Diaspora affairs

That makes some sense, because Netanyahu wants, what is in his view, the best for Israel. This means what is best strategically.

Former Education Minister Naftali Bennett  (photo credit: AVRAHAM SASSONI)
Former Education Minister Naftali Bennett
(photo credit: AVRAHAM SASSONI)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now the Diaspora affairs minister, a position that has been open since June when Naftali Bennett left the role. The ministry is the fourth that Netanyahu now controls, joining the Defense, Health and Social Affairs ministries.
Netanyahu doesn’t need a new ministry, but he hasn’t been able to form a government despite two elections. Evidently, he doesn’t want to appoint someone from his own party. This is part of the usual practice of Netanyahu’s increasing unwillingness to share power after 10 years, and his seeming disinterest in empowering anyone else to deal with the key challenges that Israel faces.
Diaspora Jewry is too often neglected by the government. A strong Diaspora was key to the founding of Israel and has been a key support of Israel ever since. It is not a one-way street. Israel’s growth and revolutionary innovations have helped anchor the Diaspora in Israel’s story. A strong Israel is part of a strong Diaspora and also is a beacon for people to look to for identification and values. It is the Jewish homeland, even for those Jews who live abroad. In challenging times, Israel is a place of safety. And often, the Israel-Diaspora relationship is one of coming to terms with the two halves of the Jewish community and bringing them closer together.
Netanyahu’s aggrandizement of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry is symbolic of the problem, especially considering that for the last decade, Netanyahu has, as prime minister, alienated Diaspora voices. This is not merely because the Diaspora tends to be more liberal and progressive than Israeli government policies, but also due to an overall sense that Netanyahu does not listen. He is perceived as preferring to meet with foreign leaders, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orban in Hungary, than engaging with Diaspora critics.
That makes some sense, because Netanyahu wants, what is in his view, the best for Israel. This means what is best strategically. But the Diaspora should also be part of Israel’s strategy. Formative prime ministers, from David Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Rabin, understood that.
An American Jewish Committee survey released in June showed that more than half of American and French Jews felt that caring about Israel was an important part of being Jewish. Seventy-four percent of Israelis said they also feel a thriving Diaspora is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people.
However, there are major gaps. Only 41% of American Jews have visited Israel, and the number who predict worsening ties outnumber those who predict stronger ties.
In addition, polarizing figures – such as US President Donald Trump – have radicalized some views of Israel, with most American Jews feeling alienated by Trump and also skeptical about his relations with Israel. In the long-term, this is problematic because it leads to what is already happening: Israel becoming a partisan issue.
Israel doesn’t help itself by ignoring priorities related to the Diaspora. When a stone fell from the Western Wall onto the egalitarian prayer section 14 months ago, it should have been seen as in need of immediate attention. Instead, for 14 months, part of the area has remained closed. If a stone fell on the iconic men’s section, would it remain closed for more than a year? Of course not. This is abuse of a large swath of the Jewish people, and it needs to stop now.
What is happening at the Kotel – the Jewish holy site that we yearned to return to for thousands of years – is a symbol. It sends a message to Diaspora Jews that they can wait and that they are often third or last in line.
When the prime minister holds the portfolio meant to oversee ties with Diaspora Jews, is it any wonder that they will be one of the last items on his agenda? After all, Iran will always come first, as will the challenge of forming a coalition or remaining in power despite criminal investigations.
A strong Diaspora is important for Israel. It is time to show that beyond mere words. One quick way – fix the loose stones at the Kotel.