How can one bring a sense of ‘Jewish peoplehood’ to Israelis?

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai sees decline in Jewish identity and affinity with Israel as function of  weaker Jewish advocacy in the US  for the State of Israel.

 WOMEN OF THE WALL hold a prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem as hundreds of ultra-Orthodox women protest (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
WOMEN OF THE WALL hold a prayer service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem as hundreds of ultra-Orthodox women protest
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Israel’s new diaspora affairs minister is a man with a mission. As the one in the Israeli government who serves as the address for Israel’s ties with its Jewish brethren around the world, there is one thing in particular that bothers him.

And that is exactly the condition of those ties between the Jewish state and the Jewish people outside of it.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post earlier this month, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai spoke about his concerns for Israel’s relationship with US Jewry, worries about declining Jewish identity in America especially among the youth, and the importance of fostering and reviving a sense of Jewish peoplehood among Israeli Jews in particular.

Although familiar with the Jewish Diaspora, especially US Jewry, Shai talks animatedly about the ongoing series of meetings he has held, many digitally, with Jewish leaders of all stripes and ages from around the globe, to gain a greater understanding of the needs, concerns and challenges facing the Jewish people abroad.

But equally, he is still asking himself and his ministry critical questions about those issues.

“Are we losing the Jewish people? Maybe. Some, for sure. If we are losing the Jewish people, what can we do to keep us together?” he asks with a clear passion for his new job.

“Where does Israel stand vis-à-vis the Jewish people? Is it the center, is it a center?” he continues, noting recent accusations against him as “post-Zionist” after he said it was not the task of his ministry to encourage aliyah or that the message from Israel to all Jews should be to move to Israel.

“Is the Zionist dream only about aliyah or is there a wider, bigger definition of what Zionism is all about?” Shai asks.

And, notably, he questions the paradigm of the relationship itself between Israeli Jewry and world Jewry.

“What does the State of Israel expect from Jews in the Diaspora? Maybe now it’s our turn to give back. How, to whom, and how much?” he questions.

DIASPORA AFFAIRS Minister Nachman Shai arrives at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem with newly sworn-in ministers in June (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)DIASPORA AFFAIRS Minister Nachman Shai arrives at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem with newly sworn-in ministers in June (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

And what about the concept of Jewish peoplehood, how much do Diaspora Jews feel connected to Israel, and to what extent do Israeli Jews feel an affinity and sense of duty toward their Jewish brothers and sisters in the Diaspora?

Here, the minister begins to explain in greater depth his concerns and goals, in particular what he sees as a worrying absence of such a feeling among Jews in the Jewish state.

“Most Israelis aren’t familiar with the idea of [Jewish] peoplehood, they don’t teach it at school,” he says.

AT ISRAEL’S founding and in the next couple of decades, many Israelis still had close family abroad, which created a tangible link to the Jewish Diaspora, says Shai.

But as the generations have gone by, this is less and less the case, and few Israeli youths now have close family outside of the country with whom to connect and understand the Jewish experience outside of the State of Israel.

Shai notes that in almost all parts of the Diaspora, care and concern for the Jewish state is something Jews are raised up with and think about instinctively.

“But how many Israelis wake up in the morning and ask themselves what can we do for them? Eight million Jews, maybe more, live outside Israel. Do we care for them? They are our brothers and sisters, but how many feel that way?”

One of Shai’s goals therefore, one to which he says he will be directing ministerial funds, is building and strengthening that sense of Jewish peoplehood among Israel’s youth.

“We need to convince as many Israelis as possible of the importance of Diaspora Jews for Israel. This is not something which is easy for them to understand,” he says.

And Shai also seeks to reach out to Diaspora Jews and connect them more closely not just to Israel but to the Jewish people, saying he wants to create frameworks where by Jews around the world can connect to Israel digitally, through the news, through digital means to provide them with access to Israeli and Jewish literature and music, eat Jewish food, and find relevant ways for them to mark Jewish holidays.

“I want to find any means which will make them a little bit of a Jew as well. It’s not only about Jewish identity or Israeli identity, I’d like them to be connected one to the other.”

TALK OF Jewish identity inevitably leads to questions on that issue regarding by far the largest Jewish community outside of the Jewish state: America.

The seminal Pew Report on US Jewry published earlier this year demonstrated that more than a quarter, some 27% of US Jews, consider themselves to be “Jews of no religion,” while that number jumps to fully 40% of Jews aged 18 to 29.

And the problems with Jewish identity among Jewish youth in the US is getting worse. The Pew report found that only 48% of US Jews overall say they feel a great deal of connection to the Jewish people, while the figure for 18 to 29 year olds was only 39%.

Intermarriage is also rampant, with 72% of Jews outside of the Orthodox community – where intermarriage is almost non-existent – intermarrying.

These are problems which Shai recognizes and acknowledges.

The minister says that the “gateway to remaining in the Jewish world” is Jewish education where he agrees, when asked, that there has been a serious failure in America to provide young Jews with an education suitable for preserving their identity.

He also notes the success of the Orthodox community in preventing intermarriage pointing out the success of that community in having a very large proportion of its youth educated in Jewish schools, seeing this as important component of bolstering Jewish identity in general.

