The weakening of the Israel-Diaspora connection

Demographic, social and religious changes among the Jewish people over the past century have influenced cultural and religious ideologies in Israel and in the Diaspora.

May 1, 2013 22:31
3 minute read.
Joint Israel-diaspora project

Joint Israel-diaspora project. (photo credit: jewish agency)

The prophets of Israel envisaged the return of the Jewish people to their homeland from the four corners of the earth. However, 65 years after the establishment of the Jewish state, the reality is quite different than what they had dreamed.

Demographic, social and religious changes among the Jewish people over the past century have influenced cultural and religious ideologies in Israel and in the Diaspora.

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Jewish communities that existed for hundreds of years have disappeared or dwindled.

New communities, however, have sprouted and existing ones have expanded as Jews’ social, economic and political situations changed.

Half of world Jewry still lives outside of Israel, mostly in North America, with no intention of ever leaving. They have built communities, synagogues and schools and provide communal and religious services. Hundreds of these types of Jewish communities exist, and serve as the focal point of American Jewry.

Most Jews who live in the Diaspora today do not view themselves as Diaspora Jews.

They live wherever they choose of their own free will, and do not feel coerced or inferior. Immigration to Israel is now possible from any place at any time – a luxury that was not possible in the past. Moreover, it is now possible to display our Jewish identity in public, and have a full Jewish life. Plus, most Diaspora Jews do not believe Israel is the spiritual center of the Jewish people.

Jews living outside of Israel no longer feel a strong connection with Israel, which is no longer the focus of Jewish affairs. Holocaust survivors who had made their way to North America after the war viewed the establishment of a Jewish state as a practical and emotional event. They considered their current living situation after the Shoah as temporary.

They had a strong emotional connection to Israel, upon which they acted by donating generously to Israel and showing their solidarity with the new Jewish state. For them, Israel was the center for Jews who still lived in exile.

Over the years, this attitude has undergone significant change. Now, the third generation of Holocaust survivors view Israel as a given. For them, it is normal that some Jews live in Israel, while the rest reside around the world.

The education system is partly to blame for this phenomenon, since it does not allocate adequate time to Israel and teaching subjects connected to the State of Israel. Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim are celebrated in most Jewish schools overseas, but students are not taught much about their significance.

The Hebrew language has also lost its eminence.

Hebrew is only taught in a small number of schools.

At the least, religious classes should be taught in the language of the Torah, but few schools teach these or Hebrew language classes in Hebrew (Ivrit Be’ivrit).

Today we stand at a crossroads: Before us, we have the double challenge of strengthening the Jewish identity of Jews living abroad, as well as educating them in Torah and the history and philosophy of the Jewish people. We need to reinforce the centrality of Israel in Jewish life in the Diaspora and to foster Diaspora Jews’ connection with Israel on three levels.

The first is experiential and emotional: Communities need to hold events and to feel a connection. The second level is cognitive: Jews outside of Israel need to increase their knowledge. The final level is internalizing values: Every Jew needs to feel that he or she is a link in the chain connecting all Jews.

We need to teach them the importance of having a homeland in Israel that is the eternal center of the Jewish people.

The author is a rabbi and head of the World Zionist Organization’s Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora. He recently gave a lecture on this subject at the Amadot conference held at Orot Israel College.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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