Israel-Diaspora relations clouded by religion and politics - Jewish-Australian philanthropist

Philanthropist and businessman Steven Lowy visited Jerusalem in honor of the annual Keren Hayesod conference.

 Steven Lowy speaking at the Knesset (photo credit: COURTESY KEREN HAYESOD)
Steven Lowy speaking at the Knesset

“I think different parts of the world see [the relationship] between Israel and the Diaspora differently,” philanthropist and businessman Steven Lowy told The Jerusalem Post while visiting Jerusalem in honor of Keren Hayesod’s annual conference.

“I also think different generations may see it differently. These are the challenges that organizations like ours deal with,” he said of Keren Hayesod, which he called “the largest fundraising vehicle for Israel outside the United States," with a presence in 45 different countries.

The Keren Hayesod (KH) Annual Leadership Conference took place last week in Israel. It is a global meeting of all of the organization’s leadership from around the world, representing their numerous different fundraising projects. Key influential people in the economic and business world, as well as philanthropic opinion leaders, participated.

As part of the conference, several meaningful events took place, including an event at the Knesset attended by Speaker MK Mickey Levy, at which an award was presented to Pastor Larry Huch, who has worked to raise a substantial amount of funds in support of various initiatives, including aliyah flights from Ethiopia and emergency flights from Ukraine.

Conference participants also greeted a plane of new olim (immigrants) from Ethiopia as they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, accompanied by Israel's Aliyah and Integration Minister MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, World chairman of Keren Hayesod Sam Grundwerg and Jewish Agency acting chairman Yaakov Hagoel. 

 Steven Lowy, Keren Hayesod world chairman Sam Grundwerg, and President Isaac Herzog (credit: COURTESY KEREN HAYESOD)
Steven Lowy, Keren Hayesod world chairman Sam Grundwerg, and President Isaac Herzog (credit: COURTESY KEREN HAYESOD)

Speaking to the Post, Lowy explained that “there's three million Jews living in the non-US Diaspora. And I see a spectrum of perspectives to your question.”

“Israel is the home of the Jewish people," he said. "It's relatively young in the scheme of things. It's a blip in history. Israel is 74 years old but I'm very blessed because I have a father (Frank Lowy) who was part of the establishment and fought for the establishment [of Israel].”

Frank Lowy joined the Haganah and then the Golani Brigade before the establishment of the State of Israel. He fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 in the Galilee and Gaza.

STEVEN LOWY is the chairman of the World Board of Trustees of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal and president of Maccabi Hakoah FC Sydney, a soccer team formed in 1939 by members of Sydney’s Jewish community. Part of one of the most prominent business families in Australia, the 59-year-old philanthropist is the third and youngest son of Australian-Jewish businessman Frank Lowy, who now lives in Israel.

Prior to his current work in his family's private company, Lowy Family Group, and his involvement in a number of philanthropic and community roles, Steven Lowy held the role of co-chief executive officer of Westfield Corporation. The leading global shopping center company was acquired by French company Unibail-Rodamco in 2018 in what was one of the largest transactions in Australian corporate history.

“It's very unfair how Israel is treated in the broader world media and broader world politics. There is no doubt that there is a hugely biased press against Israel. It's very difficult in the Diaspora to often deal with that.”

Steven Lowy

Creating a balanced view on Israel

“It's very unfair how Israel is treated in the broader world media and broader world politics. There is no doubt that there is a hugely biased press against Israel. It's very difficult in the Diaspora to often deal with that,” Lowy said.

“I think most Jewish communities around the world would work equally as hard within their countries to get a more balanced perspective of Israel, through media, politics and education systems," he said. "But for the average layperson outside of Israel, without a deep understanding of the complexity of the issues, I think they would get a very distorted view of the issues and have a distinct lack of understanding of the complexity of the historical religious issues.”

Lowy said that in his opinion, the vast majority of Israelis "would like to live in a peaceful country with peaceful borders and peaceful neighbors,” but that “achieving this is incredibly complex.” Lowy explained that the distorted image of Israel in the world media “is an issue that clouds the relationship between non-Jews and Jews outside of Israel to Israel.”

ASKED IF he had any ideas of how to change this complex situation, as a businessman and leader, Lowy answered it’s important to understand that “Israeli leadership also has a role to play in this [relationship]. As an observer of this over many decades, I think that in Israel, there have been leaders who have assisted this connection enormously, such as Shimon Peres or current President Isaac Herzog. There are other leaders that haven't quite understood the importance of that, and therefore haven't put enough effort into it.”

Lowy thinks that “most Israelis also have quite a poor understanding of Diaspora Jewry and the role of Diaspora Jewry.”