“I’d like very much that Jewish kids attend Jewish day schools, or other schools that will give them a proper Jewish education,” he says.

The minister insisted however that this goal is not something for which the State of Israel can take overall responsibility for, saying it required the intervention of Jewish philanthropists to tackle and not the Israeli tax payer.

And while he says he is “very much concerned” about what he describes as “interfaith marriage” in the US,” he is also anxious to state that he is not criticizing Jews who do marry non-Jews or judging them in any way.

Indeed, he says as diaspora affairs minister he wants to reach out to them and keep them within a “Jewish atmosphere” as much as possible “firstly because they are Jewish and secondly because half of their children are Jewish.”

“It’s a big world here, who knows what will make them decide which religion they would like to choose.

“I’m not giving up on the unaffiliated, or the intermarried. We have a long history [of] the Jewish people. We have gone through exile, [the] Holocaust, and so many other challenges. This is another big issue we have to tackle, another challenge.”

ONE POPULATION segment of US Jewry about which he expresses particular concern is young, progressive Jews, and Jews unaffiliated with any Jewish denomination that the Pew report highlighted as having especially low levels of Jewish identity, Jewish practice, communal participation, and affinity to the Jewish people and Israel.

“Progressive liberal young Jews in the US don’t share with me values, nor Zionism, nor Israel as [the] center of their lives any longer.

“Many of them are just American Jews, [and] are very critical of Israel, sometimes they separate themselves from Israel and even Judaism. They don’t want to be Jews. They don’t define themselves as Jews,” he says, adding that another large proportion, 32% according to Pew, don’t have any denominational affiliation.

“Unaffiliated means Judaism means nothing to them,” says Shai.

This, says the minister, represents a strategic threat to Israel in that, he argues, a decline in Jewish identity and concomitant affinity with Israel will weaken Jewish advocacy in the US for the State of Israel and its needs.

But he is also critical of Israel for its part in what he says has been the deteriorating state of relations between the Jewish state and US Jewry.

Shai ascribes this decline in relations to the indefinite suspension of implementation of the Western Wall agreement in 2017 by the Netanyahu government of 2015 to 2018, the parallel crisis over Jewish conversion and the rocky relationship between US Jewish leaders ever since.

Asked, however, whether or not the average US Jew is aware of these issues and ascribes them high priority, he acknowledges that this is likely not the case, saying they are “not too much” aware of these problems and that the crisis was largely confined to “the leadership” of the two sides.

“For a Jewish family from Atlanta, say, in their daily life the issue of the Western Wall is not especially important,” he concedes.

But he insists that it still is part of the problem.

“It’s not a crisis which will prevent them from coming to Israel to visit, for example, but it’s like the elephant in the room. We know it’s there but don’t know what to do to get it out of [the] room. There is a feeling that they [non-Orthodox US Jews] are not welcome in Israel. Even if the crisis is not real, there’s something there. Something in the air has to be cleaned.”

But when asked why affinity to Israel in other large Diaspora communities such as France, the UK, Australia and beyond is stronger than in the US, he again refers back to questions of religious pluralism.

“The Reform and Conservative Movement do not exist in France, it’s mainly in the US,” he says, implying that the fight over the Western Wall agreement was the major sticking point in Israel’s relations with US Jews.

As part of his goal to reconnect US and Israeli Jews, Shai has secured NIS 40 million in new funding for his ministry to support non-Orthodox and Jewish renewal movements, mostly in Israel but also in the Diaspora.

Asked why investment in such movements was justified in Israel when Jewish identity among them in the US has declined alarmingly, Shai argues that the circumstances of the two communities were not comparable.

And he asserts that such funds spent in Israel would help connect Israelis to liberal Jews abroad.

Asked if a divergence of political values between Israelis and American Jews might play a larger role in the deterioration of relations between the two sides, especially over the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Shai says he believes this was also the case.

“That is what I hear. Young progressive, liberal US Jews are sensitive to the lack of prospects on progress for the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” he says.

HE LAMENTS the adoption of the narrative in the US by some liberal Jews that discrimination against African Americans is equivalent to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

“This equation is terrible because it makes it so simple for them. They think ‘Ah, Palestinians are Black Lives Matter’ and it works in many cases, but it’s absolutely not true,” he argues, asserting that the struggle of black Americans is a social one and that of Palestinians a national one.

And Shai insists that the young liberal Jews he is so concerned about can still be drawn toward the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

“I try and say that the Israel-Palestinian conflict should not be the decisive factor in their decision to be Jewish, their relationship with non-Jews, and their relationship with Israel.

“The focus should be the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The common values between them and us, including social justice,” he says, in a nod to the high priority US progressive Jews place on the ideas of repairing society (tikkun olam).

“I believe Israel is still a state of social justice. That’s why this new government is so important because it has for the first time a significant representation of Arabs within the government. This is social justice. Israel brought over 150,000 black Jews from Africa; this is something we forgot and we take for granted, but this is very special.

“And that is also Jewish peoplehood,” he opines, saying again that this is one of the central concepts he wants to focus on as minister.

“If every Jew will get a sense of Jewish peoplehood that will be a great achievement. To touch every Jew in the world is what I am trying to do.”