(photo credit: REUTERS)
With Israel’s election results officially in, Naftali Bennett is officially out. Bennett’s departure from the next Knesset allows us to look back at his six-year tenure as minister of Diaspora affairs. While his hardline right-wing ideology – including his objection to a Palestinian state – was not always welcome among the American Jewish leadership, he was probably the minister most committed to Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry.
To be clear, not everything was perfect. There were real disagreements between Bennett and American Jews, also because he opposes Palestinian statehood. Within the realm of Israel-Diaspora relations, there is also room for improvement regarding initiatives Bennett started. However, for criticism to be constructive, it is important to acknowledge the work done. After six years, one thing is clear: Bennett got Israelis to learn and talk about Diaspora Jewry more than ever before.
Benjamin Netanyahu is in the process of forming his next coalition. Bennett will not be part of it, and it is unclear who the next minister of Diaspora affairs will be. As we wait, here are four positive steps taken by Bennett for his successor to build upon.
1) Establishing a ministry exclusively about Diaspora affairs. After the 2015 elections, Bennett detached the Diaspora Affairs Ministry from the additional roles it held over the years. Previously, it was also the Jerusalem Ministry (2013-2015), and the Hasbara Ministry (2009-2013). Having a government ministry dedicated solely to Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora sent a statement to the government and to the public: Like the fields of defense, education or transportation, this is a serious issue, worthy of its own staff, budget and resources.
2) Educating Israelis. One of the biggest challenges in the field of Israel-Diaspora relations is the ignorance of most Israelis. Many Jews around the world learn about Israel in synagogues, day schools, summer camps, at JCC events, family meals and elsewhere. On the other hand, until recently, an Israeli could graduate school and never be exposed to a living, thriving Jewish community. Bennett changed that. He introduced new programs in the public school system. He encouraged informal educators to address the issue. He initiated state-funded “reverse Birthrights” so Israeli opinion-leaders could visit and interact with vibrant Diaspora communities. Such projects are crucial if we want to form a two-way dialogue in which both sides understand and speak with each other.
3) Doing what was right, also when it hurt him politically. During his time as minister, Bennett respected the non-Orthodox denominations as allies in the quest for Jewish survival, even though he had ideological disagreements with them. He supported the Western Wall agreement. He constructed the egalitarian prayer section. He argued with the chief rabbi about the importance of visiting non-Orthodox Jewish day schools in the US. And Bennett paid a political price: His political base and members of his own party publicly opposed such moves, and they let him know it. The next minister will face a similar challenge – representing the interests of Diaspora Jews even when political allies and potential voters disagree.
4) Helping Jewish communities in need. In September 2017, following the devastation caused to Houston by Hurricane Harvey, Bennett arranged a transfer of $1 million from Israeli taxpayer money to Houston’s Jewish community. This was the first time Israel transferred money to Jews hurt in a natural disaster. In doing so, Israel demonstrated – in actions, not words – that times have changed. Israel is strong enough to help all Jews, and therefore it had the moral obligation to act for Jewish communities in need.
True, not everything Bennett tried succeeded, and not everything was perfect. However these steps and others contributed to a drastic change in Israel’s public discourse. More Israelis and Israeli organizations are engaging with Diaspora Jews than ever before. This is a major shift in the field of Israel-Diaspora relations, and it has the potential to strengthen the connection between the sides.
Next month will mark 71 years since Israel’s establishment as a joint project of the Jewish people. Maintaining Israel’s relationship with world Jewry at large, and especially the American Jewish community, is no simple task. Both sides must work hard to ensure Israel remains the homeland of all Jews. I hope the next government, and especially the incoming minister of Diaspora affairs, understands the enormity of the challenge, and acts in a responsible manner.
The writer is a program officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation and previously served as Diaspora affairs adviser to Naftali Bennett.
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