Resolving the crisis with Diaspora Jewry

Israel has to pay more attention to the concerns of the diaspora.

March 1, 2019 02:19
Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett greets World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder

Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett greets World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder in Pittsburgh on Monday. (photo credit: ALEXI ROSENFELD)


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The crisis with Diaspora Jewry is by its very nature both strategic and existential, given the threat it poses to the essence of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

Some elements of the crisis are deeply rooted, while others have been exacerbated significantly in recent years. The Israeli establishment has always taken an instrumental and unilateral approach toward Diaspora Jewry, expecting it to serve as a pro-Israel lobby, a cash machine for unconditional funding, and a potential immigrant pool. However, since Diaspora Jews do not have voting rights in Israel, their needs and preferences do not enjoy political advocacy or representation.

Had Israel adopted a constitution, it should have stipulated that the president of the state, or alternatively the Supreme Court, wield the authority to strike down Knesset legislation deemed as damaging to the State of Israel’s designation in the Declaration of Independence as the Jewish nation-state. Absent a constitution, the commitment to Jewish “peoplehood” should have been enshrined in the 2018 Nation-State Law, along with a promise of equality for non-Jewish citizens, given that both elements constitute the pillars of the democratic Jewish nation-state.

The crisis also lies in the Israeli establishment’s attitude toward the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism that constitute a large majority of the Jewish people. Jewish peoplehood, which essentially means one extended family, cannot be forged when we treat members of Judaism’s liberal streams as second-class Jews.

Israeli legislators have no incentive to deal with this issue either, since there are many more Orthodox Jews in Israel than there are Conservative or Reform. This requires an organization with a broad vision of “Jewish peoplehood” to ensure that the executive and legislative branches of government do not adopt myopic, harmful decisions (such as the ones reneging on promises of pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall and a draft law on Jewish conversions).

In the context of political instrumentality, those who regard Israel as their state cannot be expected to only express political views that are in tune with those of the government. The approach that views the political positions of world Jewry as a litmus test of their allegiance, turns Israel into a divisive element rather than a unifying force. We must be open to criticism, and embrace those among the Jewish people who disagree with our government’s positions.

As for the funding issue, with Israel having one of the strongest economies in the world, Diaspora Jews can no longer be expected to finance us as they did in years past. Israel no longer needs donations, but it does desperately need a strong connection with Diaspora Jews – relationships between people and not between bank transfers. Funds from both sides of the ocean should be directed toward greatly needed youth exchange programs and joint projects with civil society organizations.

As for the expectation of Jewish aliyah – we are happy with every new immigrant to Israel, but we have to accept the legitimacy of life in the Diaspora and avoid judgment of, or arrogance toward, Jews living abroad as if there was only one way to be a Zionist.

ON TOP OF these longstanding structural flaws, successive Israeli governments have distanced themselves from the liberal values enshrined in our Declaration of Independence – shared by a large majority of American Jews – further exacerbating the crisis. The situation deteriorated further when Israeli diplomacy abandoned the guiding principle that support for Israel must be a bipartisan issue in US politics, rather than one identified mostly with the Republicans. Many Jews also perceive Israel as forging alliances with populist, racist regimes that have replaced antisemitism with a hatred of Muslims and have thus found Israel a like-minded state.

Resolving the crisis requires a change of all Israel-Diaspora relationship paradigms, basing them on actions that connect people, especially those on the liberal side of the spectrum, through joint work on projects of tikkun olam (loosely translated as building model societies). This ancient Jewish ideal speaks to all Jews in their relationships with each other and with the rest of the world, and could be attractive for the younger generation.

A self-confident, globally integrated Judaism, rather than an isolationist one, is far more of a draw for younger Jews. Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV), under the Foreign Ministry, should be transformed into a project involving the entire Jewish people, training young Jews and sending them to confront needs wherever they arise, not just where narrow interests dictate. Obviously, we must make sure that these tikkun olam projects reflect a desire for compassion and connection, and not arrogance toward aid recipients.

We must also create a “reverse Birthright project,” enabling every Israeli high school student to join a Jewish community abroad for a week or two to experience direct contact with its members. Despite the importance of the annual visits by Israeli high school students to concentration camps in Poland in order to understand our national trauma, meeting living Jews is no less important. For the sake of our joint future, the living are no less important than the legacy of the dead.

Restoring bipartisan support for Israel, especially in the US, is vital. This must replace the controversial issue Israel has become. Israel must realize that 79% of US Jews voted for Democrats in the November 2018 mid-term elections, and most despise President Donald Trump, although he enjoys great popularity in Israel.

Israel must adopt a forward-looking foreign policy that does not limit Israeli interests to the current government term in Israel or to a specific US administration. Rather than an isolationist, victimized narrative, Israel must conduct a constructive discourse with the US and the liberal nations of Europe, even those which are critical of its ongoing occupation and settlement policies.

To sum up, resolution of the crisis with world Jewry, and promotion of “Jewish peoplehood,” must become a central item on Israel’s public agenda if we are to be true to the definition of the State of Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people. Ahead of the upcoming elections, we should all demand that candidates adopt a serious attitude toward the crisis and commit themselves to its resolution.

The writer is a former diplomat and was a policy adviser to president Shimon Peres. He is a board member at Mitvim-The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

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