Israel and the Diaspora: Rectifying a strained relationship

Michael Fridman (photo credit: Courtesy)
Michael Fridman
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 My article “Israel and the Diaspora: A Vision for a New Partnership,” published on July 19 seemed to generate a lot of interest, confirming how timely and relevant this discussion is for Israel and the Diaspora.
I am grateful to everyone who, upon reading the article, felt compelled to provide comments, raise objections, or ask questions. Many of these observations were very valuable and prompted further reflection and fine-tuning of these ideas. In particular, I would like to thank Robert Zinger and Jack Rosen for their articles debating this proposal.
In summary of all the feedback received, I am able to distill the following thesis: virtually all participants of this discussion agree that the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is strained and in serious difficulty.
As such, it requires immediate and fundamental action to structure and institutionalize it. Considering this, the idea of establishing the Assembly of the Jewish Diaspora as a legitimate consultative organ, created on the basis of Israeli law, does not cause any serious objection. However, it does raise new questions:
1. Why establish a new organization, when so many organizations already exist in Israel and other countries? Some of them are highly respected, and many, in one way or another, work to strengthen the relations between Israeli Jews and the Diaspora.
2. What should be the founding principles of the Assembly? Who should be delegated to be a member, and on what basis? No doubt, these are relevant questions that require clear answers.
Indeed, many organizations that work to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora exist in the Jewish world. Many of them have a long history, formidable experience and enjoy the support of the government of Israel and prominent Jewish philanthropists.
They are headed by highly intelligent and committed leaders, loyal to the Jewish cause. We cannot overestimate the vast importance of their work.
And yet all these organizations have one fundamental limitation: they cannot claim to legitimately represent the interest of all members of the Jewish community. We live in the world where the concept of representative democracy is accepted as an absolute and universal principle.
This means that only those people who receive our votes in an open and transparent electoral contest can be rightfully considered to represent us. Unfortunately, not a single organization today possesses a mandate to represent all members of the Jewish community, even in a single country – not to speak of a mandate to represent all Jewish communities worldwide; it doesn’t exist.
The very notion of membership in a Jewish community itself is currently defined in unclear terms. The process for registering members of the community, even if it exists, takes place at a local or municipal level, and focuses primarily on religious groups. I am not aware of a national register of the Jewish community in any country.
Perhaps the lack of such databases and registration processes has to do with the fears deeply rooted in the Jewish consciousness – a fear of openly declaring one’s Jewish identity and proclaiming a mental connection to the Jewish homeland. For this may invite suspicions of disloyalty to one’s country, and that is in the best case; and in the worst case lead to being labeled a member of the traitorous “fifth column”. We know many such “worst cases” from the history of our people.
And yet I strongly believe it is imperative to begin the process of registering members of Jewish communities in the very near future. It is the most effective way of combating the creeping, merciless assimilation. For each one of us who feels somehow connected to his or her Jewishness, this is the chance to reflect on our identity and make a decision about belonging – or not belonging – to the Jewish world and the Jewish tradition.
It goes without saying that this registration should be absolutely voluntary and should be conducted by Jewish NGOs in a given country. The embassies of Israel should play a leading role in organizing and supporting this registration. Clearly, this will require additional human and financial resources, but I have no doubt that many Jewish philanthropists would be eager to support such an initiative.
It also seems evident that the status of a member of the Jewish community outside of Israel should become legally synonymous with the status of a returnee/repatriate to Israel as stipulated by the Law of Return. Thus, the Jewish community of a given country will include only those citizens that want to register as its members, and who are eligible to receive Israeli citizenship if and when they want it.
Clearly, the procedure of setting up national Jewish databases and registers will take significant time and resources; the whole process may take a few years. But I believe the result will be ultimately rewarding, for this is the only way to establish a full-fledged Jewish community in the Diaspora; a community able to make legitimate decisions on behalf of all of its members on the basis of open and transparent democratic procedures.
New technology available today can make these processes streamlined and even convenient.
Following this, further steps towards establishing the Assembly are evident. Within one or two years, should such a “census” take place in a few key countries with large Jewish populations, it would simultaneously resolve a number of important issues. It would put an end to the endless guesswork of exactly how many Jews live in a given country. It would ensure proportional representation of each country’s Jewish community in the Assembly. But most importantly, it would ensure that election of the delegates is fully transparent, providing legitimacy to the delegates and confidence to the voters. As Jews , we value democracy – this is a cultural and religious code deeply ingrained in our consciousness.
I fully expect these reflections will cause many critical remarks and objections. I do hope that they will provide fertile ground for discussion among important stakeholders: politicians, businesspeople, philanthropists, social and religious activists. Should these discussions facilitate changes in the public discourse, I would consider my goal accomplished. A shift in public opinion will invariably materialize in new action.
And I believe that for all of us the time to act has come.
The author is an international businessman and philanthropist who founded Jewish foundations and NGOs in Israel, Russia and the United States.