JEWISH AGENCY Chairman Natan Sharansky (left) addresses the Israel Democracy Institute conference.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky said on Thursday that the State of Israel was failing to engage in dialogue with Diaspora Jewry and declared that such a situation was a serious threat to the idea of Jewish solidarity.
Sharasnky was speaking at a conference of the Israel Democracy Institute dedicated to the concept of “re-evaluating the Boundaries of Jewish Identity,” in which an array of prominent public figures, religious leaders and academics examined the issue from various angles.
“Communities can be different but if they feel like they are part of a historic process then this can be the basis of solidarity,” said Sharansky during a panel on viability of Jewish solidarity during a time of pluralism.
He pointed out that Jews around the world are fighting for Israel in many different ways, in particular against the campaign of delegitimization against the Jewish state that has taken root in recent years, but that Israel itself was not granting many of those Jews legitimacy.
In particular he referenced the bitter war over the Western Wall, noting that the progressive Jewish leaders and the representatives of Israel’s religious establishment never met face to face but instead talked through the cabinet secretary who served as a mediator.
“This lack of dialogue is very harmful and is a real threat,” said Sharansky.
“The fact that until now we have managed to preserve the solidarity of non-Orthodox Jews with Israel is due to our shared history, but it will not continue forever,” he warned.
Speaking in the same session as Sharansky, prominent American author and public intellectual Professor Michael Walzer argued that the State of Israel has failed to convey to the world the notion that it is a nation state and not a religious state, which he described as a failure of Zionism.
“After all, the aim of Zionism was to establish a new Jewish nation that would include minorities who identify, to a greater or lesser extent, with the Zionist enterprise,” said Walzer. “Therefore, Zionism should have created a clear separation between Israel's national identity as a Jewish state and Judaism." In an earlier session, the playwright Yehoshua Sobel argued that there is currently a global trend towards rigid group identification which he said was leading to a focus on nationalist identities and to the re-erection of barriers “which is leading to a decrease in tolerance and the culture of others,” saying such a trend was particularly noticeable in the US and France.
In Israel, Sobel said that this trend had led to an embrace of an insular identity that “emphasizes the superficial shell instead of enriching the content within.”
Rabbi Yaakov Medan, a prominent religious-Zionist leader and dean of the Har Etzion Yeshiva, took aim at comments made by President Reuven Rivlin last year in which he warned that Israel was splintering into four different tribes, haredi, religious-Zionist, secular, and Arab.
Medan said however that Rivlin had mixed up the ideas of tribes and peoples.
“In Israel there are four tribes: secular, religious-Zionist, haredim, and the Jews of the Diaspora. The Arabs are a different people,” said the rabbi.
Medan said that Jewish identity should be strengthen through Jewish descent from the Biblical forefathers, through “the power of Brit Milah [circumcision] and through the power of “ascent to Mount Moriah.”
Continued the rabbi “If we go only in the direction of the new Jewish culture then I am very concerned for the preservation of Jewish identity in the future.”
Summing up the event, IDI Vice President Professor Yedidya Stern said that one of the biggest challenges to Jewish identity was that a large proportion of Jews to draw from the Jewish past or traditions, however that is defined, to define their Judaism or Jewish identity.
“If we don’t work to preserve Jewish heritage it will cease to exist, firstly in the Diaspora and secondly in Israel, and this would be a tragedy,” said Stern.
He said that several projects needed to be undertaken to avoid such a situation such as uploading “the entire canon of Jewish literature to the internet and the development of an index to allow easy access to it.
Forums for discussing current affairs from a Jewish perspective could also be established, as well as projects that deal with human rights issues around the world in accordance with the Jewish heritage.
Such initiatives could connect Jews around the world from all backgrounds and denominations with “the Jewish past” and help preserve Jewish identity and solidarity.