(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu questioned the future of Diaspora Jewry in a closed-door meeting with American contributors to the IDF's Nahal haredi program on Thursday morning.
He warned that assimilation and intermarriage would threaten the future of Diaspora Jewry and said the Nahal haredi program was the answer to the rifts inside Israeli society. Netanyahu told participants to do everything possible to prevent assimilation in their communities, but said Israel is what is keeping the Jewish people together.
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"There is no future for Jews in the Diaspora, because of assimilation and intermarriage," Netanyahu said, according to participants. "The only future for the Jews is in Israel. The only hope for the Jewish people in the Diaspora is Israel."
Sources close to Netanyahu confirmed the quotes and said his point was to emphasize Israel's central role in maintaining Diaspora Jewry.
Netanyahu's comments surprised people in the room and Diaspora Jewish leaders.
Israeli politicians who deal with Diaspora relations compared Netanyahu's statements to those of President Moshe Katsav, who caused an uproar on September 10, 2000, when he said that Israeli leaders should no longer justify Jews living abroad.
"We have legitimized living in the Diaspora and have said it does not bother us," Katsav said at the time. "The only branch that can ensure the continuation of the Jewish nation is the Jewish state" and not Jewish education, which he said was a stopgap measure that "could at best last two or three generations."
Reached in Cordova, Spain, United Jewish Communities-Israel director-general Nachman Shai said he hoped "Netanyahu will be convinced that Diaspora Jews are not lost" when he attends next month's UJC General Assembly in Los Angeles.
"The fact that there is a Jewish state does not change the fact that Jews will always live abroad," Shai said. "I would like all Jews to come to Israel, but it won't happen. We have to bolster them and build relationships with Jews all over the world, especially with the Jews of the US, the most powerful Jewish community ever. Assimilation doesn't mean that the Jews in the Diaspora will suddenly disappear."
Former Diaspora affairs minister Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad) said that statements such as Netanyahu's "turn people off to Israel" instead of encouraging Diaspora Jews to make aliya.
"It's a very unintelligent approach to the Jews of the world today," Melchior said. "As a staunch Zionist, I believe that Israel is the heart of the Jewish people and we have the potential for a more complete Jewish life here than outside the country. I would encourage every Jew to come on aliya with all my heart. But to say that there is no future for Jews outside Israel has no basis in reality. There are many flourishing Jewish communities, religiously, culturally and educationally, which are doing wonderful work to reinforce the future of the Jewish people."
Meretz leader Yossi Beilin, who initiated the birthright israel program, said that nowadays, no cause is more Zionist than guaranteeing that the Jewish people will thrive in their communities abroad.
"Netanyahu's comments are empty slogans with no policy behind them," Beilin said. "I find it strange that Netanyahu, who rejects the idea of the Diaspora, is the same Netanyahu who as prime minister and finance minister contributed so much to making Israel a less secure place to live, with socioeconomic gaps that recall the Third World."