Connecting Israel and the Diaspora

World Jewry needs to come to terms with what is realistic and morally acceptable to demand from Israel.

February 13, 2019 22:43
3 minute read.
‘WHAT ARE the effects, in Israel, in the US, and the rest of the world, of the perceived opinions of

‘WHAT ARE the effects, in Israel, in the US, and the rest of the world, of the perceived opinions of American Jewry?’. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Wisdom, it has been said, is the ability to distinguish between what we may be able to change and what we cannot change. When it comes to understanding Israel-Diaspora relations, such an approach may be useful.

Diaspora and Israeli Jews are struggling with what they can and cannot change in one another. The dissimilarities are considerable: Israeli and Diaspora Jews have different ways of life and different Jewish experiences.

And of course, their existential interests are strikingly different. When Israeli Jews talk about “religious freedom,” they think about public transit on Saturdays, government funding of yeshivas and instituting civil marriage, whereas for Diaspora Jews it can refer to issues like equal access to the Western Wall and recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.

The different perspectives of Israeli and Diaspora Jews are not limited to religious issues. Many North American Jews, for example, have serious concerns about the Israeli government’s support of US President Donald Trump and its inability to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

With such significant differences on fundamental issues, it is not surprising that the two communities fail to understand each other. But, despite acknowledging that the differences are significant, I believe that there are potential benefits to an honest dialogue that is respectful of sovereignty and of the unique challenges of each community.

However, to succeed in such dialogue, both communities first need to recognize the realities – what they can and can’t change in one another.

Consider that the biggest challenge facing Diaspora Jewry at present, evidenced by the growing rate of intermarriage, is how to sustain Jewish identity. Indeed, close to a third of millennial Jews state that they have no religion.

Israel could act as a beacon of hope for Diaspora Jews by transforming into a truly diverse religious and cultural center. The current Israeli government may make common cause with extreme Orthodox political parties, but surveys show that Israeli society is becoming more open to Jewish pluralism.

On the flipside, while Israelis may be agreeable about including Diaspora Jews in the discourse around Jewish affairs in Israel, they do not appreciate pressure from those in the that intends to change government policy.

World Jewry needs to come to terms with what is realistic and morally acceptable to demand from Israel. This might mean avoiding getting involved in Israeli geopolitical affairs.

In order to sustain Jewish life in the Diaspora, Jewish leaders and organizations need to prioritize the revival of Jewish identity, pride, engagement and commitment among millennial Jews.

This can be achieved by focusing on Israel, and its unique Jewish-Israeli culture, as a much-needed source of inspiration. Instead of simply sending money to Israel, Diaspora Jews need to invest in Jewish education at home and participate in the Israeli discourse through respectful engagement that aims to promote mutual understanding and empathy.

This can be achieved through volunteering, working, studying and teaching in Israel, as well as through the multitude of joint projects between those in Israel and those in the Diaspora.

The development of a stronger Jewish identity among Diaspora Jews will make Israelis more willing to listen. It may even help Diaspora communities be more effective in nudging Israelis to learn and understand more about the pluralistic, diverse Jewish life outside of Israel.

After all, that is the key to long-term health of Jewish Diaspora communities.

In the words of Isaac Herzog, the current chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel: “These are two different communities, but we must honor our brotherhood as Jews by understanding that there’s a dialogue amid the differences.”

This article was originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

The author is a senior policy adviser with the Ontario government and is active in the Jewish community.

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