Ignoring our strategic asset

We Israelis tend to push aside important issues such as our ties with the Diaspora, but we do so to our own detriment.

Haggadah reading_311 (photo credit: haggadah.com)
Haggadah reading_311
(photo credit: haggadah.com)
Passover, the time of Exodus, always reinforces my thoughts on the connection between us and our fellow Jews in the Diaspora.
The ever-loosening connection between American Jews, especially younger ones, and the State of Israel and Zionism is being gradually given more focus in the public discourse and the Jewish and Israeli media. A perfect example is the article by Jewish-American journalist Peter Beinart, published last year, but which still resonates, titled: “The Failure of the Jewish-American Establishment.” The article, which shines a more pessimistic light over this connection, has been widely debated.
Add to that the studies and surveys pointing to the weakening Jewish identity and connection to Israel of Diaspora youth and a growing problem of assimilation, and we, as Israelis and Jews, have great cause for concern.
As Israelis, we tend to push these important issues aside due to the pressing problems we deal with every day in this region. But in fact, preserving the Jewish people’s connection to us is key to our continued existence here. It is therefore important to address these matters before it is too late.
When prodded, under the mantle of detachment and alienation, many young people actually crave a connection to their Jewish roots.
Most of them have vague knowledge of Judaism and Israel and they are curious and are willing to learn. Over the last decade, we were able to find many of them through Taglit-Birthright, which has brought hundreds of thousands of young Jews closer to their heritage and to Israel.
Young people who come here for the first time, describe the educational trip as the most significant Jewish experience of their lives.
They start to feel something here, and when they return home, many continue to learn and connect with Judaism in different ways. A study conducted by Brandeis University found that Taglit-Birthright participants were more likely to marry a Jewish spouse than those who did not participate in the project. Many participants (30% more than nonparticipants) see “great importance” in giving their children a Jewish upbringing.
Our relationship with Jewish communities in the Diaspora is critical to the perseverance of the Jewish people, and data shows that there is indeed an effect. Another value of this relationship is to Israel’s support. It is clear that the younger generation is now leading public opinion, since a large part of pro-Israel advocacy is done online. This is a dynamic world, intelligent and witty, which young people navigate better. Advocacy has always been and always will be in the field.
One of the critical arenas of our pro-Israel advocacy struggle is on campuses across Europe and the US, where there is a pro-Palestinian penchant. In recent years, through projects that familiarize young Jews with this country, we were able to motivate seemingly indifferent Jewish students to become more vocal on Israel.
Taglit-Birthright visitors meet and connect with young soldiers on a personal level, they are taken around the country and meet people from various backgrounds. When they return to their campuses, they relate to Israel and feel a desire to defend the country and explain its positions. They effectively become our voice around the world.
The trip gives young Jews the tools necessary to be active on behalf of Israel.
I was happy to hear that the government recently approved a decision to more than double its investment in the Birthright program over the next three years, allowing more than 51,000 participants to visit annually by 2013. So one out of every two young Jews will be able to visit Israel. Indeed we must make every effort to reach more and more young people, bringing them to Israel, so they can deepen their connection to their Jewish identity and to later become our ambassadors overseas. If we do not take responsibility for the Jewish people, we will be left without our strategic assets.
The writer is a Kadima MK.