This week’s cabinet vote establishing the Prime Minister’s Diaspora initiative as government policy highlights a growing acceptance of the importance of Diaspora Jewry.
The decision, which granted an initial budget for a wide-ranging government project aimed at developing projects for the strengthening of Jewish identity in conjunction with local communities abroad, is one of several moves by government figures in recent years that indicate the traditional role of world Jewry as Israel’s piggy bank may be over.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky asserted that the government plan, which he helped develop, did indeed showcase a change in perceptions of the importance of Diaspora affairs in Israel.
“Now, everybody understood that this was very important and in the interests of Israel to have a strong Jewish identity in the Diaspora,” Sharansky said. “At the time of Taglit, the debate was much more difficult.”
Journalist Dan Brown of eJewishPhilanthropy.com said this shows how the Diaspora issue has become relevant.
“I do think the Diaspora is more on the radar now than previously,” he said. “I do think that Sharansky is correct when he says there is less opposition.
There were clearly people in Israel who were opposed [to Birthright].”
During Sunday’s cabinet meeting, only Finance Minister Yair Lapid voted against the program, while Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri abstained.
Jay Ruderman, an American- Israeli philanthropist and the head of the Ruderman Family Foundation, agreed, saying “there has been [an] improvement.”
Ruderman, who brings Knesset members to the United States on trips that can be described as sort of a “reverse Birthright,” familiarizing the legislators with American Jewry, said polling carried out by his foundation indicated the general Israeli public understands and values having a relationship with its co-religionists overseas.
“I think in some ways they understand it much better than their elected officials,” Ruderman said. “By the way that also goes for the fact that the American Jewish community is a more pluralistic community and they accept that pluralism. The politics, that sort of rule here about who is a Jew, Israelis tend to overlook those politics.”
The underlying concept of the new Israeli initiative is that American and world Jewry, wracked by intermarriage and assimilation, can be succored through an infusion of Israel- based identity and follow-up within their home communities to programs such as Birthright and Masa, which bring young people to Israel for touring and study, respectively.
Israel is focusing on “identifying the unaffiliated and working to engage them through innovative programming,” by “working collaboratively and in partnership with Jewish foundations, organizations and private philanthropists from around the world,” according to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.
This collaborative relationship, which Sharansky has described as devoid of the mutual “paternalism” with which both sides have approached each other in the past is significant, whether or not the initiative ends up succeeding.
It is certainly symptomatic of a new trend.
Several months ago, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, in an effort to delineate the proper interplay between Judaism and democracy in Israel, turned to Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison to examine the legal aspects of the matter.
Gavison, as part of her research, engaged the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute to poll Diaspora Jewish leaders on their views.
In brokering a deal between the Orthodox rabbinic establishment and Women of the Wall over the use of the Kotel for egalitarian services, Sharansky himself consulted regularly with Diaspora leaders.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is known to be close with a number of leading Diaspora figures, including billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the owner of Israel Hayom, which wields considerable influence here.
Speaking with the Post recently, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder said he had “never seen someone who is more popular in the Diaspora than Prime Minister Netanyahu, and rightfully so, because he understands the Diaspora better than anyone does.”
Livni had already warned about the delicate relationship with the Diaspora.
“While Israel must retain its sovereign authority to determine its own future, decisions taken in Jerusalem that affect the Jewish people as a whole require that we listen to, consult with and take account of the concerns and interests of Jews beyond our borders,” Livni wrote in an op-ed several years ago, explaining that unless Israel undertakes “a dramatic re-framing of the role of Israel in Jewish life and the nature of the relationship between it and world Jewry” the Jewish state will begin to lose young Diaspora Jews.
While the Israel-Diaspora relationship has certainly changed in many ways, there is still opposition to the direction that the current administration is taking.
Despite widespread support for Birthright today, due to the money it has injected into the Israeli economy, Brown said there are those who “object to the fact that the Israeli government will put money into educational activities overseas when there is such a clear need for educational activities here in Israel.”
According to Sharansky, Lapid voted against the initiative due to his belief that Israeli funds should be used internally, especially during a time of economic crisis.
He shares a common belief that Israeli tax dollars should not be spent on what many people perceive as rich Americans with early opponents of Birthright.
Stephen Donshik, the former head of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations, the precursor to the Jewish Federations of North America, is a proponent of better Israeli-Diaspora relations but is one opponent of the new initiative.
“The idea that the Israeli government, which has been unable to successfully deal with issues of Jewish identity and Jewish ‘peoplehood’ that are internal to the state, can effectively have in impact in the Diaspora is almost absurd.
“Just today [Sunday], the relationship between the Reform Movement and Israel’s religious establishment was debated in court,” he explained. “Until Israel can come to terms with the meaning of pluralism in Jewish life it should not assume responsibility for the identity of Jews in the Diaspora. In addition, as an independent sovereign political state, Israel has to solve the problems of the basic needs of its own population before it reaches out to deal with the future of the Jewish people worldwide.
“Finally, the Diaspora communities must confront the issues of Jewish identity and connection to the State of Israel by themselves and devote the needed resources to the development of effective programs.
Accepting one third of a NIS 540 million budget from Israel is truly sad when these same communities have trouble meeting their obligations to their communities. This is a throwback and not an advancement.”
Even if one can argue the merits of the initiative itself, however, it is undeniable that Diaspora Jewry has become an Israeli priority. With Birthright and Masa having proved that Israel can make a positive impact on the Diaspora, it seems like the Jewish state’s politicians are looking to double down on past successes.