Israel's uphill battle to strengthen ties with world Jewry

When it comes to strengthening ties with world Jewry, Israeli MKs admit they have their work cut out for them.

Members of the “Women of the Wall” wear Jewish prayer shawls which the Orthodox Jewish community traditionally reserves for men, during Passover near the Western Wall last April (photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of the “Women of the Wall” wear Jewish prayer shawls which the Orthodox Jewish community traditionally reserves for men, during Passover near the Western Wall last April
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In his annual Rosh Hashana message this year, President Reuven Rivlin outlined three challenges facing the global Jewish community: the well-being and safety of Jews around the world; strengthening the bond between Israel and the Diaspora; and uniting sectors within Israeli society, a challenge he believes Diaspora Jewry are partners in. As we begin the new year, The Jerusalem Post discussed these issues with several MKs – both from the government and the opposition – to find out how they see Israel’s standing in the Diaspora and what they wish for the new year.
Religion and State
The subject of religion and state was a burning issue last year, with matters pertaining to the Western Wall, conversion and mikvaot (ritual baths) causing great strife between the different religious sectors.
A poll released in September, commissioned by the Post in partnership with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) found that 74% of American Jews and 62% of Israeli Jews believe that the State of Israel should officially recognize Reform and Conservative denominations – and allow them to conduct marriage ceremonies and conversions in Israel. “Religious pluralism could be one of those issues that may distance American Jews from Israel,” Steven Bayme, AJC director of contemporary Jewish life, told the Post at the time, and he’s not alone in this opinion.
MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), a member of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, references vocal concerns by Diaspora leaders that Israel is not upholding certain agreements pertaining to religious pluralism. “There is a dialogue that we need to have between all streams and to find solutions. At the end of the day, we are one nation, the Jewish people, and we need to see how to bridge these differences,” Ilatov says, adding that the government must stand by its agreements.
MK Nachman Shai (Labor), who heads the Knesset Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish People, echoes this, saying that from numerous visits at Jewish federations all over the US, the feeling relayed to him is that US Jews are disappointed with Israel. “Reform and Conservative Jews feel they are not treated equally to Orthodox Jews, and they don’t understand why. And I think they’re absolutely right,” Shai says, stating that despite the strong US support lent to the Jewish state politically, diplomatically and financially, “Israel does not reciprocate. Israel knows very well how to ask, but it doesn’t respond.”
MK Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) reinforces this, stating that in making internal decisions, “unfortunately, we don’t take into consideration every impact it will have on Diaspora Jewry.” Stern too raises the subjects of conversion and the Western Wall, which he says “obviously has meaning to many Jews all over the world.”
Emphasizing that he himself is Orthodox, Stern slams Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for allowing the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) to monopolize coalition agreements. “He made the Kotel [Western Wall] agreement because of the Diaspora, but he doesn’t implement it because of the haredim,” he asserts. “As long as there is no separation between religion and state, the state is committed only to Orthodoxy.” Stern warns that if Israel doesn’t give any space to Reform or Conservative members, it risks driving them away from Judaism entirely. “Why would Diaspora communities want to be part of them [Reform and Conservative streams] when Israel doesn’t recognize them?” And it’s unlikely, he says, that those same Jews would turn to Orthodoxy instead. “For years, the Orthodox are celebrating their victory over Reform and seeing how much they assimilate, instead of seeing it as a joint challenge – it’s a huge mistake,” Stern stresses.
He believes that to achieve any change, the Reform and Conservative sectors of US Jewry need to take a firmer stance against those coalition partners voting against laws that would allow for more religious pluralism. “I told them not to accept them into your communities...
that they shouldn’t come to AIPAC or the federations,” he explains. “The pressure they put will be more effective. Both sides need the other, but right now the government is trampling on the other streams and they are silent. They need to say thanks, but you’ll be welcome after you’ll take a decision that you respect us.”
