Government panel to look into connecting with gentiles of Jewish descent

Michael Freund is calling this initiative “crucial to the future of Israel and the Jewish people.

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August 17, 2015 02:10
4 minute read.
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The government announced the formation of a special committee to investigate the relationship between the state and gentiles, many of Jewish descent, who have shown an interest in Israel and the Jewish people.

In an advertisement that ran in several local newspapers, including The Jerusalem Post, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry described the exploratory committee and issued a call for public proposals regarding relations between Israel and “large groups around the world that have an interest in the Jewish people even if they are not entitled to rights under the Law of Return.”

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Of special interest to the ministry is the ability of these interested groups, many of which are composed of the descendants of Jews, “to maintain open channels and collaborative efforts with the State of Israel,” it was announced on Friday.

“Over the past few years there has been an increasing awareness of large groups of people who have some type of connection to the Jewish people and Judaism but who are not themselves Jewish or have any rights under the Law of Return. These groups and their desire for some kind of connection with the Jewish people and/or Israel raises the questions of if and how the government should reach out/ work with them,” said ministry spokesman Jeremy Ruden.

“As the government agency charged with the connection between the Jewish communities in the Diaspora and the State of Israel, the Diaspora Ministry has decided to take it upon itself to look into the matter of what kind of policies should be put in place, if any, regarding these communities.”

“Just so it’s clear, the committee will not be taking up matters of conversion or aliya as these are not within the authority of the Diaspora Ministry,” Ruden added.

The committee will be chaired by political scientist Ofir Haivry, the vice president of the Herzl Center, and includes Israeli-Italian politician Fiamma Nirenstein; former MK Einat Wilf; Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom of Beit Morasha leadership seminary; former cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser and former senior government adviser Rotem Yadlin.



They are expected to meet 12 times and submit their report by February.

Among those the government is interested in are the descendants of people forced to convert to Christianity and Islam, the children and grandchildren of European Jews who hid their identities in the Soviet Union during the post-Holocaust period and groups claiming descent from the lost tribes, Haivry told the Post on Sunday.

Members of sects such as Sabbateans are also of interest.

When people who do not easily fit into the binary categories of Jewish (or eligible for the Law of Return) and gentile, it is hard for Israeli institutions to deal with them, he explained.

“It doesn’t compute.”

“We are talking about millions of people, the vast majority of which have on the one hand no visible intention of becoming Jews. On the other hand [they have] a lot of interest in knowing more about Zionism, Judaism and Israel and even supporting Israel,” he said.

“First of all, the most basic thing is mapping them, who they are, and categorizing them into groups and getting the numbers and having this first level of knowledge, which is not there,” he said.

“Secondly, we will try to by talking to experts, as well as those representatives of those groups that approach us, to try and understand what interests they have, what they want and how much these things have an affinity with the needs and aspirations and interests of Israel.”

Among the ideas that have been raised was facilitating student visas for interested descendants of Jews and making it easier for them to learn about Judaism and Israel.

Citing criticism of Israel is the media, Haivry said he personally believes “it’s always a good thing to have an open approach to those who want to have better connections to learn more,” adding that such connections did not encompass conversion of proving people’s Jewish bona fides.

In a similar but unrelated effort, the Knesset will be holding the first meeting of its Lobby for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Communities in mid-October.

“The purpose of our Knesset lobby is to send a message to two communities, the normative Jewish world and the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities, that it is time to reconnect after we were cruelly ripped apart centuries ago. It is vital that we extend our hands in fraternal embrace and welcome our sisters and brothers, and try and find ways to assist those who seek a reconnection with our people,” said lobby director Ashley Perry, the president of the NGO Reconectar and a former adviser to Avigdor Liberman.

“I am delighted that the Israeli government also sees value in reaching out to these communities and at Reconectar we are working with numerous political, religious, academic and Jewish organizational leaders to ensure that we grasp this historic moment and strengthen and bolster our people.”

Michael Freund, whose organization Shavei Israel also works with the descendants of Jews, but which also proactively works on converting people, also expressed approval of the new initiative, calling the issue “crucial to the future of Israel and the Jewish people.”

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