Diaspora Affairs Minister Shai calls for renewed dialogue with US Jews

In New York, the Diaspora Affairs minister names US college campuses as a priority to engage young Americans to Israel.

Former Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Former Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai held a press briefing in Manhattan on Tuesday where he called for renewing dialogue with American Jews.

The meeting, held at the Israel Consulate in New York, focused on the State of Israel’s new approach to its relationship with American Jewry (particularly the rising generation), US-Israel relations under the new government, and Israel’s role in combating antisemitism.

“The purpose of my visit to New York is to run a dialogue, not just to speak but to listen,” Shai, 75, said. “I’m the contact person for Jewish voices. In cabinet meetings, when they make decisions regarding Israel’s policies, I speak on behalf of the Diaspora, and these in-person visits help me recharge my batteries and get to know what people think and how they see Israel.

“For example, climate change is something that Americans, especially this administration, are looking at. So I told [Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett to open his meeting with [US President] Joe Biden by discussing climate change.

“Whatever we do in Israel impacts other Jewish life all over the world, especially wars,” Shai continued. “We have the freedom to choose how we want to allocate the funds to build bridges between Israel and world Jewry.”

Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai meets governor of Florida Ronald Dion DeSantis, June 27, 2021. (credit: DIASPORA AFFAIRS MINISTRY)
Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai meets governor of Florida Ronald Dion DeSantis, June 27, 2021. (credit: DIASPORA AFFAIRS MINISTRY)

The minister opened the briefing by stating that his top priority is engaging young Jewish Americans to feel attached to Israel.

“American college campuses are first priority,” he said, “engaging through informal education such as Hillel, Chabad and Olami to keep students connected to both Jewish and Israel identity. They’re missing both, if you ask me.”  

The latest Pew Center study on how American Jews view Israel, released in May 2021, found that of young Jewish Americans (ages 18-29), less than half (48%) feel somewhat/very attached to Israel.

“We are committed to not losing even one single Jew,” Shai said. “It’s an expensive project, but we have decided to expand it,” he continued.

The second priority, the minister said, is opening the channels of communication for Israeli citizens living in the US.

“We don’t want to lose the hundreds of thousands of Israelis in America. Some have been living here for a long time, some are philanthropists, some have relatives in Israel. We will sit down and learn the situation and help them maintain their relationship with Israel, whether they decide to stay here or return to Israel; that’s their choice,” he said.

SHAI NOTED that while the US has the largest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel, at approximately six million, he is also committed to the nearly two million Jews living elsewhere outside of Israel.  

“They are also the center of our interest,” he said. “[Notably] communities in Sweden and Austria show what it means to live in a small Jewish community where antisemitism is also rising. What do you do in a community like Malmö where there used to be a significant Jewish population and then hundreds of Jews left?”

Shai called antisemitism a “rising disease.

“From digital technology to all over the streets of New York and across America, it’s a jungle,” he continued, singling out online antisemitism as a “new kind of warfare.

“We get hundreds of thousands of messages, and we do the job no one else does, as far as I know,” he said. “We monitor social media and detect where it is coming from. We do it transparently, openly, and publicly. We’d like to know who says what. We are looking for other ways also to combat digital antisemitism legally.”

He also addressed Israel's plans in motion to renovate the non-Orthodox prayer space at the Western Wall, expanding an area of the holy site where men and women could pray as they please. Shai told reporters that before the Jewish state formally implements the 2016 agreement, delayed under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the government plans to do more modest physical upgrades to the site, including expanding physical access to the Western Wall itself and repairing some physical damage to the prayer spot. 

The meeting was Shai’s first with American Jewish media since he took the position in early June under Israel’s newly elected government. Previously, he served as a member of the Knesset representing the Labor Party from 2009 to 2019, as well as a Knesset deputy speaker and Israel Defense Forces spokesman.

Shai called Israel’s new government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett since June 13, 2021, after replacing Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year run, a “sense of relief.

“Tension is down,” he continued. “There’s a new spirit of living together and bringing together communities of Right, Left, Center-Right, Center-Left, and Arab. This is a new message to the public that we can be together, live together, run a government together, pass a budget together, even if we don’t agree on every issue.

“It was divisive. No miracles, but [now] there’s no fighting all the time. In cabinet meetings, everyone is respectful, and we conclude in less than two hours.”

He also noted the unprecedented diversity in Israel’s new government.

“We have a Druze minister, Arab minister, Ethiopian-origin minister, a minister in a wheelchair, nine female ministers, and 11 female directors-general. Things are changing.”

Earlier in the week, Shai met with US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Ambassador to the US and UN Gilad Erdan, leaders from Chabad-Lubavitch, UJA-Federation, Jews of Color Initiative, Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and the Anti-Defamation League.

The minister’s visit to New York also included meetings with heads of the three major denominations of Judaism: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. He announced the launch of a program for Renewal Judaism, with funding of NIS 30 million.

“I covered the religious spectrum,” he said of his Diaspora trip. “We don’t have the luxury of losing even one Jew.”