Jewish leaders from Israel and the Diaspora gather for emergency conference at TAU

The conference included leading public and academic figures from Israel and the Diaspora, who addressed the issues of Israel-Diaspora relations and the future of Jewish identity.

 Tel Aviv University Campus (photo credit: COURTESY TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
Tel Aviv University Campus

Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with Brandeis University and the World Zionist Organization, held an emergency conference at the university on Wednesday, May 3, entitled “The Jewish Wars?” The conference included leading public and academic figures from Israel and the Diaspora, who addressed the issues of Israel-Diaspora relations and the future of Jewish identity in light of the escalating crisis in the relations between Israel and world Jewry.

The conference was the first step in a comprehensive academic and research effort to assist in formulating a new social contract for the Jewish nation, inside the state of Israel and between Israel and the Diaspora. A range of burning questions was discussed, including:  The growing rift between Jewish communities and movements in Israel and worldwide – can it be healed and how? Who is a Jew, and who gets to decide this? Israel and the Jewish Diaspora in the wake of the judicial overhaul; The changing nature of Jewish faith and identity in the 21st century; What Israel can learn from the Diaspora at this time and more.  The conference was led by two notable researchers from Tel Aviv University: former MK Prof. Yossi Shain, previously Head of the School of Political Science, and Dr. Yoav Fromer, Head of the Center for US Studies.

The conference is the first initiative of a new partnership between two major academic institutions: Tel Aviv University and Brandeis University – the world’s largest and most important liberal Jewish university, which, like Israel, is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

The conference opened with welcoming messages from President of Israel Isaac Herzog (recorded), TAU President Prof. Ariel Porat, and the President of Brandeis University, Prof. Ronald D. Liebowitz. Prominent participants included: Tova Dorfman, President of the World Zionist Organization, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, a leader of liberal French Jewry; Dani Dayan, Chairman of Yad Vashem; Prof. Rabbi Yehudah Mirsky and Prof. Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University; and other leading scholars.

Prof. Yossi Shain: “Israel is currently in the midst of one of the greatest crises in its history – a crisis that will impact the entire Jewish nation and shape its future. Throughout our history, Jewish wars have always been a time of great distress for our people, and this is also true today. We ask ourselves with deep concern: where is our nation headed? Long ago, at a moment of grave danger to the Jewish people, Queen Esther said to Mordechai: “Go, gather together all the Jews” (Esther 4:16). Today, we also understand that to heal the rifts and find a solution, we must gather all the Jews. In this spirit, and believing that academia must play a key role in this comprehensive effort, we have chosen to strengthen the ties between Tel Aviv University, which represents the new Israeli spirit, and Brandeis University, the world’s leading Jewish university, named after the first Jewish Justice of the US Supreme Court. This partnership, launched with the blessing of Israel’s President and supported by the presidents of both universities, is meant to contribute to the formulation of a new social contract between Israel and world Jewry, with an emphasis on the largest and most influential community, the Jews of the US.”

Dr. Yoav Fromer: “The relations between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, especially the Jews living in democratic and liberal Western countries, are currently in deep crisis. We are no longer talking about specific issues, as important as they may be, like the Jewish Ancestry Amendment to the Law of Return, or the Women of the Wall. We’re not there anymore. Diaspora Jewry, contending with a rise in antisemitism and a deterioration in Israel’s standing worldwide, is very worried about the nationalist and religious character of the present Israeli government. In addition, many are deeply concerned about the question of ‘Who is a Jew?’ and who has the right to decide this. This is especially critical for American Jews, who belong, for the most part, to Reform or Conservative Judaism. For them, this is not merely a theoretical issue: it touches upon the daily lives of many who see themselves as Jews and raise Jewish families, after undergoing conversion that is not Orthodox, and is therefore not recognized in Israel. We Israelis, for our part, must never forget that our ties with our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora are critical for us. They are our greatest allies, offering us generous financial support and defending Israel’s interests in their lands. In this conference, we tried to understand the reasons for this deep crisis and began to look for solutions.”