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For a country that is supposed to be concerned with safeguarding Jewish interests around the globe, Israel sure has a funny way of showing it. To get a sense of how the government views this issue, I decided to take a look at the Web site of the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs, which seemed like the natural place to start.
After all, if our elected officials went to the trouble to establish such an entity, it must surely serve as an all-inclusive repository of updated facts, figures and information about our fellow Jews around the world, right?
Well, not quite. As it turns out, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry does not even have its own Web site, which speaks volumes about the role this body plays in serving as a bridge to world Jewry. Instead, it gets a whopping total of one - count 'em, one! - Web page that is static and bereft of any useful data, and which is, moreover, buried away deep within the confines of the Prime Minister's Office site.
Worse yet, it has not been updated since last year, as it still lists Knesset Member Rabbi Michael Melchior as heading the office, even though he left the post at the end of November, when the Labor Party quit the government.
Perhaps, I thought, somewhat naively, Israel's venerable Foreign Ministry will demonstrate a slightly more sophisticated approach. After all, Israel's embassies and consulates maintain regular contact with Jewish communities and organizations worldwide. Surely, as the primary interface abroad between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry, the Foreign Ministry would give pride of place to the subject, on a par with its importance and centrality to the future of the Jewish people.
WRONG AGAIN. The Foreign Ministry's World Jewish Affairs Division gets a measly page of its own, with the date at the top currently listed as "4 Feb 2004."
By contrast, the Foreign Ministry devotes more Web pages to Israel's development aid to Bulgaria and Vietnam than it does to the country's ties with world Jewry.
But this is not just a matter of Internet resources, or the lack thereof. It is a symptom of the apathy and indifference that typifies the government's outlook when it comes to world Jewry.
Take, for example, the issue of Jewish religious rights. We tend to think that Jews throughout the Western world are entirely free to practice Judaism, unencumbered by any restrictions on their observance of fundamental Jewish tenets.
But that is not always the case. In a number of European countries, such as Switzerland and Norway, Jews are forbidden to slaughter animals in accordance with Jewish law, and are forced to import kosher meat from elsewhere, adding unnecessary expense and inconvenience.
Other countries, such as Sweden, have imposed restrictions on circumcision, a basic rite of passage in Jewish life. While Israel has been more vocal when it comes to matters such as rising anti-Semitism in Europe, the government is largely silent on other issues affecting Jews, as though they were of no concern or importance.
IT IS TIME for this to change. As the state of the Jewish people, Israel has an obligation to stand up and defend Jewish rights wherever they are trampled, and to speak out forcefully on their behalf.
A simple, yet compelling, step that the government could take would be to compile and publish an annual report on respect for Jewish rights worldwide, modeled on the US State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
For nearly three decades the human rights report issued by Washington has served to raise public awareness about the state of freedom worldwide, placing many governments under the glare of international scrutiny and criticism. The most recent one, for calendar year 2005, was released just a few weeks ago.
At a March 16 congressional hearing, Assistant US Secretary of State Barry F. Lowenkron noted that these reports "serve as a reference document and a foundation for our cooperative action with other governments, organizations and individuals seeking to end human rights abuses and strengthen the capacity of other nations to protect the fundamental rights of all."
Of course, Israel does not have the diplomatic or economic clout of the US. But it most certainly has the moral standing and historic duty to press other countries when it comes to protecting the rights of Jews everywhere.
An annual Israeli government survey chronicling the state of Jewish rights worldwide would serve as an effective tool for monitoring and exposing abuses, as well as for pressuring other countries to take stronger steps to ensure the safety and freedom of their Jewish populations. It would underline and reaffirm Israel's commitment, centrality and responsibility for Jews around the globe and serve to focus the nation's attention on the fate of our brethren in the Diaspora.
So whatever new government may come to power after next week's elections, here's hoping it will devote a little more time and effort to looking out for our fellow Jews. That, after all, is our raison d'etre.
The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, which assists "lost Jews" seeking to return to their people. www.shavei.org
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