The news passed by seemingly unnoticed, but is no less historic for that: At a meeting on June 1 this year, the Israeli cabinet approved a large-scale program of support for Jewish communities in the Diaspora. It aims, among other things, to strengthen Jewish identity there. With expenditure of over NIS 500 million over eight years, the project is revolutionary. It amounts to the first time that the State of Israel, since its founding in 1948, has agreed to wholly shoulder responsibility for the future of Diaspora Jewry. For the first time, Israel’s political leaders admit that it is no longer the Jewish people’s duty to come to Israel’s aid, but rather the Jewish state’s duty to stand with Diaspora communities in their struggle against assimilation.
From my own point of view, this government decision means the culmination, and the validation, of an approach that I have championed to Israel’s political leadership for years. As a matter of fact, as president of the European Jewish Congress, and then as a leader of the French Jewish community, I’ve devoted the best part of my time to reinforcing the links between Israel and the Diaspora.
I’ve always believed that it’s the Diaspora that made possible the creation of the State of Israel – that without a Jewish world mobilized on its behalf, Israel could not have existed, let alone flourished.
I need scarcely mention, for example, that in 1948, out of the fledgling State of Israel’s budget, 98 percent came from the Jews of the Diaspora, notably those of America.
But today the situation has changed radically, and essentially there are three reasons: • Demographically, to begin with, Israel is now home to the world’s most significant Jewish community. Soon it will have gathered back into its borders the majority of the Jewish people.
• Next, economically, Israel’s acceptance into the OECD, its ability to weather the global crisis unscathed, and its reputation as the “start-up nation” bear witness to its impressive economic health and make the Jewish state a true economic miracle.
• And finally, today the Jewish Diaspora is increasingly in danger of disappearance, no less from assimilation than from the resurgent anti-Semitism that prompts more and more Jews to make aliya.
Thinking it over, I arrived at a comparison.
Israel’s relationship to the Diaspora resembles a son’s relationship to his father. As long as the son (Israel) was young and vulnerable, the father (the Diaspora) helped him take his first steps and grow. But as of today, 66 years have passed; the son has matured. He’s become an adult, able to care for himself, while his father has aged and lost his self-sufficiency. At this turning point, the son faces a choice. He might place his aged father in a rest home, knowing that one morning the news will arrive that he’s left this world. Or, as I suggest, he might remember how his father sacrificed for him when he was young, and remain by his side in gratitude, ministering to his old age.
That is the point that I’ve made to the highest authorities in Israel. I admit that it hasn’t always been understood. However, the much-missed prime minister Ariel Sharon, for one, was open to my idea right away. And I found in discussions that his successor, Ehud Olmert, was aware of the necessity to rebalance the relationship. He was prepared to admit that the State of Israel bears a responsibility to sustain the Diaspora, and not vice versa as previously. It was Olmert who in 2008 appointed me president of a commission that sought to define the new paradigm for Israel-Diaspora relations. Thus for two years I had the privilege of applying myself to this task along with a remarkable team that included Alan Hoffman, the current director-general of the Jewish Agency.
In 2009, in a detailed report, we proposed to the Israeli government that it assume its responsibility by taking steps to reinforce Jewish identity in the Diaspora.
We considered that the government would not be over investing if it devoted a mere one-tenth of a percent of its annual budget to the future of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.
To our great disappointment, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not deem it necessary to follow up on our recommendations. But fortunately the situation is changing now, as the Israeli government’s decision of June 1 shows.
That decision occurred scarcely two months after I’d decided to make aliya and become a full-fledged citizen of the State of Israel. Along with the rightful pride I take in the ability to claim this new identity, today I also feel the immense satisfaction of concluding that my homeland has finally understood that it also bears the duty of watching over the future of that Diaspora which is so dear to me.
In the fifth of the Ten Commandments that we revisited on Shavuot, the Torah stresses the centrality of respect for our parents. As I reflect on the law approved on June 1, I realize that fundamentally the State of Israel, stable and peaceful for the foreseeable future, was merely signing for its place in the long and unswerving tradition of our forebears.