Even MK Avraham Neguise (Likud) agrees that contention over religious plurality could damage Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora. Neguise is the chairman of the Knesset Committee for Immigration Absorption and Diaspora Affairs.
“Every Jew should feel that Israel is his home, so that’s a feeling we have to provide,” he says over the phone from the US, while visiting with leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America, and the heads of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements. Neguise says that all Jewish denominations should receive equal treatment and is optimistic that the government will eventually achieve this.
Diaspora communities in need
For Neguise, who made aliya from Ethiopia in 1985, the struggle to bring other Ethiopian Jews to Israel has been central.
His recent 10-day visit to the US focused on the government’s decision last year to renew immigration from Ethiopia, following a two-year hiatus after a declaration of the “end of Ethiopian aliya,” which left many families separated.
The November 2015 cabinet decision allows any Ethiopian who moved to Gondar or Addis Ababa after January 2013, and who is willing to convert to Judaism and has relatives in Israel, to apply for aliya. But implementation of the decision was put on hold due to budgetary issues.
In August, Likud reached an agreement to enable 1,300 Ethiopians to move to Israel.
Neguise – alongside MK David Amsalem – was instrumental in this move, refusing to vote with the coalition due to stagnancy on the matter.
“I would like the Jewish federations and the religious leadership to be on board as they have been in the past,” Neguise says.
Likud MK Avraham Neguise meets with Falash Mura activists at a convention last weekLikud MK Avraham Neguise meets with Falash Mura activists at a convention last week
His visit to the US also included meetings with Jewish and African-American senators and congressmen in Washington.
He found that US leaders are supportive of the move and active in helping Israel facilitate it. He remarks that in the last wave of Ethiopian aliya, US Jewry played “a vital role in making the dream of thousands of Ethiopians into a reality, and helping them become proud citizens of the State of Israel.” According to Neguise, this happened because of the joint efforts of the Israeli government and US Jewish leadership. For instance, US Jewry arranged support for the Ethiopians while they were waiting for their aliya in Addis Ababa and Gondar. “The community is in very bad shape and living in a very critical condition,” he laments. “I would like their immigration to be facilitated and for them to be united with their families in Israel. The more we bring, as quickly as possible, the better for their integration in Israel.”
Neguise says that while it’s up to Israel to determine who is eligible to make aliya, it’s the responsibility of the global Jewish community to support fellow Jews in distress. “As they are also doing in the former Soviet Union,” he says. Ukraine in particular has undergone a tumultuous couple of years since war erupted in the east of the country. While several groups have worked to help refugees of the conflict inside Ukraine, as well as helping them come to Israel, Ilatov says it’s also important to improve conditions for them in Israel. The USSR-born MK, who is a member of the Committee for the Appointment of Judges, mentions that he has raised concerns in the courts about the lack of olim from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. He expresses hope that soon every community would be represented in court. One positive development in this direction came at the end of September, when the Israel Bar Association announced the appointment of two female Ethiopian judges, one to the Magistrate’s Court and the other to the Traffic Court.
“It’s important that those people who live in the Diaspora will see that they have will have equal opportunities here,” Ilatov asserts. “This will attract more olim.”
He notes that since the 1990s, most olim came from countries belonging to the Commonwealth of Independent States.
“We visit many communities and meet with community leaders – with all groups – and I think it’s important to maintain ties with them and raise issues that affect them in parliament.” Ilatov’s personal wish for Diaspora Jews is that they will eventually all move to Israel.
Pointing out that Israel for the first time has the largest Jewish population in the world, Ilatov believes that gradually a majority of the world’s Jews will come to live in Israel. “At the moment most live in the Diaspora. I think we will find the right balance, and I think it’s necessary in order to preserve the nation and the Jewish tradition.”
Strengthening the bond
More shlihim (emissaries) in universities abroad, more hasbara (public diplomacy), open dialogue, closer work with the Jewish federations and organizations – these are the activities that Ilatov wants to see intensified. “I think we need to focus on strengthening and developing the relationship with the Diaspora. I think we don’t do enough and I think the Jewish communities feel this.”
