Keeping the torch lit

Miri Regev does right by Diaspora Jewry.

Fireworks in honor of Israel's Independence Day  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Fireworks in honor of Israel's Independence Day
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev’s decision to continue the lighting of a Diaspora torch on Israel’s Independence Day sends an important message to Jews around the world. Israel is the home of the Jewish people – and actions like these, while mostly symbolic, carry significant weight.
Too often, Israelis completely disregard the thoughts and opinions of Diaspora Jews. When it comes to policy-making, Israeli politicians are – rightfully so – more tuned to the eyes of Israel’s citizens and taxpayers than they are to the Jews of the world. At times this results in heightened tensions between Israel and Diaspora communities, especially the non-Orthodox American Jewish community, which makes up the majority of US Jewry.
Indeed, there are differences between the two largest Jewish communities. For most Israelis, orthodoxy is the measuring stick for Jewish practice and observance. Also, “secular” and “traditional” Israelis look at the Orthodox synagogue as the one they don’t attend. On the other hand, the majority of practicing American Jews belong to the Reform and Conservative movements. Those who are “unaffiliated” choose not to belong to any denomination.
Socio-political orientation is another key difference. American Jews view themselves as a minority, and as such tend to be more liberal, more refugee-oriented and vote for the Democratic Party. In Israel, people tend to be more right-of-center, due to the reality of being a ruling majority as well as the security challenges facing the country.
As the Pew researchers and countless surveys have shown, Israelis and the American Jewish community often appear to be drifting apart from each other. Recent research by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies showed that differences in social trends, political views and religious practices were the three biggest challenges to the relationship between the sides.
All these challenges, and others, have a common denominator: a lack of dialogue between the world’s largest Jewish communities. The lack of constant constructive dialogue, and the tendency to fortify one’s own position, often lead to disagreements becoming ugly arguments rather than polite debates. The way some Israeli politicians attack the non-Orthodox and the way some of the liberal American Jews treat the Israeli Right are two examples of areas in which we’ve lost sight of being a family and started treating each other merely as ideological rivals.
Regev’s initial cancellation of the Diaspora torch at Israel’s Independence Day festivities seemed to be on track to more of the same. I personally called her out publicly for the decision, as did other Diaspora leaders. For a few days, it seemed like she was adding to the already tense dynamics between Israel and the American Jewish community.
But something happened, and a pointless crisis was avoided. Regev’s decision to listen to us proves there is another way. Announcing that the tradition would continue was an important move by the minister. By listening to the feedback from Jewish leaders and adapting accordingly, Regev demonstrated that talking respectfully to each other can produce positive results and strengthen Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora.
True, the Independence Day ceremony is almost entirely symbolic. It is not the same as policy issues, such as conversion or Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. Accordingly, the ramifications of Regev’s decision are more symbolic than anything else. However, symbolism matters. The relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community will always have disagreements and tensions. The question is not whether we can agree on everything – but rather we can agree to disagree politely, and still give the other side room at the table.
The Diaspora torch is a statement by the Israeli government to Jews around the world. It is an invitation for us to be part of the Zionist dream and project. It gives us an honorable place in Israel’s public sphere, and sends a message: Israel is the home of all Jews – not only in words, but in actions too.
The writer is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which works to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community.