Report unveils 'humbler' gov't Diaspora policy

Exclusive: Cabinet secretary to propose quadrupling Birthright funding, full-time Jewish world minister.

yehezkel 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
yehezkel 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
A new government strategy to redefine ties with the Diaspora to be "less patronizing and more humble" will be unveiled on June 22 in a policy report being developed jointly by Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel and Alan Hoffman, director-general of the Jewish Agency's Education Department, The Jerusalem Post has learned. The report will mark a real change in Israel-Diaspora relations, Yehezkel told the Post. "The Diaspora and Israel can't continue in the patronizing model of the past, which was okay when we had a new state with an ancient dream to fulfill," but amounts to a "tragic" misunderstanding of the situation today. "Israel is a reality, and a very strong country. While we rely on the Diaspora, we have to understand that they also rely on us," he said. The first step, Yehezkel said, was "humility." "Israel doesn't have the means, experience, knowledge or ability to tell a Jew in Michigan or St. Petersburg how to be a Jew. We just don't know. We have to accept as a fact that there are Jews here and Jews there, and it's legitimate." While "aliya is an important Zionist goal that remains important in our value system," Yehezkel said, "we have to move away from a dynamic based on money and aliya. We have to add more values, to establish cooperation. Israel has to take responsibility for Diaspora issues as well, such as Jewish identity, education and continuity." As an example of this change, Yehezkel "would like to see a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling of the state's funding of Birthright Israel and Masa," which today reaches $18 million annually for Birthright alone. Similarly, Diaspora affairs should play a larger role at the cabinet table. While he was careful to say that Diaspora Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog was "excellent in these issues, knows the [Diaspora] communities, cares about the issue and has fluent English," Yehezkel complained that the position of Diaspora Affairs was held by a minister with another fulltime portfolio. "The next government should have a fulltime position dealing with the Jewish world," he said. "It's a supreme strategic goal for Israel to keep the Jewish people together at a time when the centrifugal forces pulling us apart are greater than those bringing us back together." The report is the latest development in a process launched in February at the cabinet level to reshape Israel's relationship to the Diaspora, a process that included the establishment of a cabinet-level committee of Yehezkel, Herzog and Jewish Agency chairman Ze'ev Bielski. Israel stood at "a complex crossroads," Yehezkel said. If it failed to "completely redefine" its relationship with the Diaspora, "we will find ourselves, God forbid, dividing again into Judah and Israel. There will be a Jew of Israel and a Jew of the Diaspora, and they will be more different than they are alike." The new relationship, Yehezkel said, must have "a whole different purpose. We have to change the language we use when speaking to the Diaspora and even the tools with which we communicate." The new report will be ready for the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem on June 22, where it will be presented to Diaspora representatives to seek their input. Nevertheless, there is common ground for a shared culture "that doesn't cancel the differences," the cabinet secretary continued. "We all have the Land of Israel, Zion. It's the heart, but it's not enough. We have our history and traditions, our collective happiness and collective pain, a world of values shared by all Jews. That has to be the basis." That effort, now being joined by the government, to develop shared Jewish institutions includes a focus on an Israeli expatriate population (yordim) estimated to number over 700,000. "With yordim also, we have to change our patronizing language of 'bringing the children home,'" Yehezkel said. "We live in an individualistic age, and anyone who doesn't understand it is missing the train. Israelis leave not because they're against Israel, but because it helps them personally. I want to take things in the right proportions. We don't have to insist on bringing them home, but we have to stay connected." Fundamental changes were also required in the structures that linked Israel and the Diaspora, including organizations such as the Jewish Agency, Yehezkel said. "These organizations have an honest desire to contribute and often produce good results, but we need to create an organizational change. The Jewish Agency had a critical role in the past, and it can have a leading role in the future of this relationship, but even it understands that it will need to change, along with other organizations," he said. Specifically, the change must include cutting down on the number of organizations that claim to represent the Israel-Diaspora relationship, making the communication between the communities more efficient, and accepting the new, humbler relationship. Previous meetings of the cabinet committee and other advisory meetings made some specific programming recommendations - an on-line Jewish university, Israeli culture centers modeled on the UK's British Council, a central Jewish world Internet site. The government was criticized, including by this newspaper, for the Israel-centric nature and small number of the recommendations. But Yehezkel won't mention any programming ideas until the new report is published. "I want to work jointly with Diaspora leaders to make Diaspora programs," he said. "Maybe there will be Jewish culture houses, maybe programs for Israeli Jews who go out to the world, but if I told you now what we will do and how we will do it, I'd be committing the same sin of the past 60 years."