Guest Columnist: Does Israel care about the Diaspora?

Our future as a nation is linked to the immutable relationship that exists between Israel and Jews abroad.

By
December 16, 2011 18:25
4 minute read.
AIPAC Conference

AIPAC conference 521. (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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Given the breathless and often frenzied pace of events in the Middle East, it is no surprise that Israel’s media is one of the most vibrant and energetic around. Hardly an hour seems to go by without a crisis somewhere coming to the fore, be it in the diplomatic, security or political spheres. Social tensions, the religious-secular divide and even the level of water in the Kinneret provide journalists with plenty of fodder with which to fill the airwaves. Indeed, the idea of a “quiet news cycle” in our part of the world sounds more like a Messianic longing than a candid journalist’s lament.

But for all of their extensive coverage of a wide variety of topics, there is one key subject matter that the Israeli media systematically and consistently overlook: Jewish life in the Diaspora.

Leafing through the daily Hebrew newspapers or watching the evening news, it is easy to forget that there is a big, wide Jewish world out there.

Virtually nothing is written about Jewish life abroad, despite the fact that more than half of the world’s Jews live overseas.

There is no coverage of the challenges that Jews face, their triumphs and setbacks, nor of the rich Jewish intellectual and cultural life that exists.

On the rare occasions when the Diaspora does get a few column inches or a minute or two of airtime, it often revolves around anti-Semitism or scandal, as though that is the sum total of the contemporary Jewish experience.

In other instances, when there is a clash of sorts regarding Israeli policy, whether toward conversion or the Palestinians, the Israeli press will suddenly – and all too briefly – rediscover our foreign brethren before quickly moving along to another subject.



Days or even weeks can then pass without a single in-depth story appearing about Diaspora Jewish life.

It is tempting to suggest that in this instance the media are simply reflecting the will of their readers. After all, like any business, newspapers and television need to cater to what their consumers demand. So perhaps the Israeli media’s lack of interest in the Diaspora is merely a sign of a larger trend in Israeli society?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

DOES ISRAEL care about the Diaspora? The answer is an unequivocal yes.

The results of a recent survey demonstrate conclusively that Israelis have a direct and very personal link to the subject.

This past summer, the Sixth Annual B’nai B’rith World Center Survey of Contemporary Israel Opinion Toward Diaspora Jewry found that 65 percent of respondents said they have relatives living outside of Israel.

The study, which was conducted by Keevoon Research, also revealed that a large majority of Israelis – 69% – believe it is important to visit Diaspora communities along with Jewish historical sites when traveling abroad for business or vacation. Only 24% said that visiting Diaspora communities and historical sites is “not important.”

Clearly, then, the Israeli media are missing the boat.

A large portion of the Israeli public is connected to Diaspora Jewry both biologically and emotionally and is not averse to “sacrificing” part of their vacation time to learn more about it.

Moreover, Israelis frequently extend a helping hand to Jewish communities abroad, and both the government and the Jewish Agency have been increasing their allocations to strengthen and bolster Diaspora Jewish life and identity.

Israel even has a Diaspora Affairs Ministry, headed by Zionist hero Yuli Edelstein, which is charged with responsibility for cultivating closer ties.

Obviously the Israeli public does care about its fellow Jews overseas, so the media’s lack of interest is as bewildering as it is unwarranted.

Even more worrisome, though, is the effect that the media’s disregard is likely to have over time. By keeping Diaspora Jewry out of sight, the media are also keeping them out of mind.

Since the power of the press lies primarily in its ability to set the agenda, the fact that the Diaspora is never on its radar screen will inevitably create further distance between Israel and world Jewry.

The media play a critical role in educating the public about current events. Their failure to cover the Diaspora necessarily results in a dearth of knowledge and understanding on the part of many Israelis.

As a result, there is next to nothing in the way of public debate or discourse about Israel’s policies and attitudes toward the Diaspora.

It is essential that steps be taken to correct this situation. There is no logical reason why the endlessly fascinating and fundamentally important goings-on among Jewish communities abroad should be so thoroughly overlooked.

The Israeli press needs to be encouraged to devote more attention to the Diaspora. Ultimately it is we, the consumers, that need to press them for more extensive coverage by demanding that more attention be paid to the subject.

Similarly, greater efforts must be made to teach about the contemporary Jewish experience in Israeli high schools and universities. Young Israelis need to be inculcated with a deeper appreciation for the unbreakable bond that unites Jews everywhere.

Our future as a nation is linked to the immutable relationship that exists between Israel and Jews abroad.

But unless we actively nurture our connection, learning more about one another, we run the risk of drifting apart. And that must not be allowed to happen.

The writer is chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.

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