Israel to spend billions on initiative to bolster Jewish identity in Diaspora

Initiative is a first in that Israel intends to formulate and fund programs collaboratively with Jewish communities abroad.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (photo credit: REUTERS)
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Details of the government’s plan to invest billions of dollars over the next two decades to bolster the Jewish identity of Diaspora Jews have been revealed to The Jerusalem Post by senior officials.
“In Israel, we typically view the world as a source of aliya [immigration] and a big fat wallet, and that’s got to change,” Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett said last year when the plan was first unveiled. The effort represents Israel’s new approach to the Diaspora.
Announced at a gathering of government officials and Diaspora leaders in Jerusalem last November, the initiative is a first in that Israel intends to formulate and fund programs collaboratively with Jewish communities abroad.
Despite the reluctance of government officials to directly comment on how much money Israel expects to invest, a Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) document sent to Diaspora participants indicated that “the intention is to build the initiative from $30 million in 2014 to $300m. annually within five years.”
According to Dvir Kahana, Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry director-general, the government is looking at a 20-year time line. This could mean a total long-term investment of over a billion and a half dollars from Israeli coffers.
Following the success of Taglit-Birthright Israel and other such intensive culturaland historical-experience programs, the state is determined to use a connection to Israel as a tool for combating increasing levels of assimilation and intermarriage around the world.
“At the outset, the initiative was designed to bring world Jewry to Israel and bring Israel to world Jewry,” one Jewish Agency document explained, citing a goal of determining how best to “reposition Israel as a cornerstone of Jewish identity for a rising generation.”
While the broad outlines of the plan have been known for some months, the precise details of its implementation had not previously been revealed to the public. Through interviews with high level government officials and Jewish communal leaders, however, the Post has compiled a rough road map of what lies ahead for this potentially game-changing partnership.
The primary movers behind the initiative, which was initially conceived by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, are a triumvirate of public figures: JAFI director-general Alan Hoffmann, Kahana, and the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Harel Locker along with his deputy, Michal Frank. Locker and Frank are spearheading the PMO's involvement in the initiative.
Over the past months senior officials have panned Israel’s prior relationship with Jews worldwide as being predicated on a paternalistic attitude that saw the Diaspora as merely a source of money and immigrants, calling for a more equal partnership. This new approach has heartened Diaspora Jewish leaders, who have begun hailing the death of the early Zionist tenet of the “negation of the Diaspora,” which delegitimized Jewish life outside of Israel. “Never has the Israeli taxpayer been called upon to invest as much in Jewish education in the Diaspora,” Steven Cohen, a sociologist studying North American Jewry who was invited to participate in one of seven working groups convened by Israel to formulate programs for the initiative, told the Post. Israel’s new approach, he said, is an indication of a “genuine sense of security on the part of Israel.”
Instead of deeming Diaspora Jewry “illegitimate,” Israel is saying that “we are all in this together and we need each other to succeed,” remarked Rabbi Daniel Allen, United Israel Appeal head, a major initiative partner in North America.
Kahana told the Post that, as opposed to previous initiatives, the Israeli government is not interested in imposing its agenda on world Jewry.
A source in the Prime Minister’s Office agreed, telling the Post that “Israel needs Jewish communities around the world” and that the government feels a “moral responsibility for the continuation of Judaism and continuation of Jewish communities.”
Aimed at younger Jews between 12- to 35-years-old, the initiative is looking to create programming in seven content areas: immersive experiences; follow-up; Israel and peoplehood education in formal institutions and informal settings; serving “the global good;” Jewish life and Israel engagement on campuses; and the immigration of young professionals.
Final recommendations by the committees, which are a mix of Israeli and Diaspora delegates, are to be ready by late February. Under discussion is the disposition of funds earmarked for the projects that come out of the consultative process, some of which may be run as pilot projects as early as this summer. While there is both discussion of pooling monies for disparate activities in a common fund and of funding each program separately, it seems likely, sources say, that some sort of “hybrid model” incorporating both will win out.
Within the next few months the budget framework for the initiative is to be brought to the government for approval, Kahana told the Post, while Hoffmann indicated that he thinks that a resolution would have to come by “early spring.”
While content is determined, the issue of how Israel is to coordinate its efforts is also being hashed out, Hoffmann told the Post. In order to deal effectively with various institutions, foundations, federations and religious streams in the Diaspora, the various Israeli players must first organize themselves and negotiate a decision “formalizing the structure” of governance for the initiative.
“Within a month, we will have an implementation structure, including what kind of deal or entity will actually be managing” the initiative, Hoffmann said, adding that the PMO will act as a coordinator among the various bodies while the Diaspora Ministry “will have a major role in being the implementation arm of the government.”
