Last week, the first state visit of President Isaac Herzog took place in Kyiv during which he met with President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky and took part in commemoration ceremonies dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the tragedy in Babyn Yar. As part of the visit, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, together with the JNF-KKL, also organized a meeting of Herzog with the leaders of the Ukrainian Jewish community. What may at first glance appear to be a formal visit has the potential to become the first step toward Israel’s rethinking of its role in the Jewish world in general and in relations with the Diaspora in particular.
Way before the founding of the State of Israel, Zionist ideologists dreamed of the central role of the new Jewish state in the Jewish world. Even back then, it was quite obvious that not every Jew in the world and certainly not right away would decide to share the fate with the future state and, therefore, the question of building relations between the Jewish state and the Jewish world outside of Israel would certainly arise.
One of the models of these relations was to build a politically and economically strong state, advanced in the field of science and culture that would serve as an inspiration for the entire Jewish world. The Jewish state was predestined to become not only the “light unto the nations,” but for the Jewish nation as well.
At its inception 70 years ago the young state had to fight for its existence and solve lots of internal problems; the dreams of ideologists were postponed. Today, Israel is closer to the described model more than ever, and in our opinion, it is time to have a broader look at relations with the Diaspora.
Strengthening the Diaspora’s ties with the State of Israel is one of the focus areas of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. The EAJC has established close relations with the government of Israel and the Knesset, the Israeli embassies in the countries of the region and the representative offices of the EAJC member states in Israel. The congress is actively working to form an objective view of the Jewish state among opinion leaders in various countries, and also consistently advocates the active involvement of Diaspora Jewry into Israeli affairs.
According to the study conducted by the EAJC, Israel has been the most critical component of Jewish identity in the former USSR countries. Social networking, communications, connections and immigration plans are mainly focused on Israel.
Solidarity with Israel is felt by 69% of the Jewish population of the post-Soviet space. Among the most attractive features of Israel, about half of those polled in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Moldova noted its Jewish character (46%) and the fact that this “economically developed state provides good opportunities for getting settled in life” (56%). Only 4% believe that “there is nothing attractive in Israel” or found it difficult to answer the question. Interestingly, 20% named Israel as their country, or Israel and the country of residence at the same time. More than 70% believe that Jews should be patriotic of both their country of residence and Israel.
GIVEN THAT interest in Israel, the Jewish state should intensify its participation in the life of the Diaspora, paying special attention not only to diplomatic work, but also to active involvement of the Diaspora Jews in the discussion on issues of concern to Israeli society. The opinion and voice of Jewish communities should be heard. As a result, the understanding of the complex social and political processes taking place in Israeli society among the Diaspora could be more profound as well. Ultimately, Diaspora Jews today can always become full members of Israeli society tomorrow by exercising their right to repatriate under the Law of Return.
In October 2020, former minister of Diaspora Affairs Omer Yankelevich initiated a bill on contacts with Jewish communities on issues affecting Diaspora affairs, binding on Israeli government ministries. We supported the initiative and proposed to intensify contacts between the Israeli authorities and the leaders of the Diaspora.
This approach is also shared by the Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai, who in June 2021 took part in a meeting of the Executive Committee of the World Jewish Congress. He declared then his readiness to cooperate with Jewish organizations representing Diaspora Jews and also noted that, from his point of view, it is a two-way process: just as Israel should take care of the Jews of the Diaspora, listen to their opinion, so the Jews of the Diaspora should seek contact and be interested in what is happening in Israel.
At our recent meeting with Herzog, who previously served as the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and is well acquainted with Jewish life in the Diaspora, he supported the position of the EAJC on the realization of Israel’s function as a state of the entire Jewish people and a center for the Jewish world, expressing readiness for active cooperation with the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.
All these processes give us a strong hope that Israel can finally reconsider its view of relations with the Diaspora: look at the Jewish communities not only in the context of attracting aliyah but also in terms of building a long-term deep connection, involving Jews around the world in the discussions about where the Jewish state is headed and how it affects the Jewish world.
The writer is president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.