There appears to be a general consensus on this. Each of the four interviewees, all of whom follow closely Diaspora affairs, agree.
“I hope Knesset members will be much more aware and involved in the Diaspora,” Neguise says.
“There is also no appreciation by our electorate – they think we first have to take care of Israel, but I think this is a grave mistake.” He highlights the young generation as a problem area, pointing to BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement] anti-Israel influences on social media. “We have to focus on that because we are losing the young generation,” he warns, emphasizing the significance of programs such as Birthright in battling this, by bringing young people to Israel for first-hand Jewish experiences of Israel. “The more young Jews visit Israel, the better, and the longer they stay here the better. The more they know the Israelis, the better they understand what Israel is all about.”
Ilatov sees the Diaspora as a source of strength, politically and in the war against BDS. “Israel is becoming more central to the Jewish world and we need to strengthen the Diaspora. We still don’t do enough,” he declares.
“We need each other,” agrees Shai, postulating that there is no Israel without the Diaspora, and that while the reverse may not be true, the existence of Israel has improved Jewish lives around the world. The opposition MK deplores that while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands the situation well and is familiar with the Diaspora – having lived in the US himself – he doesn’t put that knowledge into practice. Shai accuses the prime minister of consistently “giving in” to internal Israeli politics at the expense of the Diaspora.
He also says Netanyahu’s stormy relationship with US President Barack Obama put US Jews in a difficult position, particularly when it came to the flagrant disagreement between the two leaders over Iran’s nuclear program. “They [US Jews] had to decide who they stand with, Israel or the US. This is a dilemma they have tried to avoid their whole lives – a dilemma of loyalty. We heard from many US Jews that instead of being a uniting issue, Israel became a divisive issue.”
Both Shai and Stern point to the danger of assimilation in the Diaspora, with the latter opining that Netanyahu has no interest in this issue. “The numbers of intermarriages are growing all the time,” notes Shai. “I don’t know what that means for the future.
“The tangible risk is of people who don’t want to be identified with Israel and their Jewish identity – our role is to assist the communities all over the world to preserve their members,” Stern tells the Post.
Shai relates that in his latest visit to Toronto, he told a group of Russian Jews living in Canada that Jewish solidarity should come first, even above solidarity with Israel. “We must make an effort to keep Jews in the Diaspora close to Judaism,” he urges. “I’m not religious but I don’t want to lose the Jewish people, and I think they are going through a very dangerous process.”
During his trip to North America as part of a delegation of MKs looking to strengthen relations with Jewish diaspora, Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai met with Jewish childrenDuring his trip to North America as part of a delegation of MKs looking to strengthen relations with Jewish diaspora, Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai met with Jewish children
This is Israel’s role, Shai says. “We have to mobilize all our efforts and help Jewish communities all around the world, help with Jewish education in order not to lose them. The smaller they [the Jewish communities] get, the harder it is to keep Jewish life. And with Jewish life comes everything else, including Israel solidarity.”
Shai encourages Israelis to seize the new year to play a part in this effort.
The important thing, he says, is “not to be so concentrated on Israel, but to at least pay some attention to what’s going on in the Jewish world.” He argues that young Israelis should be taught more about Jewish life abroad, beyond the historical tragedies they learn about in school. “It’s not enough to deal only with the past. We need to talk to Jewish communities around the world and encourage dialogue.” According to Shai, every Israeli can enrich their understanding of the Diaspora through simple changes to their routines. For those who travel, for instance, adding to their agenda visits to Jewish sites, synagogues and communities can help enrich their knowledge of Diaspora Jewry. “That’s part of our life.
We don’t feel it because we are Jewish by nature, born and raised in a Jewish state – for us it’s not a choice. But for Diaspora Jews, it is a choice.”