Analysis: More old talk, and new problems

Is the government serious about the weakening Israel-Diaspora link?

us israel flag aipac 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
us israel flag aipac 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is worried about Israelis' Jewish identity, and for good reason. Every study finds Israelis less and less knowledgeable about and connected to their Jewish heritage, a process that most analysts believe is inextricably enmeshed in the country's secular-Orthodox culture war. It is hard to disagree with Livni's analysis, echoed by the Jewish world's finest researchers, that identification with Israel abroad and identification with the Jewish people in Israel are weakening. In the pages of this newspaper, several of the largest and most influential American Jewish organizations have also shared this sentiment. But the timing of the speech, coming immediately ahead of the cabinet's decision to recreate a religious services ministry, has already called into question whether the government is serious about the sentiments voiced by Livni. Though Sunday is a weekend in the United States, phones were ringing on the eastern seaboard of the United States on Sunday afternoon (Israel time) as some Jewish organization officials sought to understand from each other what the decision meant for religious life in Israel. As they read Livni's words with some skepticism, learned as they are in the loquacious ways of Israeli foreign ministers, they asked one question: Will anything come of such talk? According to one senior official, American Jews are confused; while the foreign minister seems to be trying to break new ground in deepening Jewish identity in Israel and the connection to the Diaspora, the prime minister from the same party seems to be restoring the old ways of doing business that are so discredited in the Diaspora. Olmert's spokespeople have said that the significance of the new ministry is being blown out of proportion. The new ministry will give Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen the same powers he has now as a minister in the Prime Minister's Office: oversight of the religious councils and authority over construction of religious buildings. Other functions of the old Religious Affairs Ministry - including overseeing the rabbinic courts, the chief rabbinate and the yeshiva system - will remain in the hands of the Justice Ministry, the PMO, and the Education Ministry, respectively. It is not a strengthened Religious Affairs Ministry, they say, but merely a technicality that will streamline Cohen's work by removing the redundant oversight of his work within the PMO. Yet American Jewish groups will not be interested in the technical aspects of the change. The explanation that the promotion of a deputy minister is insignificant because he won't be given any more responsibilities for his higher salary will likely seem a strange excuse. They will be worried that this is the tip of the iceberg, and beneath the surface is the possibility that the Orthodox parties will once again be given control over Israeli religious life from the cabinet level. A cabinet minister with haredi political loyalties is already in charge of synagogue building and religious councils, and the infrastructure is laid for incremental increases to his power as coalition needs dictate. After the experience with Olmert in Jerusalem, where many said his ability to play ball with the haredi establishment was boundless and upsetting, non-haredi Jews, including donors and friends of the prime minister, will be looking very closely at this decision, and seeking assurances that it is not the beginning of a trend.