More communication, cultural exchanges in 2010

More communication, cult

The government will take a more active role in expanding the contacts between Israeli society and Diaspora communities, and will strive to create shared educational and cultural activities, according to a working plan presented to the Knesset on Wednesday by the Ministry for Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs. The plan includes the expansion of state aid to existing programs, many of them run by non-profit Jewish groups around the world. A first step, according to ministry officials, is to develop a cultural common denominator for a Jewish world whose Jews are anything but alike. There is no "shared experience among the younger generations around the Jewish world, like there once was after Israel's founding, or the Six Day War, or the struggle to free Soviet Jewry," explained Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein. The connection between Israelis and Diaspora Jews has weakened over the years without such shared experiences, he told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. The ministry is now examining ways of creating a new cultural curriculum that is shared by Jews in places as culturally and geographically distant as Israel, the US, Argentina and France. To that end, it is speaking to experts and representatives of different communities worldwide. To coordinate Jewish learning across the globe is a complex task, but a necessary one if Jews are to share a cultural foundation, according to ministry official Florina Elman. One idea is to base this shared Jewish studies curriculum on the Bible. "We're not talking about yeshiva study," said Edelstein. "We're not asking people to believe or adhere to the Bible, but to see it as the common denominator for all Jews." Another program slated to be launched together with Taglit-birthright Israel is termed "11th day" by the ministry, a reference to the day after birthright's 10-day tours, when many participants choose to extend their free visit to Israel to see family or continue touring on their own. The "11th day" program would enable participants to extend their visit as guests in the home of an Israeli family, and would offer educational and touring possibilities beyond the birthright trip. Other projects include helping to train Jewish school principals in the former Soviet Union, and ambitious plans for a "Diaspora Week" to be held in conjunction with Tel Aviv's Beit Hatefutsoth Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, a research and educational institute focused on Jewish peoplehood and identity. "We want to create a 'Diaspora Festival' and an exhibit that will travel throughout the country," explained Edelstein. Israelis, he said, needed to learn about world Jewry, and not just the other way around. "We've already set aside funds for this project," while the exhibit's content is being developed jointly with Beit Hatefutsoth. The development of an overarching Diaspora policy for the country is a difficult undertaking, Edelstein said, "because there is no uniformity in the Diaspora." Some nine months into the current government, the ministry charged with dealing with the Diaspora believes this is a unique challenge. "The goals and challenges and desires of 'New York Jewry' - if there is such a thing - are very different from the goals and challenges of the Jews of Milan. The Diaspora is extremely diverse, and you have to take this into account when you, as Israel, want to interact with it." For that reason, the ministry has refrained "from saying, 'Israel will do x in the Diaspora,' since no one thing can hit all the targets you want to hit." Nevertheless, a major focus of Israel's Diaspora policy going forward will be "the worrying question of the next generation of Jewish leaders. Many major organizations don't have clear replacements for their current leadership." Another focus is communicating more and better with Jewish communities and leaders in order "to help repair Israel's damaged image. "We have seen a willingness among a large part of the Diaspora to help improve Israel's image, and also a desire to create a stronger connection to Israel," said Edelstein, though he wonders "how deeply this desire runs in the broader Jewish community and among less affiliated Jews." The ministry's working plan also deals extensively with public diplomacy efforts, including a new plan to enable the estimated 1.6 million Israelis who travel overseas each year to deal with criticism of Israel they encounter in their travels. The ministry has launched a Web site offering suggestions on how to respond to questions about Israel, including those about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The key to the initiative is to avoid politics, Edelstein said. When presenting the working plan, he was asked "what I will do with artists going abroad, since they're all supposed to be left wing." But, he explained, "this isn't about politics. What do I care about their politics? In any case, Israel can't ask its citizens to declaim political [talking points], like supporting or opposing a Palestinian state," he said. Instead, the plan could help them to show others that Israel, like the conflict itself, is larger and more complex than the media reports imply. "Let's help the aforementioned 'left-wing artists' talk about themselves, about Israeli art," he said, "or about culture, sports, science, hi-tech. Things the government can't start talking about in a New York Times interview." This same message will be at the center of a new ministry program to bring European parliamentarians and political activists to Israel for a first-hand look at the country and the conflict. The goal, according to the working plan, is to show Israel's complex liberal society, and not just the conflict.