'The disengagement of Israelis from the Diaspora is dangerous' - Nachman Shai

The disengagement of Israelis stems from a failure in the Israeli educational system that does not teach about Diaspora Jewry.

 Nachman Shai, Israel's Minister of Diaspora Affairs attends the Jewish People's Lobby, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, November 15, 2021. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Nachman Shai, Israel's Minister of Diaspora Affairs attends the Jewish People's Lobby, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, November 15, 2021.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“We want to expose as many people as possible to Diaspora Jews,” Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai told The Jerusalem Post in honor of the government’s Diaspora Week, which began Sunday. He explained that the goal of celebrating Diaspora Week is to “connect more and more Israelis to the issue of Jewish peoplehood.”

Shai added that the events of Jewish Diaspora Week are aimed toward Israeli Jews but that next year he hopes to broaden the target audience. The events are taking place in conjunction with Am"i, The National Alliance Strengthening Israelis' Connection to World Jewry - a joint venture of Gesher and the Diaspora Ministry.

“Next year we are planning to create an ‘Israel Week’ in order to have Diaspora Jews focus on Israel, while we focus on them.” Shai said the idea was to partner with Jewish community centers around the world.

“I’d like for Israelis to be more aware of the term ‘Jewish peoplehood,’” Shai said.

Shai explained that “the war in Ukraine has proved that the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewry is stronger than what people think. Ukraine taught us that there are Jewish communities in the world that we are unfortunately not routinely engaged in; [we realize this] only in days of sorrow and pain.

 Diaspora Jews at Ben-Gurion Airport after making Aliyah to Israel. (credit: THE JEWISH AGENCY) Diaspora Jews at Ben-Gurion Airport after making Aliyah to Israel. (credit: THE JEWISH AGENCY)

“When things are bad, and tears begin, we remember that we have a connection to the Jewish people. In an antisemitic event or, God forbid, a war, as soon as we hear about it, Jewish solidarity comes out in a beautiful way. I believe it should be conducted all year round, not just in times of emergencies – we have a lot to do in order for us to be better at this.’’

Why is it only in emergencies? How did we get to a situation where we need to explain to Israeli Jews what the Jewish people are?

“These are fundamental questions that stem from a failure in the Israeli educational system, which does not teach about Diaspora Jewry. Jewish history is a marginal issue. Even in the University of Haifa, the master’s degree in Jewish peoplehood is going to close.

“I put a lot of thought into it – there is an intergenerational issue that applies to a lot of these questions. These days, 78% of Israelis were born in Israel. Therefore, naturally, the connection with the Diaspora is limited. Years ago, most of the Israelis were immigrants. This connection is based on a family sort of connection, but unfortunately the family connections are very weakened.

“There used to be tens of newspapers in Israel and they were printed in many foreign languages. The connection back then was natural, not artificial. There was no need to try and build bridges.”

What you’re explaining is classic Zionism – where Zionist Israelis deny the Jews in the Diaspora. Has Zionism taken over Jewish peoplehood?

“The denial of the exile [Diaspora] was stronger in my generation, which was born with the state. We were educated to think that living in the Diaspora is bad; that speaking foreign languages is bad; that they [people in the Diaspora] are weak and have no physical strength, etc. Unfortunately, the social ties aren’t connecting us anymore.”

Shai added that the Israeli press doesn’t cover Jewish life outside of Israel, “only the English-speaking press takes the Diaspora seriously. I’m currently doing a round of meetings with newspaper editors and trying to see how we can get them to cover the Diaspora. One of the editors-in-chief told me ‘if you succeed in convincing the news editor that he’ll publish a story about the Diaspora then I’ll be willing to consider it – the thing is, it doesn’t interest him,’” Shai said.

“The disengagement of Israelis from the Diaspora is significant, dangerous and negative. We need to force this issue very hard in order for it to be on the agenda.”

Shai said he thinks that “in the religious public there is a higher awareness of Jewish causes; they see it as part of the Jewish religion – but Jewish peoplehood is not only just an issue of religion but also about common culture, food, humor, art, literature and a common destiny. This should not only be in the religious aspect, God forbid, but in the broader sense.”

You’ve been Diaspora Affairs Minister for close to a year now. What is the agenda you are bringing to the ministry that makes it different from your predecessors?

“I began my role as minister about 10 months ago and saw a rift between the Diaspora and the Government of Israel. The relationship had to be restored to its former state, back to discourse: an exchange between cultured people. It happened from the start, not only with me, but also with Prime Minister [Naftali] Bennett.

“In the near past, heads of Diaspora Jewish organizations, mainly heads of the Reform and Conservative movements wouldn’t meet the prime minister while visiting Israel. Bennett met them at least twice; both in New York and in Israel. The discourse has been set back to normal and this dialogue is important, since Reform and Conservative Jews are the largest group of American Jewry. If you have given up on Reform and Conservative Jews – you have given up [on] most Jews in North America.

“I think that everyone should be given equal time, equal attention and equal means. Therefore, we will be soon launching a unit for Jewish renewal, which will invest tens of millions of shekels in the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and in small organizations that promote these values.”

Yet Shai explained that he isn’t only working on long-term investments, but also on short-term initiatives.

“We were the first to respond to the need for war relief in Ukraine,” he said proudly. We invested an initial NIS 10 million and added another NIS 10m. toward the assistance of Jewish communities in Ukraine.

“But we will also add assistance to smaller Jewish communities who have been taking Ukrainian Jews into their communities and homes. The German-Jewish community doesn’t need our help since they have their government doing a great job. Yet, Jewish communities such as Moldova, Slovakia and Hungary need help with absorbing the Ukrainian Jews in their countries.”

When you finish your role as minister, what would you like to look back at and see?

“I believe that relations with the Diaspora aren’t good enough. We published an index on Israeli-Jewish Diaspora relations that showed that the connections on the Israeli side are at an insufficient level. We must invest more in this matter.

“I had two important meetings with the education minister and the defense minister. I asked the defense minister to deal with the issue of education of Jewish peoplehood in the army; starting with courses for junior soldiers but also content for senior levels of the army officials. We will expand our range of influence. Similarly, in schools, we do not yet know how, we want to make sure that every Israeli student knows that there are Jews outside of Israel.”

Shai also wants to create a digital pillar as part of the Mosaic United organization, which was established by the ministry and philanthropists around the world.

“I want us to switch to connect to Diaspora Jews in a language that they speak – and the language is digital. I want to base the relationship between Israel and the Jewish people on a digital dimension.”

Additionally, Shai said he would also like to deepen Israel’s connections with Israelis abroad.

“There are a million Israelis abroad. In the United States alone there are 600,000 of them. I want to see if it’s possible to work together,” he stated.

David Barak-Gorodetsky of the University of Haifa responded to Shai’s statement claiming that the Jewish peoplehood master’s degree is about to close down.

“The program for Jewish peoplehood at the University of Haifa is changing its face and becoming a research incubator for the study of world Jewry. We also plan to open a full MA program for the study of world Jewry in the upcoming year.

“The success of the program depends on the possibility of convincing students, donors and activists in the field of the importance of the Jewish world outside the two major communities, in Israel and in the United States.

“The recent unfortunate events of the war in Ukraine seem to have aroused renewed interest in the future of Jewish communities in Europe and around the world, and we hope that this interest will enable the opening of the program and the deepening of knowledge about Jewish Diaspora.”