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The Conference on the Future of the Jewish People, held in Jerusalem this week by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, was charged with developing strategic plans for the survival not of Israel or American Jewry, but of the Jewish people as a unified whole. As such, Israel's geostrategic situation was given as much attention as problems facing communal institutions in the Diaspora and the slow dissolution of Jewish identity for large swaths of American Jewry.
Yet, in all four of the conference's working groups - on geopolitics, leadership, communities and identity - the conversation returned often and vociferously to the perception of a deep divide between the identities and agendas of Jews in Israel and Jews in the United States and elsewhere. This question did not originally occupy a central place on the conference's agenda, but arose in every working group and in the Thursday plenum that summed up the discussions and conclusions of the conference, drawing some of the most impassioned debate in the three-day conference.
"There is a crisis in Israeli-Diaspora relations," noted one American attendee, "and it comes from a lack of understanding and knowledge of each other's needs and situation."
Was this evident in the conference proceedings?
"It became evident to some of the Israelis who didn't understand this before," the American organization official noted.
Indeed, as JPPPI chairman and former US ambassador to Israel Dennis Ross noted in the concluding meeting of the conference, "every working group called for increasing the connection between Israel and the Diaspora."
"In a general sense, the sort of understanding, attention and sensitivity to the realities, motivations and sensibilities of the other are steadily eroding," according to the American Jewish Committee's Eran Lerman.
"The irony," for Lerman, "is that Israelis tend to have such a self-assured sense of their place in the Jewish world that they're missing the point. The Diaspora is ahead of the curve," since the reality of assimilation and competition in a free market of culture and ideas "imposes the need for creativity."
THE WORKING groups' discussions were closed to the media, but the concluding recommendations and testimony of participants showed that the subject arose regularly. One of the most resonant recommendations to come out of the conference - one discussed over coffee between meetings - stated that the Orthodox state monopoly in Israel is a major impediment to Jewish unity, and an impediment to aliya.
"This was started by [Jewish Agency chairman Ze'ev] Bielski" in the neutral forum of the Jewish Agency, said the ADL's Abe Foxman, agreeing that it was an issue dividing Israeli and Diaspora Jewry, and a serious issue during the conference.
The subject was again raised for many participants who reacted to the visit to the conference of Israel's most senior politicians. Israel's prime minister, president-elect, foreign, defense, interior and Diaspora affairs ministers all attended working groups and plenums, but drew mostly disappointed reactions.
"The Israeli leadership didn't demonstrate any knowledge, interest or understanding of Diaspora Jewish communities," said an Israeli participant in frustration. "Not only do they not know about the smaller communities, but [they don't know] about the largest community, the one in the most important country in the world. They know people, mostly donors, but not the society, the history. It's very disturbing to the American [participants]."
Though many were invited, not one MK outside the cabinet - other than opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu - chose to attend.
Some participants, such as Foxman, noted that the very presence of Israel's top elected leaders gave the conference its "hechsher" [kosher certification] and respectability. But for most others who spoke to The Jerusalem Post, the visits merely emphasized the vast gulf between the worries of the broader Jewish world and the priorities of Israel's leadership. After Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni participated in the working group on leadership, one participant noted with disappointment: "We didn't hear any commitment or vision," but merely learned that "she's an attentive listener."
This was particularly disconcerting, said Prof. Uzi Arad, because Israeli and Diaspora leadership are somewhat intertwined. "The distinction between [the two leadership groups] isn't as sharp as some here seem to think. Indirectly, Israeli leaders affect the Diaspora through their visits, their opinions, their intervention in Jewish politics overseas. And Jewish leaders can be influential Israeli leaders. From an Israeli perspective, [Conference of Presidents vice president] Malcolm Hoenlein, an American in every way, is more influential in Israel than some Israeli ministers."
Another participant, an American, told the Post that Defense Minister Ehud Barak used his time in the geopolitics working group to make fun of President-elect Shimon Peres, calling him the "old man from Kadima who is the only one left who believes in the 'New Middle East.' People were offended," the participant noted.
The conference was intended to discuss Jewish survival in several fields. Yet what emerged was a sense that the divide between the Jewish communities of the world and Israel has become a defining issue among some of the Jewish world's most influential leaders.
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