Israel-Diaspora relations: We must build bridges over troubled water

"The whole political system in Israel must recognize the importance of this bond and the need for mutual respect and recognition between what we may see as the the modern-day Jerusalem and Babylon."

Diaspora youngsters enjoy a Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Diaspora youngsters enjoy a Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As Israel matures, its problems seem to become more numerous and complex. The Israel before us is a divided country that is still in the process of formation and still searching for its way. There are conflicting visions about the path Israeli society should take, and the tension between the different “tribes” within this society is boiling over.
However, most of Israeli society – and certainly most of the Jewish population – understand the importance of the bond and the bridge with the Jews of the Diaspora. Yet at the moment, this bond is weakening.
Some people saw the Jewish connection mainly as a source of economic support for the young nation. Others recognized that the Diaspora holds the last Jewish reserves for the State of Israel. Others still even saw Israel’s relationship with North American Jewry and the strength of this community as a component in the state’s strategic resilience.
At the Conference of Jewish Federations, President Rivlin expanded: “We are not strategic partners – we are family. We do not have shared interests – we have a shared fate, a shared history, and a shared future.”
Yet we have to admit that many on both sides of the ocean would agree that there are many cracks in the relationship. We may be a family, but we’re a troubled one. Here and there some of us are still talking to each other, chatting with the aunt and enjoying the uncle’s cooking. But each community does not understand the other as well as they used to. We know the connection is very important, but apathy and distance have made it a minor component of Israeli reality.
We Israelis find it difficult to explain the importance of a democratic state in the challenging surroundings of the Middle East. Our cousins overseas find it hard to accept the way Israel ignores the unique Jewish character of the North American community. 
A survey of the Jewish community in St. Louis found that 80 percent of the local Jews believe that the bond with Israel would be more meaningful if all the Jewish religious streams were officially recognized by the Israeli government.
In reality, however, many of Israel’s leaders – even those who frequently visit what they may see as the “American Exile” – do not understand the gulf that is emerging between Israelis and those who are still our brothers and sisters today, but may not be so tomorrow.
In thousands of liberal communities affiliated to the non-Orthodox streams – just as in secular and traditional circles in Israel – people are grappling with the need to find Jewish meaning in an era of equality, pluralism, and renewal. 
Belittling the achievements of the North American community, turning a cold shoulder to its leaders, beliefs, and communities, and failing to acknowledge their contribution to Israel will destroy the weak bridge that still stands.
After the rerun of the elections we unfortunately face here in Israel, irresponsible rabbis and politicians will again raise demands that would tear down the bridge between us and the Diaspora. They should stop a moment to consider what this will mean. What will remain of the relationship between Israel and the superpower on which it depends? An evangelist preacher that loves Israel for the moment, while waiting for the Armageddon - what does it mean for Christianity? Ultra-Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, or the ten percent of American Jews who are Modern Orthodox, and who usually find it difficult to understand and adjust to their Israeli counterparts?
The whole political system in Israel – right, center, and left, too – must recognize the importance of this bond and the vital need for mutual respect and recognition between what we may see as the modern-day Jerusalem and Babylon. 
Firstly, we must reverse a trend that was highlighted in a recent survey by the Israel Institute for National Security Studies, in cooperation with the Ruderman Foundation: “In the present generation, both in Israel and among Jews in the US, we can see growing trends toward detachment and alienation, a weakening of affinities and of the sense of belonging, and a loosening of mutual liability, caring, involvement, and the relations between the two communities.”
Ridiculous solutions such as the plan to strengthen the Chief Rabbinate and give it authority over the Diaspora, or to appoint a “chief rabbi for the Diaspora,” will do nothing to build bridges of respect and recognition over the stormy waters of the ocean. Neither will programs supported by the Ministry for the Diaspora that are based entirely on Orthodox bodies. Rejecting the arrangements regarding the Western Wall and Reform and Conservative conversion are further evidence of the refusal to internalize the diversity of opinions and beliefs in the Jewish world in the early twenty-first century.
A significant proportion of the North American Jewish leadership today – both in the communities and in national bodies such as AIPAC – are not considered Jewish by the Orthodox establishment. This is true of an even larger proportion of their children. So who will be there tomorrow to strengthen us, help us as they have done in the past, and support important activities in every corner of Israel, in every university and development town, in every city, kibbutz, and moshav? How would Jerusalem look without Hadassah, or Tel Aviv-Jaffa without the Charles R. Bronfman Auditorium, or the Tel Aviv Museum with the support and collections donated by Diaspora Jews? Yes, our brothers and sisters across the ocean sometimes ask annoying questions. They appear to us at times to be "over-assimilated". Sometimes they may upset us or seem to patronize us. But, we can all agree that to have a family and friends is better than being alone in this world. 
Rabbi Meir Azari, Head of the Daniel Center for Reform Judaism and the Bridge over Troubled Waters festival, which will be held in Tel Aviv on June 12-14.
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