A powerful Israel, vulnerable Diaspora

In its short, miraculous 70-year history, Israel has turned weaknesses into strengths, threats into opportunities and has overcome endless obstacles to become a thriving nation and a world leader in diverse fields.

September 26, 2018 21:13
‘LET’S DEBATE the meaning of the Zionist Idea today – in Israel and the Diaspora, then compare notes

‘LET’S DEBATE the meaning of the Zionist Idea today – in Israel and the Diaspora, then compare notes. It’s no longer about establishing the state; it should be about more than defending the state; it must be about perfecting the state.’. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Imagine Israel as a source of unity and pride for world Jewry, a real center of religious inclusivity that promotes progressive Jewish values rather than religious coercion; an Israel that inspires Jews around the world to maintain their heritage, identity and sense of belonging.

In its short, miraculous 70-year history, Israel has turned weaknesses into strengths, threats into opportunities and has overcome endless obstacles to become a thriving nation and a world leader in diverse fields. Israelis are also in the enviable position of being able to sustain their Judaism in the Jewish state.
In contrast, the Jewish Diaspora has been dwindling through intermarriage and loss of interest due to modern life, declining interest in religion and soaring costs of Jewish education. Jewish communities have generally failed to find new approaches that would give more Jews reasons to stay Jewish. Israel could be that raison d’être, if it moved toward becoming that utopian center.

Diaspora Jews played an invaluable role in Israel’s success, especially in its early years, when the state faced existential threats. It is therefore only natural to expect that now, following its success, Israel would help Diaspora Jews overcome the existential cultural threats they are now facing. Alas, this is not happening. In fact, in recent years, the gap between Israel and world Jewry has been growing. Judaism in Israel is increasingly defined by the Orthodox principles that reject Diaspora’s main streams of Judaism. This, in turn, contributes greatly to an environment of contempt, ridicule, ignorance and apathy toward Diaspora Jews.

The recent failed attempts to resolve the Western Wall issue further deepened the crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations. One explanation of the failure is that the Israeli public was not part of the conversation and, therefore, it lacked legitimacy. Israel’s new Nation-State Law, with its controversial clause about Israel-Diaspora relations, was another setback. In both cases, Israeli public apathy to Diaspora Jews was a key factor in the unfortunate outcomes. 

This apathy, combined with Israel’s political system and population trends, greatly eroded world Jewry’s power to impact Jewish-related decisions in Israel. It is clear that Israel on its own is not capable of moving toward becoming a true center that will transform the Jewish world and help it grow and thrive. A joint effort is necessary – and it is possible.

INDEED, surveys continue to show that Israeli and Diaspora Jews continue to feel a strong connection toward one another. In the American Jewish Committee’s 2018 Survey of American Jewish Opinion, 70% of American Jews said that caring about Israel is a very important part of being a Jew for them, and close to 70% consider Israeli Jews their extended family. In a recent Haaretz survey, 47% of Israelis said they support granting full rights to Reform and Conservative Jews.

Since Israel is not capable of assuming a leadership role to strengthen the bond of people-hood, the Diaspora must proactively change Israelis’ perception of Jewish life in the Diaspora and make Israelis aware that it is in their interest to turn Israel into a true center for all Jews.

The Jewish People Policy Institute recently recommended that Diaspora Jewry should aspire “to dialogue with all parts of Israeli society... creating an alternative to the distancing discourse” and strive, “through dialogue and educational means, to ensure understanding of attitudinal gaps...” In the JPPI survey of young Jews from Israel and the Diaspora, participants agreed that personal encounters between Diaspora and Israeli Jews are the key and have greater and more significant influence than institutional activities.

Given the new reality of a powerful Israel and a vulnerable Diaspora, leaders of world Jewish organizations and federations must consider a new relations model; one that recognizes that the key issue for the Jewish world now is the existential threat to Jews as a culture outside Israel, and that the Jewish state can play a role in averting this threat.

Funds that are currently donated by world Jewry to Israel need to be redirected to causes that broaden the dialogue with Israeli society, engage in public grassroots mutual learning and develop joint programs aimed at reducing the negative attitudes and indifference between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. Such programs will expose Israelis to a more pluralistic Jewish existence, and world Jewry to the security and other existential challenges experienced in Israel. This will help enhance mutual empathy, solidarity and understanding based on Jewish values, ideas and wisdom.

IN THIS REGARD, it should be noted that donations to Israel by Jews around the world are estimated to be about two billion dollars a year. These donations are no longer essential for Israel’s well-being. Israel is an affluent country with a gross domestic product of $350 billion, a per capita GDP that is 83% of Canada’s and an economy that is growing even faster than ours.

With these funds, joint missions for Diaspora Jews and Israelis could be created to provide a meaningful purpose for Diaspora Jews and help reignite their commitment to Judaism. Immersion programs for Israelis and Jews living elsewhere could be developed. Joint school programs and summer camps, as well as internships and joint volunteer opportunities in both places could also be created. 

Emissaries from the Diaspora, like reverse shinshinim (a play on shnat sherut, Israeli pre-military, voluntary “year of service”) could be sent to Israel to integrate into Israeli educational institutions and community organizations, acting as a source of knowledge regarding Jewish life in the Diaspora. Programs like Birthright, Masa and “gap years” could be modified or expanded to achieve these goals. Communities could draw on the unique perspectives of Israeli expats to strengthen their Jewish life and connection to Israel. All of these activities could be run in a holistic and coordinated manner through a newly created democratic body that would be run jointly by Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

Israel has to play a key role in the much-needed Jewish revitalization, but it does not have the ability to do it alone and desperately needs the Diaspora to nudge it along. This would require a shift in thinking, and with it, a shift in the flow of resources. By using our resources wisely, we can replace ignorance and contempt with knowledge, understanding and empathy that will create the bridges between the Diaspora and Israel, ensuring that we continue the remarkable Jewish story as one nation.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

Israeli-Canadian Sara Dobner is a senior policy adviser with the Ontario Government and is active in the community.

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