VIEWPOINT: Israel-Diaspora relations now and then

From left: Yair Sheleg, Sergio DellaPergola, Elliott Abrams, Amotz Asa-El, Yair Teitelbaum, Yair Sherki, Yehudith Auerbach, Gabriela Shalev, Sallai Meridor, Dr. Haim V. Katz and Alan Schneider (photo credit: BRUNO CHARBIT)
From left: Yair Sheleg, Sergio DellaPergola, Elliott Abrams, Amotz Asa-El, Yair Teitelbaum, Yair Sherki, Yehudith Auerbach, Gabriela Shalev, Sallai Meridor, Dr. Haim V. Katz and Alan Schneider
(photo credit: BRUNO CHARBIT)
WOLF MATSDORF (of blessed memory) was a journalist and German-Jewish Zionist who first fled to Australia before making aliya with his wife Hilda later in life. Wolf saw wonders in the development of the State of Israel and identified with the B’nai B’rith World Center—Jerusalem’s mandate to forge closer relations between Israel and the Diaspora. When we set out to challenge and honor journalists to share the stories of the Diaspora in the Israeli media, Wolf served as our inspiration and today the honor bears his name.
For the past 26 years, the B’nai B’rith World Center—Jerusalem has been conferring its Award for Journalism Recognizing Excellence in Diaspora Reportage. As the initiator of the project, my motivation was to establish a project that would appropriately memorialize Wolf, and also serve to honor those who build bridges through healthy media dialogue.
Dozens of journalists have been honored with the award and it has grown into the most prestigious prize of its kind in Israel. We engage a blue-ribbon jury and an outstanding keynote speaker each year. The award and its awardees have managed to break through as a beacon of excellence in a crowded media landscape.
However, times are changing. In recent years we have anxiously observed what could be a related and perhaps even mutually-nurturing phenomena. On the one hand, we have seen a marked decrease in the number of Israeli journalists dedicated to providing in-depth coverage of Diaspora communities and the state of Israel-Diaspora relations. On the other, we have seen an increase in hyper-criticism by segments of Diaspora Jewry, particularly in the United States.
This criticism has exposed a crisis of identify and solidarity between the Jewish State and the largest Jewish Diaspora community.
The issues under contention are many and span the full gambit of religion, human rights, diplomacy and “Occupation.” Today, even security issues – which until recently had been left to the prerogative of Israelis who bear the immediate burden of any security-related decision here – have become a point of contention.
The outcome is the emergence of a great rift. Today, some political leaders and media relations practitioners are advising the Israeli government to cease considering the wishes and attitudes of American Jews and instead spend political capital on fostering closer relations with Christian Evangelicals. These are the same Evangelicals who have been behind some of the most positive diplomatic and strategic developments for Israel in recent memory. They helped to assure the election of demonstratively pro-Israel American administration which has relocated the US Embassy to Israel’s declared capital Jerusalem and decertified the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) and defends Israel to the hilt in the United States to name a few areas of support.
Trends in the United States also show that support for Israel is now increasingly a partisan issue. American Jews, concentrated as they are in heavily Democratic states, do not hold the electoral influence to determine the outcome of an election or major policy decisions. In addition, as smaller Jewish communities in Europe and Latin America shrink due to assimilation and intermarriage, Israel will be operating in a radically evolved environment in the coming generation where the U.S. and Israel serve as the two central homes for Jews.
Now marking 175 years of dedication to Israel and the Jewish People, B’nai B’rith cannot, and will not, adopt a defeatist attitude about US or world Jewry. We can and must find ways of speaking among Jews as among family. B’nai B’rith will prioritize words and deeds that heal and connect alongside those who might hurt and draw us apart. Many overt and covert enemies of both Israel and the Jewish world would like nothing more than to see us leave each other behind.
We are not alone. McGill University Prof. Gil Troy, in his new book The Zionist Ideas seeks to foster a broad revival of the Zionist ethos. In addition, unprecedented financial investment by the Israeli government in Diaspora Jewry also seeks to bind us together across the globe.
Though we must determine which words and deeds clearly fall outside the very broad tent that our communities have pitched, we must work to embrace as many Jews as possible. This is the precise purpose of our award for journalism.
We will continue to encourage the Israeli media to go the extra mile in sharing the reality of Diaspora communities with the Israeli public to build bonds of familiarity, identification and ultimately solidarity. The winners of this year’s awards – The Jerusalem Report’s own Amotz Asa-El, Israel News Company’s Yair Sherki and KAN’s Benny Teitelbaum – have done precisely that. We are proud to honor the unique way each has decided to focus on the powerful stories of the Diaspora and how each has used their platforms to interpret them for the Israeli public.
The writer is Director of the B’nai B’rith World Center—Jerusalem