PM aims to remake Israel-Diaspora ties

Exclusive: Olmert believes Israel must be a cultural partner, not a receiver of charity.

Olmert big head 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert big head 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has established an unprecedented high-level government task force charged with fundamentally altering the Israel-Diaspora relationship. The new task force heralds a revolutionary change, officials in the Prime Minister's Office said, in that it will seek ways in which Israel can begin to invest in the Diaspora, rather than remaining merely the recipient of Diaspora aid. The task force, headed by cabinet secretary Ovad Yehezkel, was established at a closed-door meeting at the Prime Minister's Office late Wednesday and currently includes only Diaspora Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog and Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski. More members are slated to be added, but have yet to be selected. "This prime minister knows Diaspora Jewry well," said a Prime Minister's Office official familiar with the meeting, which was kept secret until now. "Olmert understands that Israel has a problem in its relationship with the Diaspora: it's mainly one-way, and Israel campaigns as the poor, weak party. But now US Jewry is in a crisis of identity, of intermarriage. We see it and we feel it, if nowhere else, in the cash flow." According to the official, Olmert believes that"Israel doesn't really need the [Diaspora] money. Israel can defend itself on its own, can fortify itself without help, can build community centers on its own. "So the prime minister" - who was represented at the meeting by Yehezkel - "has said, 'Let's change direction. Let's move from an ethos of aliya and rejecting the [importance of the] Diaspora to one of mutual reciprocity. Of course we still want aliya, but we must go beyond this." The meeting was characterized by a Jewish Agency official as a "first step, a brainstorming session." In attendance were Yehezkel, Bielski, Herzog, Strategic Affairs Ministry Director-General Hagai Peleg, Nativ head Naomi Ben-Ami, Prof. Ruth Calderon of Alma College in Tel Aviv, Jezreel Valley Academic College President Prof. Aliza Shenhar and Israel representatives of the World Jewish Congress, United Jewish Communities and American Jewish Committee. According to a source who attended, ideas for strengthening Israel-Diaspora relations mentioned included increasing support for youth programs such as birthright israel and Masa and establishing an on-line Jewish university. There was also talk of opening Israeli culture centers around the world modeled on the UK's British Council - "not so that everyone learns Hatikva, but so that they can really learn and discuss our culture, our cinema, our playwrights, our poetry," the official said. "We can hold our own with the best of them in this field and you can really 'sell' a Bialik or Agnon institute around the world." Participants also raised the importance of combining resources. Explained the official: "In Novosibirsk, you have an Israeli consul, a Nativ emissary and two Jewish Agency emissaries, and they all work separately. We have to unite resources. We don't have enough money for the programming, but we maintain three headquarters in the same place." Asked why no Diaspora Jews were present in the meeting, one official said, "This was on purpose. We're still figuring out what Israel wants. We can't begin a dialogue until we know what we want ourselves... But everyone agreed there is a need for a new direction, which is no small thing with organizations like the WJC and WZO. Once we have a concrete plan, we plan on opening a dialogue with Diaspora Jewry. This is all meant to be done together." According to a Jewish Agency official, the meeting was the first of its kind within the government, "and it was understood that all these ideas have financial significance. Until today world Jewry invested in Israel. Now is the time to invest back."