JAFI, he said, would serve as both a representative of Diaspora Jewry and the “glue” that binds the various actors together.
Yael Weiss Gadish, a director at the agency, has been chosen as the senior professional for the initiative, Hoffmann stated, while Kahana termed his own ministry the “integrator of all Diaspora affairs from the government side.”
While senior Jewish communal leaders who spoke with the Post largely indicated that Israel managed to overcome their initial skepticism, some worries remain as to the viability of such a large undertaking.
Calling November’s summit an amazing experience, Allan Finkelstein, the president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center Association, nevertheless stated that he still has a degree of doubt.
“My skepticism is not the desire of the people in that room to change,” he told the Post, indicating that maintaining the momentum of November’s meeting during the weeks and months ahead will be tough.
Further summits may be needed, he said. Involving too many groups and setting too many goals may also prove a hindrance, he added.
“My question is: How do we keep the new ways of doing things going? I don’t know who’s in charge of that,” he said.
However, many participants, like the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey’s Amir Shacham, have stated that they were pleasantly surprised by Israel’s effort’s at follow-up since the big meeting.
“[It] left me very optimistic,” Shacham said.
The lack of young people was another issue raised by participants, even those bullish on the success of the project.
Among the ideas raised during the past weeks of discussions by participants, who have been teleconferencing on a regular basis, are a world Jewish peace corps, pushed by Israel’s Foreign Ministry; the introduction of Hebrew language courses in public schools in cities with large Jewish populations, as proposed by Dr. Steven Nasatir of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago; and the expansion of Birthright-style programs to younger age groups, as well as increasing financial support for Jewish summer camps.
According to Steven Cohen, one of the main benefits of the initiative may be a decrease in the intermarriage rate through the promotion of activities that result in increased socialization among young Jews.
“If you get more Jewish young people together, and they marry each other and marry earlier, we begin to address the problem,” he said. “In addition to strengthening ties to Israel, it could help shift the ways Jews think about being Jewish,” by strengthening the “tribal, ethnic approach to being Jewish.”
While most of those represented in the worldwide initiative were from North America, the world’s largest concentration of Jews outside of the State of Israel, delegates from South Africa, Australia, England, France, Russia and several Central and South American countries are also participating in the ongoing dialogue.
A number of Central and Eastern European Jewish communal bodies, however, have indicated that they would have liked to have been invited, but they have not been contacted by any of the organizing bodies.
Leaders of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and the Comité de Coordination des Organisations Juives de Belgique all stated that they were unaware of the government’s Jewish world initiative.
MK Yoel Razbozov, the chairman of the Knesset’s Absorption and Diaspora Committee, told the Post that he believes that smaller Jewish communities deserve to be included as well and that he plans to look into their absence from the proceedings.
In response to inquiries from the Post, a JAFI representative stated that “the need to represent the entirety of world Jewry is at the very core of the initiative and is guiding the participants in the preparatory sessions. Approximately one third of the invitees to the November summit were from Keren Hayesod-UIA [United Israel Appeal] countries, including Canada, France, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia and Mexico. Representatives from Germany and Ukraine were to have attended, as well, but were unable to do so at the last minute.”
“As the process proceeds, the content will be examined by geographic regions in order to give proper expression to Jewish communities around the world and appropriate representation to areas with differing characteristics,” the representative stated.
Jewish leaders in Ukraine subsequently confirmed that a representative of the local branch of the Hillel organization had been invited, but that their own organizations had not been contacted.
Government officials have been responsive to the concerns of non-American participants, Alex Selsky of the World Forum of Russian- speaking Jewry told the Post.
“I stressed the fact that Russian- speaking Jews play a crucial role in the Diaspora, especially in the West, and the importance of increasing [Israel’s] work with them,” he said, recalling a positive reception for his ideas by Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennet.
It is natural that not every small community was represented at the summit, one participant, speaking on condition of anonymity, asserted.
While “attention and care for small communities is always important,” he asserted, “this initiative should be focused on the greater welfare of the wider Jewish world. We have to be focused on achieving strategies that can be transformative regarding the future of the major Jewish communities abroad.”
Involving too many communities, he believes, would diffuse the initiative’s focus, an echo of Finkelstein’s worry that the presence of too many North American participants would impede progress. You need large funds to make such an effort work, he said, and the “United States is where the money is.”
Despite misgivings on the part of some participants, the initial cynicism that greeted the announcement of Israel’s orientation toward the Diaspora has begun to dissipate.
If the government continues to show a commitment to their stated goals, UIA Federations Canada CEO Linda Kislowicz predicted, “the result of it will be potentially game changing.”
It’s a “really significant paradigm shift,” she averred.Benji Rosen, Allyson Freedman and Adelie Pontay contributed to this report.