Diaspora politics

It is no secret that Israel’s ties with Diaspora Jews – particularly those in the United States – are strained today, even more so than in the past.

June 15, 2019 21:00
3 minute read.
Diaspora politics

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chats with Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, who has voiced opposition to the immunity bill that would grant the prime minister and members of Knesset political immunity from criminal proceedings. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure to give the Union of Right Wing Parties (URP) – the newest incarnation of what was once the Jewish Home – the Diaspora Affairs ministry as part of the reshuffle he is doing to his cabinet ahead of the September 17 general elections.

For now, Netanyahu has reportedly withstood the pressure and refused to give either Rafi Peretz or Betzalel Smotrich the ministry, which is essentially responsible for the State of Israel’s connections and relations with Jews around the world. We urge him to continue to do so.

It is no secret that Israel’s ties with Diaspora Jews – particularly those in the United States – are strained today, even more so than in the past. This is a combination of a number of factors – cancellation of the establishment of a third pluralistic prayer plaza at the Kotel, delays in the implementation of conversion reform, and the ongoing assimilation of Jews around the world. The loss of Jewish identity has a direct correlation when it comes to Jews’ ties with the State of Israel.

Giving the Diaspora portfolio to the URP would be a tragic mistake. Both Peretz and Smotrich are right-wing religious nationalists whose positions would further alienate many Diaspora Jews from Israel. Their open calls for annexation of settlements, as well as legislation like an immunity bill for MKs that would undermine the Supreme Court, would not bode well for the majority of American Jews who vote for the Democratic Party and are already wary of Israel’s growing ties with the Trump administration.

This does not mean that Israel needs to set its policies based on what American Jews feel about the country. Ultimately, the government in Jerusalem needs to set policies based on what is in the interest of the country and its citizens. But that doesn’t mean intentionally upsetting a large part of the Jewish world due to internal Israeli politicics. Appointing Smotrich or Peretz to that position would have that negative effect.

Smotrich and Peretz are not interested in opening up Israel to Jews of the world. Their desire and likely motivation to take the portfolio is to make it clear that Israel is a country ruled by Orthodox Jews and the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.

They will do everything they can to prevent the establishment of a pluralistic prayer plaza at the Kotel or allow the implementation of a series of much-needed reforms in the way people convert to Judaism in the State of Israel. Sadly, their interest is not in bridging the divide between Israel and Diaspora Jewry but in widening it. They want the portfolio to preach to Jews of the world, not to work with them, similar to the way they try to coerce religion in Israel and, for example, prevent religious women from serving in the IDF.

What they do not understand is that Israel is not just the state of the Jews who live here but is the “Jewish state”, meaning that it needs to be a place where all Jews can feel at home. This includes creating a space for all Jews to feel comfortable to practice and pray the way want in the State of Israel.

Israel prides itself in being a country where all religions can practice freely but sadly millions of Jews – Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist – are not allowed to pray in Israel the way they want. Women who wish to pray or dance with a Torah scroll at the Kotel are harassed, detained and stopped.

We urge the prime minister to appoint someone to the position – vacated since he fired Naftali Bennett from the government earlier this month – who can work together with the Diaspora and draw Jews around the world closer to Israel as opposed to pushing them away.

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