Change the framework of Israel-Diaspora relations

Now is the time for the State of Israel to enlist in guaranteeing the future of the Jewish people.

US Jews with idf 224 jta (photo credit: Brian Hendler / jta)
US Jews with idf 224 jta
(photo credit: Brian Hendler / jta)
The handwriting has been on the wall for a long time. These are emergency times for the Jewish people in the Diaspora, and they can degenerate into a major catastrophe. We are dealing with a catastrophe that we have not witnessed since the Holocaust. It is, however, a new catastrophe of a different sort. The Jewish people is not being depleted by persecutions, anti-Semitism or racism. This catastrophe is a product of a new era, with its unique circumstances and conditions. The statistics spread before us speak for themselves: Birthrates among the Jewish people are low, and are declining continuously. Assimilation and intermarriage are reaching stratospheric percentages - 50 percent in North America, 40% in France and England, 45% in Brazil and Argentina, 60% in Hungary, 80% in Russia. Jewish communal affiliation in the Diaspora is decreasing - less than 24% of young Jews in North America belong to Jewish organizations. We are aware of a drastic decline in the sense of Jewish identity - less than 50% of North American Jews under 35 share a strong sentiment toward the Jewish people. We are primarily familiar with an increasing estrangement from Israel - less than 25% of North American Jewry younger than 35 define themselves as Zionists. More than 60% of North American Jewry have never visited Israel and furthermore, a very large portion of them no longer considers Israel to be a major component in their Jewish identity. THE ESTABLISHMENT of the State of Israel was once considered a "miracle." It constituted the realization of prophetic vision and the longing for Zion, the focal point of the Jewish people's daily prayers for 2,000 years. The proximity between the establishment of the State of Israel and the Holocaust furnished historical proof that the Jewish people could build itself anew from the ashes of Auschwitz. For decades Israel provided a source of pride, and was the lodestone for an all-encompassing identity transcending borders for the Jewish people in the Diaspora. More than three million Jews throughout the world made aliya and enlisted in the defense and building of the country. Other Jews viewed themselves as mobilized and committed to its defense and prosperity from without - via their awesome contributions and in the role that they assumed to provide backing in every arena and international stage to recruit global sympathy and assistance on its behalf. Thus for nearly 60 years the State of Israel remained "the project of an entire Jewish people." It was the Jewish people's major initiative and creation in the 20th century. However this trend has suffered increasing erosion for decades, and has now entered a critical and decisive state. We are dealing with a trend that first and foremost influences the prospects for guaranteeing the existence of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. This trend is taking place simultaneously with global processes and changes that also influence the Jewish people. We can mention globalization, the decline of religion's role in the lives of the Western world's citizens, dispersion, the breakdown of family frameworks, etc. On the other hand it is influenced by processes taking place within the Jewish communities and, first and foremost, by assimilation, intermarriage, the increased distance from Holocaust memories, the concept of Israel as "a superpower," the critique of Israel as an occupying country, the critique of Israel as a country that does not allow pluralistic Jewish life, the decreasing number of Jewish communities in distress, etc. The Jewish communities in the Diaspora and particularly those of North America, where most of the Jewish people outside the boundaries of Israel reside, have developed a primary attachment and commitment to the countries where they live. Most Jews residing there are second- and third-generation Americans who were born, grew up, were educated and reached maturity in the United States. Most of them haven't been fortunate enough to receive a genuine Jewish education. The majority does not speak Hebrew; most are not Orthodox. THE State of Israel bears an obligation to guarantee the continued existence of the Jewish people in the Diaspora and validate the mutual responsibility between Israel and the Diaspora. Once world Jewry was committed to and mobilized on behalf of the State of Israel. Now is the time for the State of Israel and the government of Israel to help guarantee the future of the Jewish people. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert enunciated this position vigorously in the important address he delivered before members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors last June, in which he called for a change in the framework of Israel-Diaspora relations. The Jewish Agency shares this conception, and it is striving to inculcate it among decision-makers in the government and public affairs as an exigency of the first order to assure the salvation, preservation and prosperity of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. For the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple, the majority of world Jewry lives in the State of Israel. In its 60 years of existence, Israel has recorded achievements in all realms of life that are unparalleled by any country. It has done this while fighting a series of wars to preserve the safety and security of its citizens. Israel is no longer in the realm of the miracle. It is a strong, prosperous and successful country. It is a state that is obligated and able to unite the Jewish people around the joint projects common to it and to the Jewish communities throughout the world to guarantee the future of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. ONE SHOULD say that a few starts have already been made in recent years to respond to this challenge and particularly by the Jewish Agency, which recruited the government as a partner alongside Jewish communities and Jewish philanthropists worldwide. Projects such as birthright and Massa have brought over 200,000 young Jews here for short and longer visits, allowing them to experience and try out life here. Educational programs to reinforce Jewish identity and the link to Israel were developed in the countries of the former Soviet Union. There are programs for learning Hebrew as well as support for scores of Jewish schools in Latin America and Europe. Although these programs deserve commendation, one must summon up the courage to say that these are very small beginnings, limited in scope in terms of the resources invested in them. They can't by themselves provide the required answer, given the dimensions of the crisis and the emergency we are confronting. Furthermore, some of these programs are already being downsized, experiencing budget cuts or have even been cancelled as a result of the world financial crisis and a drastic decline in contributions by Jewish philanthropists, who had contributed massive resources to them for years. The troublesome processes in the Jewish world and the global economic crisis obligate the government at this juncture to display responsibility and commitment and enlist in this historic mission to invest in Jewish-Zionist education for the Diaspora. In particular there is a need to reinforce Jewish identity among members of the younger generation and strengthen its link to the Jewish people and its heritage and culture as well as to the State of Israel - the center of the Jewish people. It is necessary to institute a fundamental change in Israel-Diaspora relations. It's no longer the Jewish communities who are the contributors while Israel is the recipient of contributions. Today we must build a true partnership on behalf of the two major historic missions that await us - guaranteeing the future of the Jewish people in the Diaspora and the continued construction and prosperity of Israel. TO ACCOMPLISH THIS, the sporadic enlistment by the government in response to an emergency case or the individual distress of any Jewish community will not suffice. What is needed is a joint program by the government and the Jewish people. We are talking of a long-range plan with copious resources. The Jewish Agency, which has always served as a bridge between the Jewish people in the Diaspora and the State of Israel is best suited to advance that plan. If in the past the Jewish Agency provided a platform for the Jewish people to establish and consolidate the State of Israel, it must today function as the platform of the government and the Jewish communities throughout the world in leading this critical initiative. There are leaders throughout the Jewish world who are committed and devoted to this challenge. Here as well there has been a maturing awareness with regards to its necessity. This awareness unites decision-makers, ministers and Knesset members as well as opinion leaders and the social and economic leadership. The address by the prime minister last June galvanized the start of a process. The Jewish Agency's Board of Governors, which convened last October and is convening again now in Jerusalem, continues to lead this process towards its culmination in a joint program for the government and the Jewish people. It will be the responsibility of the incoming government to adopt and commit itself to the program. We are all hoping for the establishment of a good government beneficial to the State of Israel. However it is equally critical that this government prove to be a good one in terms of guaranteeing the future of the Jewish people. The writer is a newly elected Kadima MK and the outgoing chairman of the Jewish Agency.