(photo credit: Associated Press)
The choice of Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog to head the Diaspora Affairs portfolio has been hailed by his predecessors in the position, MK Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad) and former Likud MK Natan Sharansky, who called him the "right man" for the job.
But for what job? And what happened to his ministry?
Over the last two years, most of the initiatives and responsibilities of the Diaspora affairs minister have been scattered throughout the cabinet, returning the situation to what it was before Melchior accepted - indeed, invented - the portfolio in August 1999.
The Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, first established in the Diaspora Affairs Ministry under Sharansky four years ago, was moved to the Foreign Ministry this year, where it is staffed by a single mid-level official. The Masa program, which brings thousands of Diaspora youths to work and live in Israel for a year, is handled in the Prime Minister's Office. Restitution of Holocaust-era Jewish property and the coordination with the Claims Conference and other organizations for the care of Holocaust survivors living in Israel are now under Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan.
Though it seems Israel will now, once again, have a Diaspora affairs minister, there is no sign yet that the dispersal of the functions that belong under him will be reversed. As was the case before this ministry was created, Israel's relationship with Diaspora communities, its response to anti-Semitism and its backing of educational initiatives to foster a strong Jewish identity worldwide may continue to be handled by mid-level bureaucrats. While many of these are committed and capable individuals, they cannot galvanize the kind of attention this arena needs at the cabinet level.
This situation needs to be corrected. The connection to Israel is critical to fostering Jewish continuity. Young American Jews are less committed to Israel than in the past, and many Jewish communities around the world face a slow but ongoing process of demographic and institutional disintegration. To counter these trends, a strong official Israeli presence in the Jewish world is needed more than ever.
The Jewish state needs to be committed to Jewish peoplehood. This means that relations with the Diaspora are not just an adjunct, but central to Israel's raison d'etre.
This is not only true Jewishly, morally and ideologically, but strategically. Just as Israel's strength, status and policies affect Diaspora Jewry, the welfare of the Diaspora affects Israel. Though some have celebrated reports that more Jews now live in Israel than in the US, the underlying trend of a shrinking Diaspora - even if Israel is growing - is cause for concern.
Israel needs a national strategy to meet this challenge. It needs a Diaspora Affairs Ministry that oversees government-supported efforts to bolster Jewish identity and to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. These efforts include birthright israel, Masa, joint work with Jewish organizations and new programs to be developed. Its budget, judging from the funds spent on these issues at present, would be larger than that of many of the ministries currently in existence.
T he reconstituted and bolstered new ministry would allow the government to develop and pursue a specific mission in its relations with world Jewry. The relationship no longer functions according to the simple paradigm of homeland and Diaspora. Processes taking place on both sides of the Atlantic are creating new Jewish expressions and institutions that are not represented in the current institutional framework of the Jewish people, and which are attempting to deal with the new challenges posed by the 21st century.
The Israel-Diaspora relationship needs to be considered at the highest levels of government, and to be permanently represented at the cabinet table. This representation would also alleviate the valid Diaspora complaint that its voices are often not heard, even when policies directly affecting world Jewry are weighed.
We wish Isaac Herzog well in fulfilling his new ministerial role, but his success depends on the critical functions being concentrated anew under his purview and finding a permanent home high on the national agenda.