Nachman Shai to new gov't: Don’t touch issues regarding religion and state

Shai hasn’t yet packed up his office in the offices of the ministry in Jerusalem, but he has already psychologically moved on. 

 Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai gives a speech at the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress. (photo credit: DIASPORA AFFAIRS MINISTRY)
Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai gives a speech at the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress.
(photo credit: DIASPORA AFFAIRS MINISTRY)

Outgoing Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai (Labor) has cautioned the next government against disrupting long-standing religion and state policies, such as amending the Law of Return to bar Reform conversions.

The parties likely to form the next government were elected via a campaign focused on internal security and lowering the cost of living.

“They haven’t asked [their voters] about who is a Jew, about Reform conversions or amending the Law of Return. They shouldn’t touch it.”

Nachman Shai

“There is a kind of intoxication of power” among the right-wing parties after the elections, Shai said.

“They haven’t asked [their voters] about who is a Jew, about Reform conversions or amending the Law of Return. They shouldn’t touch it,” he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview summing up his term in office.

Shai said he didn’t expect to make dramatic changes in the ministry, as some ministers try to do, crediting this to his age and experience.

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)

“I didn’t sweep out everything that existed before me and create new projects,” he said. “I saw what was working, as well as what needed fine-tuning.”

Shai cited as an example the support and funding the ministry put toward Jewish education in the Diaspora.

“The future is Jewish education, but Jewish educators who live in countries that aren’t English-speaking need support,” he said.

Jewish day schools outside of Israel, especially in non-English-speaking countries, don’t have enough educational materials and pedagogic programs in Jewish and Israel education, Shai said.

“There is a huge gap between what these schools need and [what they] have,” he said. “But we also won’t be able to reach the 1,500 Jewish schools [scattered across] the Diaspora, so we are working on a platform that will offer these materials online.”

Shai, 75, began his career in journalism and served as an MK and deputy Knesset speaker. He was the IDF spokesman during the Gulf War.

Asked what event impacted him most in his role, Shai said his first mission in the ministry as the government’s representative was tough as he flew to Surfside, Florida, after an apartment building collapsed in June 2021.

“I never met them, and they never met me until I arrived” to lead an IDF rescue mission at the site, he said. “Suddenly, we had this connection. It warmed my heart. There was also the element of Israeli-US relations.”

Another memorable event, he said, was the commemoration in October of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in Malmo, Sweden.

“I was addressing the Holocaust survivors in the Malmo synagogue,” he said. “Malmo once had more than 3,000 Jews; now there are only a few hundred left. I then got out of the synagogue, and I shook the hands of the Holocaust survivors.”

“I will always carry those moments and many others, because I met people, saw places and experienced things I never have before,” he added.

Asked if he thinks there is a perception about Jews outside of Israel that changed thanks to his efforts, Shai said: “There are so many Jewish communities in the Diaspora that are getting increasingly smaller. The question is: What will happen to Judaism in these countries? Will it disappear? Will they vanish? Where will they go? We’ll lose them. So what’s our role” as the Jewish state? “How can we save them?”

ISRAEL AND REFORM, CONSERVATIVE JEWS

Regarding relations with Reform and Conservative Jews, he said: “We need to [provide] an even approach toward all three religious denominations. Personally, I love to go to shul, but my wife won’t go with me [to Orthodox synagogues] since she wants to sit next to me. There are so many Israelis who want to celebrate their Judaism differently; we have to let them do so.”

In July, the ministry announced the establishment of a joint venture promoting “Jewish renewal” between the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and Panim, an umbrella organization that deals with exactly that issue. Panim has “a deep familiarity with Jewish traditions and identities operating in Israel and around the world,” the ministry said at the time. The joint venture’s budget is NIS 60 million.

“The new joint venture will allow organizations in Israel to connect to their unique Jewish tradition and culture,” the ministry said in a press release at the time. “This is a large and first-of-its-kind government investment, which will be managed under the Jewish Renewal Division, which was established this year in the ministry.”

THE KOTEL DEAL

“We have to apologize to the Reform and Conservative movements that we haven’t implemented the Kotel deal,” Shai said. He was the only cabinet member who steadily fought for it.

“It’s just a big mistake,” he said, referring to the inability of the governments led by Prime Minister Yair Lapid and his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, to properly implement the deal.

After a game of political ping-pong, “I understood that it won’t [happen],” Shai said, adding that in his eyes, implementing the deal is “a responsibility of the government and of the people to let Reform and average Israelis” have an egalitarian prayer space.”

Shai said he remembers previous Israeli leaders, such as prime minister Ariel Sharon, who once said: “Topics such as the question ‘Who is a Jew?’ – I won’t get near it and won’t touch it or limit it. It’s too complicated.”

Shai added to Sharon’s word: “If you make changes [in issues of religion and state], you never know what the outcome will be. There is no reason to irritate millions of Reform or Conservative Jews.”

“I’m very much concerned about where the country is going,” he said. “I see it through my own family or my own perspective as an Israeli.”

Shai said there were times during his tenure when he surprised himself in what opinions he has changed, such as going to the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the New York borough of Queens.

“I love Chabad, and I think they are doing amazing things,” he said. “I wouldn’t necessarily have said this a few years ago. They do amazing work, and the cooperation we have with them as a government is amazing.”

One of the projects Shai said he feels he did not fully succeed in is making the connection between the state and Israeli expats around the world.

“We haven’t done enough for them; we are losing them,” he said. “Israel has gone a long way since the late Yitzhak Rabin’s statement about Israeli expats being ‘wimps.’ We all understand that Israel is bigger and stronger nowadays than it was 40 or 50 years ago.

“We have to understand that there always was a Diaspora, and there always will be a Diaspora. In my opinion, those who most need the assistance are the Israelis who don’t connect to the local Jewish communities.”

“Did you know that there are more than 100,000 Israelis living in the UK?” he asked. “If I have one dollar, why spend it on renting a community center for Israeli expats in Switzerland if the Jewish community already has space that they can potentially offer them to use it? The money could then be invested in content and education.”

ISRAEL AND UKRAINE

Shai was one of the more outspoken ministers about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calling on his colleagues to approve the transfer of defense equipment.

“For me, to see millions of refugees forced to flee is poignant for me as a Jew,” he said. “When I was in Poland, I saw these people. They had to leave everything behind. We Jews were refugees 80 years ago; my family [members] were refugees.

“I think that Israel should already have transferred ammunition to Ukraine, a democracy that is trying to defend itself against a totalitarian government. I think that [Prime Minister-designate Benjamin] Netanyahu will actually manage this better. Even though he is close to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, he will find a way to assist Ukraine. If anyone can do it, he can.”

Shai expressed disappointment over his party, which gained four seats in the Knesset.

“We have to establish a new movement, a social-democratic movement, on the ruins of Meretz and Labor,” he said, adding that the potential for this type of movement “is between 15 to 20 mandates at least.”