He said that “we see this a lot in Australia since a lot of Israelis immigrate to our country, many of them after their army service. Many of them don’t want to come back [to Israel], because they can live a beautiful Jewish life in Australia without all the complexities of living in Israel. That's a good and a bad thing,” Lowy said: “It's very good that the Diaspora Jewish population becomes stronger but not as good for Israel.”

The philanthropist said that he has met with dozens of Israeli emissaries of different Australian Zionist institutions over the past decades and that “most of them say that they come as Israelis but leave back to Israel as Jews. Most of them are secular. The thing is, in Israel, you're either religious or secular. In the Diaspora, you can be traditional; you can be a strong traditional Jew. You can go to an orthodox synagogue, or a modern Orthodox school without practicing orthodoxy.

"It's a wonderful combination of being a traditional Jew, a strong Zionist, and I guess choosing those elements of orthodoxy that you choose to live on a daily basis," Lowy said. "It's quite unique and it happens a lot in the non-US Diaspora. And I'm not just talking about Australia.”

Strengthening Israeli-Diaspora relations

THE AUSTRALIAN Jewish community leader explained that in his view, “it's a combined responsibility to improve the relations between Israel and the Diaspora and it's not just US-Israel: It's Diaspora-Israel. Because the combined weight of the other non-American Diaspora countries together, supporting Israel, is critical," mentioning England, France, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, Hong Kong and South Africa as examples.

“It's important that Israel takes the views of these countries seriously and it's important that the Jewish Diaspora – call it ‘world Jewish army,’ whatever you want to call it – works towards improving those relations and having a much more balanced view of it. But it's complex. it's clouded by religious issues; it's clouded by political issues.” 

Lowy emphasized that “what you and I are talking about should be above politics and above religion. Idealism is almost gone. It's now polarized; if you like Bibi or don’t like Bibi, it's going to influence your level of Zionism. If you like Lapid or don’t like Lapid it's going to do that, too. If you like haredim [ultra-Orthodox] or not, it's going to do that. If you like secularism or not, it's going to influence you.

"I think Jews within Israel and outside of Israel would be much better getting above those issues and dealing with the issues of what's right for Israel and the Jewish people in total, not just their sections of Judaism.”

ONE OF these misunderstandings of Israel-Diaspora relations, according to Lowy, was evident during the selection of the new chairman of the Jewish Agency, which he himself was involved in, serving on the selection committee as chairman of the board of trustees of Keren Hayesod, together with former chairman David Koschitzky. The process took a year, beginning when previous chairman Isaac Herzog was elected as President of Israel. 

Asked why it took a year to find a chairman for the Jewish Agency, Lowy explained that “I think it's a complex process. You've got the structure of the bylaws that determine the structure of the committee, and they are incredibly onerous.”

The structure of the committee, which required nine out of ten votes for approval, is very complex, he said. “I don't know anywhere that this type of vote exists. I've never seen that before,” he said with a smile. “I think it's uniquely Israeli – or uniquely Jewish."

"Obviously, those who put those bylaws together created a structure where it was necessary for all three stakeholders (World Zionist Organization, Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Federations of North America) to agree," Lowy said. "You basically need a consensus. Anytime we need consensus – particularly in Israel, or the Jewish people – it's not easy. You then have different perspectives of the stakeholders. Ultimately, this structure is almost impossible.”

He added that other issues such as the pandemic influenced the process since those involved were all in different time zones. An additional issue, according to Lowy, was the fact that there wasn't just one candidate who was endorsed by the prime minister or the government.

“You had a government where multiple candidates [being promoted by] different ministers. That is very difficult for lay leaders like us, because you want to respect and work with the government. But then you're getting very inconsistent information.” Lowy smiled again and said “you know, you could almost be surprised that we came to a solution,” he laughed.

Lowy explained that the next chairman of the Jewish Agency needed to be someone with a huge stature, “following the current President of Israel Herzog and Natan Sharansky beforehand. You have to find somebody with the ability to galvanize the Diaspora.”

In his view, it's important that the "'brand' of Jewish Agency and other national institutions,” be elevated. “One could argue that over the years, the Jewish Agency has maybe not been well thought of in Israel; probably most Israelis don't even know what they do. And when you have a chairman like President Herzog or Natan Sharansky, you've got two unbelievable Jewish and Israeli leaders, so the next leader has to follow those and continue the enhancement of the brand of the Jewish Agency.”

Lowy wants us to realize that the Jewish Agency was meant to establish the State of Israel and could have been shut down after independence in 1948. “When Israel was established, it kept the Jewish Agency. David Ben-Gurion could have closed it. He didn't close the agency because he wanted a government of the Jewish people, not just Israel.”