Bennett’s ministry, according to the minister, have taken strategic steps to keep Jews connected to Israel “regardless of whether or not they make aliya, and we’re willing to put a lot of money on it... Specifically, NIS 1 b. a year.”
Israel cannot do it alone, however, as it does not know how, it needs to work with the Diaspora, he said.
Israelis are “profoundly unaware of Jewish Diaspora sentiments,” Bennett said, although he hopes that this can be overcome as a result of working together.
The goal is to see Israel gradually (within five years) increase its spending on the Diaspora to NIS 1b. a year, Bennett said, telling the Post that the cabinet is slated to approve the budget, framework and objectives of the initiative in March.
Seven working groups of Jewish professionals, Israeli officials and experts have been working to formulate programs for the initiative.
Their final recommendations are to be debated in a massive, open online jam session being held from Sunday to Tuesday next week, the Jewish Agency announced.
Aimed at Jews between 12- and 35-years-old, the initiative looks to create programming in seven content areas: Jewish life and Israel engagement on campus, immersive experiences, follow-up on immersive experiences, Israel and peoplehood education in formal institutions, Israel and peoplehood education in informal settings, serving the global good (tikkun olam) and aliya of young professionals.
More than 600 participants from all over the world have already signed up for the online discussions. A core team of Israeli and Diaspora members of the initiative will analyze their suggestions and integrate them into the working groups’ reports, which will be presented at the Jewish Agency’s upcoming board of governors meeting in Tel Aviv and subsequently sent back to the working groups for finalization, before being sent to the cabinet for approval.
Bennett said that while he believed the ultimate goal was to reach out to those completely unaffiliated, the interim objective must be to bring in Jewish groups and individuals who could not be part of the initial consultations for the project.
“Basically we’re asking Jews [from] around the world to give us ideas,” he said. “We want to broaden the scope and hear different people, not the same people we have always heard.”
Asked if the differences in worldview between Israeli and Diaspora Jews would be a barrier to effective cooperation, Bennett said this was not an insuperable obstacle.
“During the past year, as the minister of Diaspora affairs my eyes opened up and I saw that things that I thought matter don’t matter and visa versa. No one in Israel thought that [prayer at] the Western Wall was an issue, but apparently, abroad it was a huge issue,” he said.
“Yes there will be impediments as a result of Israeli policy and things like that,” the minister said. However, he added, if Israel can give Diaspora Jews the feeling that “they have a stake in Israel in some way,” it could help smooth over the bumps in the road.
“This is a new model and Israel is a unique country, in the sense that it serves two things: A state of the Jews around the world and a state of its own residents,” he said.
The lack of representation from a number of large Jewish organizations and several European Jewish communities initially lead to criticism of the World Jewry Joint Initiative.
Despite this, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky told the Post that the massive online jam session is not a response to demands for “a place at the table” by groups feeling marginalized.
“It’s not in response to any specific request. It’s a continuation of the initiative that started over a year ago from quiet conversations between the Jewish Agency and the Prime Minister’s Office,” he said.
Israel is looking to overcome its “paternalistic” view of the Diaspora, Sharansky said.
According to the government plan, every shekel coming from Israel for the project must be matched by two from the Diaspora.