Government seeks to understand Diaspora

Exclusive: Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel says Israel shouldn't tell US Jews how to be Jewish.

yehezkel 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
yehezkel 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The Israeli government is committed to understanding Diaspora Jews on their own terms, and creating a new, richer relationship that can reverse the weakening of the bonds between Israel and the Diaspora, Cabinet Secretary Oved Yehezkel told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. On March 31, Yehezkel will convene, together with Jewish Agency head Ze'ev Bielski and Diaspora Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog, the first meeting of a new task force in the Prime Minister's Office that seeks to redefine Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. "Israel has focused too much on fund-raising from Diaspora Jews and bringing them on aliya," said Yehezkel, a long-time confidant of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert considered to be one of the most influential officials in government. This focus was mistaken because "in the Diaspora, aliya is not on the agenda. Jewish education and identity are more important to [Diaspora Jews], who, unlike us, are a minority in their country. We must change the discussion to reflect this." While Yehezkel is quick to note that "aliya is an important part of the relationship" and the Diaspora is critical for Israel's image overseas, the relationship must become two-directional. "We have to let the Diaspora know what's happening here, but we also need to learn what's happening there," he said ahead of the task force meeting. Yehezkel is critical of Israeli voices who speak of aliya as the only solution to Jewish continuity and of those who seek to "explain" to American and other Diaspora Jews "how to be Jewish." "I have a rule in all aspects of my life: I don't want to be an expert where I don't have expertise," he said. "We have to come to this [relationship] politely, humbly. The Israeli will remain Israeli, the American will remain American. I'm worried about Israelis who think they understand American Jewry, who mistakenly attempt to educate them or lecture them about how to be Jews." According to Yehezkel, "we have to understand the differences [between the Jewish communities], to understand American culture, how Jewish culture integrated into American culture. I speak to many Jews in America, and I'm always discovering new things about them." Yet, while "I'm not an expert on American Jewry, I trust them. I know from them that they want to connect to Israel, to love and help Israel. How does Israel create the tools for them to do this?" The reported decline in Diaspora Jewish youths' attachment to Israel "keeps me awake at night. Young people are growing distant because of the sheer passage of time," he believes. "They don't know the generation that saw Israel's establishment or witnessed the Holocaust. The young generation didn't experience the dramatic experiences of Israel's founding. This is a problem of education." A key component of the relationship must center on young Jews, including young Israelis. Yehezkel supports the idea of a "reverse birthright" in which Jewish Israeli youth would travel to Jewish communities abroad to experience Jewish life there. He also believes the government should dramatically expand its support, financial and otherwise, for birthright israel and Masa, programs that bring Diaspora youth to Israel for either short trips or months-long volunteer projects. "The education of the youth has to be based on more modern individualistic methods that fit the lives of youth today." A "reverse birthright," he explains, is "only a question of money." Is the government's new initiative serious enough to translate into funding? "This is a process, so I can't give all the answers immediately," he said. "But I can say that I'm working in the prime minister's name and with his support, and we are aware there will be financial implications to the government's commitment. We're also in touch with Jewish organizations in the Diaspora who are ready and willing to contribute."