'Israel has a distorted view of Diaspora Jewry'

Israel has a distorted,

October 27, 2009 23:47
4 minute read.

"The government of Israel has a very distorted and shallow view of Diaspora Jewry, and this is the result of far too many gatekeepers blocking a genuine dialogue between Israeli Jews and the Diaspora," according to Toronto Jewish Federation President Ted Sokolsky. Sokolsky, who represents the most-affiliated and arguably most Israel-supporting Jewish community in North America, is worried about declining funds and declining affiliation in many Diaspora communities. And Israel, he believes, bears some of the responsibility for fostering a stronger relationship with world Jews that could help reverse these trends. "There are very few avenues for authentic communication" between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews, he says, though he won't name the "gatekeepers" who prevent this communication. "Instead, contact is generally based on stereotypes we have of each other." Sokolsky spoke to The Jerusalem Post last week on the sidelines of the President's Conference in Jerusalem, and reflected on some ways Israel can start to take responsibility for the "strategic asset" of the Diaspora. In a recent meeting he had with Education Ministry director-general Shimshon Shoshani, a former head of Taglit-birthright israel, "Shoshani said he believes teaching about Diaspora Jews is a gap in the Israeli education system that needs to be addressed. He told us that when Israel doesn't understand Diaspora Jews, it harms Israel's own sense of Zionism." Like other European countries that only recently came to see an ethnic or religious Diaspora as an asset - Sokolsky points to Poland, France and others - Israel will have to start doing its part to keep it strong. "If you want to lead the Jewish world, you have to invest in the Jewish world," he says. "You can't expect it to be otherwise." Specifically, this could involve Israeli funding for "the training of teachers and principals, for summer camps - simple things that can even be conducted in Israel and add to the Israeli economy." Besides Israeli investment, the Jewish world has a pressing problem with affiliation trends in American Jewry, Sokolsky believes. Representing perhaps 80 percent of Diaspora Jewry, a crisis of affiliation among American Jewish youth has dramatic significance for all Jews everywhere. He may be able to help. According to sociologist and demographer of Jewish communities Prof. Steven Cohen, Toronto's community is per capita the most affiliated among all the hundreds of Jewish communities in North America. It raises more funds, sees more active involvement in its institutions and sends more of its community members to Israel than anyone else. About half of all eligible children - some 11,000 - are in private Jewish day schools, even though Ontario, like the US, does not fund such schools, making the "price barrier" as high in Toronto as it is in much of the US. Where does Toronto's surprising communal strength come from? "We are falsely accused by my American colleagues of being 'a generation behind,'" a suggestion that Toronto will soon see at home the worrying assimilation figures suggested by recent studies of American Jewry. In reality, he insists, Canadian Jewry is not behind the times, but is moving in a very different direction that Americans would do well to study. "We have a different way of handling Judaism," says Sokolsky. "Canada is not a melting pot [like the US]. For most Jews in Canada, their primary identification is Jewish." This strength comes from Canadian society's strong emphasis on particularistic cultures, evidenced in the freedom granted to French-speaking Quebecois to develop and preserve their distinct identities, or similar rights granted to native First Nations. Jews, too, are considered a distinct minority deserving of recognition and preservation. Ahava Zarembski, an Israel-based strategic planner who works with the Toronto Federation, offers an example of the effect the Canadian environment has on the Jewish community: "You have people like [Canadian MP and law professor] Irwin Cotler, who becomes the minister of justice of the country, but who speaks fluent Hebrew and talks to First Nations about his connection to his homeland," Israel. Unlike in America, the Canadian census specifically counts Jews. Thus, says Sokolsky, the sense of Jewishness is inextricably tied to being a people, not just a religious or cultural affiliation as in many parts of the American Jewish community. "The connection to Israel is part of the substance of the community," he says. Research bears this out. Most dramatically, Canadian Jews are just 7% of North American Jewry, but send to Israel 25% of the continent's olim. Meanwhile, Sokolsky worries that American Jews are affiliating less not only within their own communities, but with the rest of the Jewish world. "There are times that I'm concerned that the great American Jewish community is an iceberg that's drifting away, that's melting as it drifts. I'm seeing fundamental divisions growing between American Jewish attitudes on many issues and those of the rest of the Jewish world." In particular, "there is a major danger in the younger American generation's discomfort with Israel and with the word 'Zionism.'"

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