We need to invest in Diaspora Jewry

The Jewish world is undergoing a dramatic revolution. Interfaith marriages and assimilation are becoming ever more rampant and reaching even higher levels.

Israeli and Diaspora Youth Bond over Trees in Maale Michmash (photo credit: KKL-JNF)
Israeli and Diaspora Youth Bond over Trees in Maale Michmash
(photo credit: KKL-JNF)
For the first time ever, this week two American citizens lit one of the 12 torches during Israel’s Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl.
Both Michael Steinhardt and Rabbi Marvin Hier have contributed greatly to the State of Israel and the Jewish world. Despite their extraordinary qualities, their participation in the ceremony set a precedent for Israel-Diaspora relations, and even provoked a spark of controversy. Up until now, the Independence Day ceremony has belonged to “us.”
Now it also belongs to “them.”
I believe that this was the right decision. It reflects the changes that are taking place and that will continue to take place in the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
This change underlines a new paradigm that is gaining ground among decision-makers in Israel. The time has come for us to give and not just take. We need to invest in Diaspora Jewry to ensure its continued existence and its affinity for Judaism in general and Israel in particular.
It’s strange, because even though these things are self-evident, time has taken its toll and eroded all the old truths. The time has come for Israelis and Jews the world over to engage in new strategic thinking.
There are currently 14.5 million Jews living in the world, 6.5 million who live in Israel, another 6 million who live in the US, and the rest scattered around the world.
Along with other members of Knesset and party faction directors, I was introduced to these new dilemmas over the last 10 days while visiting the Jewish Federations in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. The trip was sponsored by the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Federations of North America in cooperation with the Knesset Caucus for the Strengthening of the Jewish People, the Knesset’s largest caucus. During past trips, we had the honor of engaging in honest and open dialogue with members of the Jewish communities in North America, Europe and South America.
Time has taken its toll and brought with it many new questions. Things we took for granted no longer seem true. “Look,” a leader from one of the Jewish communities we visited told us. “Israel used to be a unifying factor, but now it’s divisive.”
He was referring to disagreements Israel and the Jewish world have regarding various civil and religious issues. Fifty years after the Six Day War, Jews around the world are focusing on the outcome of the war and the fact that it led Israel to take control over another people. They are less interested in the backdrop and dramatic circumstances that led up to the war. Young people, even the middle generation, have a hard time accepting the status quo.
When these Jews think about the Jewish value of tikkun olam – making the world a better place – and who we are as the chosen people, it’s hard for them to accept the 50-year struggle between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Jewish world is undergoing a dramatic revolution. Interfaith marriages and assimilation are becoming ever more rampant and reaching even higher levels. The Jewish character of these communities is in imminent danger. It’s possible that within the next 50 years, some of the communities will just disappear, while others will be composed of Jews and non-Jews alike.
The modern streams of Conservative and Reform Judaism were established as a solution for members of the Jewish community who wanted a different, less stringent kind of Judaism that was liberal and open.
But even these communities are losing their strength, and soon we might be forced to choose between being Orthodox or not Jewish at all.
The demand by the Conservative and Reform communities to have a corner of their own where they can pray at the Kotel was an important attempt to forge a connection with the Land of Israel and its holiest site.
Unfortunately, their efforts have not borne fruit despite the passing of a cabinet resolution, and as a result the communities are feeling rejected and their underlying connection with Israel and Judaism is on the line.
Israel’s new and upcoming leadership does not understand some of these issues and has responded to requests to take action with impatience and even annoyance.
Some of the statements made by the education minister, tourism minister and of course MKs from the ultra-Orthodox parties testify to their lack of understanding of the new reality. It’s not an “us or them” scenario – we must find a way to engage in dialogue. Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency chairman, for example, who hails from the Orthodox community, is making efforts to find a common understanding and solution.
As representatives of the Knesset, I and other MKs have discussed these concerns during the numerous meetings we’ve held with American Jewish leaders. We’ve been impressed by their organization, their protection, their openness and their strength. Never in the history of the Jewish people has there been a community that is so strong.
For generations, we’ve acted according to the assumption that the Jews of the Diaspora are in our pocket. But this has not been true for quite some time now, and we must open a dialogue to discuss together where the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is headed. In other words, Diaspora Jews should be allowed to express their views about what’s going on in Israel, how the country is developing, and what its policies should be.
In the past, Israel would send teachers and educators to Jewish communities overseas. Nowadays, it also sends young people for a third year of National Service or to volunteer for a year following military service in order to combat BDS on college campuses, which is doubly important. These young Israelis help in the struggle against the new antisemitism and anti-Israelism, and offer thousands of young people an opportunity to become personally acquainted with the Jewish world. This is a wonderful mutual investment. Taglit-Birthright, Masa and other programs are bringing tens of thousands of young Jews to Israel every year. This is an excellent way to build personal experience and form a cadre of future activists and leaders in the Diaspora.
In the past, financial contributions from Diaspora Jews were the glue that kept our communities connected. Charity is part of Jews’ DNA, and for many years, Diaspora Jewish communities funded thousands of large and small projects alike, and exerted tremendous influence on Israeli society. Let us not forget that even the Knesset and the Supreme Court buildings were built using contributions from Diaspora Jews.
But the nonprofit world here in Israel has expanded greatly over the years, and many of its representatives travel overseas to raise funds for specific causes. Some Israelis say that there is no longer a need for donations, since the country is now strong and much wealthier than it used to be. Although this is true, there are still so many needy people living in Israel, neglected neighborhoods and communities that have been abandoned by the government, and we have an obligation to help all these people. The Jewish Agency emphasizes the importance of contributing to the country as a collective, which is true since many small contributions can help many small causes, but when we work together, we can have a much greater impact and this can make a huge difference.
Israel has just begun its 70th year, which is full of historical importance.
We will be celebrating 50 years since the Six Day War, 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, and 120 years since the First Zionist Congress. This is also an opportunity for us to do some soul-searching with respect to our relationship with the Jewish people, and perhaps a decisive year to make a big breakthrough on our way to change.
MK Dr. Nachman Shai is the chairman of the Knesset Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish World.