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Resolving the Crisis with Diaspora Jewry

Updated: May 18, 2020

The declaration of indipendance of the state of Israel stipulates that Israel will be at the same time a homeland for the Jewish People and a state where all its citizens should be equal – Jews and non-Jews alike. The dual role of the State of Israel lead to the question of identity - are we more Israeli, or Jewish became an issue that tears apart our society as was manifested in the controversial “Nationality Law”.

The answer for me is that it is not mutually exclusive and as Jews we can and should feel both identities. The same is also true for Arabs in Israel who feel Israeli and Muslims or Christian Palestinian at the same time. Multitude identities are natural and legitimate just as Jews in the US could be American Jews and Zionists at the same time.

When I grew up in a kibbutz, I resented the Jewish identity, because I felt more connected with the Arab or Druze Israelis than with the Jews in the diaspora who seemed back then as not relevant to my life. As a child one usually looks for clarity and it was harder to deal with the complexities of several identities. I was also influenced by the founders of the kibbutz movement who were trying to distinct us from the Jews in the diaspora who where considered week while we were strong, capable of defending ourselves and new how to work the land as farmers.

The Socialist ideology of the kibbutz movement also pushed us away from Judaism and the antagonism towards the monopoly of the orthodox religious establishment in Israel didn’t help.

Fast forward many years, when I met the Jewish communities in my role at the Israeli embassy in Washington DC, I saw them as a mere instrument to get political influence and connections in Congress, the administration and the media.

The first time where I was part of a Jewish community was when I interacted with the Jewish community of Boston during the year I spent in Brookline Massachusetts as a Wexner fellow at the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The Wexner Foundation saw the connection between us and the Jewish community of Boston as one of the goals of that life changing year.

Only then I understood that we are one extended family and that Israel is a joint venture between us Israelis (Jews and Non-Jews) and the Jews in the world.

For the first time I understood the “Peoplehood” concept and that Israel was created also for them and not them for Israel. Only then I understood that the instrumentalist prism in which Israelis see the Jews in the diaspora is counterproductive. The Israeli public and establishment have always taken an instrumental and unilateral approach toward Diaspora Jewry, expecting it to serve as a pro-Israel lobby, a cash machine for unconditional funding, and a potential immigrant pool.

At the same time, since Diaspora Jews do not have voting rights in Israel, their needs and preferences do not enjoy political advocacy or representation. I decided that I should be their voice in Israel.

In retrospect I think that had Israel adopted a constitution, it should have stipulated that the President of the State or, alternatively, the Supreme Court, wield the authority to strike down Knesset legislation deemed as damaging to the State of Israel’s designation in the Declaration of Independence as the Jewish nation state.

Absent a constitution, the commitment to Jewish “peoplehood” should have been enshrined in the 2018 Nation-State Law, along with a promise of equality for non-Jewish citizens, given that both elements constitute the pillars of the democratic Jewish nation state.

Another reason for the rift between Israel and the Jews outside Israel lies in the Israeli establishment’s attitude toward the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism that constitute a large majority of the Jewish people. Jewish peoplehood, which essentially means one extended family, cannot be forged when we treat members of Judaism’s liberal streams as second-class Jews.

Israeli legislators have no incentive to deal with this issue, since there are many more Orthodox Jews in Israel than there are Conservative or Reform and most secular Israelis do not care. This requires those of us who cares to adopt a proactive approach with a broad vision of “Jewish peoplehood” to ensure that the executive and legislative branches of government do not adopt myopic, harmful decisions (such as the ones reneging on promises of pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall and a draft law on Jewish conversions).

In the context of political instrumentality, those who regard Israel as their state cannot be expected to express only political views in tune with those of the government. The approach that views the political views of world Jewry as a litmus test of their allegiance turns Israel into a divisive element rather than a unifying force. We must be open to criticism and embrace those among the Jewish people who disagree with our government’s positions. Judaism always encouraged debates and disagreements.

As for the funding issue, with Israel having one of the strongest economies in the world, Diaspora Jews can no longer be expected to finance us as they did in years past. Israel no longer needs donations, but it does desperately need a strong connection with Diaspora Jews; relationships between people and not between bank transfers. Funds from both sides of the ocean should be directed toward greatly needed youth exchange programs and joint projects with civil society organizations.

As for the expectation of Jewish Aliya – we should be happy with every new immigrant to Israel, but we must accept the legitimacy of life in the Diaspora and avoid judgment of, or arrogance toward, Jews living abroad as if there were only one way to be a Zionist.

On top of these longstanding structural flaws, successive Israeli governments have distanced themselves from the liberal values enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, shared by a large majority of American Jews, further exacerbating the crisis.

The situation deteriorated further when Israeli diplomacy abandoned the guiding principle that support for Israel must be a bipartisan issue in US politics, rather than one identified mostly with the Republicans. Many Jews also perceive Israel as forging alliances with populist, racist regimes that have replaced anti-Semitism with a hatred of Muslims and have thus found Israel a like-minded state.

Resolving the rift requires a change of all Israel-Diaspora relationship paradigms, basing them on actions that connect people, especially those on the liberal side of the spectrum, through joint work on “Tikun Olam” (loosely translated – building model societies) projects. This ancient Jewish ideal speaks to all Jews in their relationships with each other and with the rest of the world and could be attractive for the younger generation.

A self-confident, globally integrated Judaism, rather than an isolationist one, is far more of a draw for younger Jews. Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV) under the Foreign Ministry should be transformed into a project involving the entire Jewish people, training young Jews and sending them to confront need wherever it arises, not just, where narrow interests dictate. Obviously, we must make sure that these Tikun Olam projects reflect a desire for compassion and connection, and not arrogance toward aid recipients.

We must also create a “reverse Birthright project”, enabling every Israeli high school student to join a Jewish community abroad for a week or two to experience direct contact with its members. Despite the importance of the annual visits by Israeli high school students to concentration camps in Poland in order to understand our national trauma, meeting living Jews is no less important. For the sake of our joint future, the living is more important than the legacy of the dead.

Israel must adopt a forward-looking foreign policy that does not limit Israeli interests to the current government term in Israel and to a specific US administration. Rather than an isolationist, victimized narrative, Israel must conduct a constructive discourse with the US and the liberal nations of Europe, even those critical of its ongoing occupation and settlement policies.

To sum up, resolution of the rift with world Jewry and promotion of “Jewish peoplehood” must become a central item on Israel’s public agenda if we are to be true to the definition of the State of Israel as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people. The crisis with Diaspora Jewry is, by its very nature, both strategic and existential given the threat it poses to the essence of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.

I am proud to say that at the Peres Center of Peace and Innovation we are showing a model of relations with Jewish Communities. We are staying away from the politics that separates Jews from Israel. We are contributing to “Tikun Olam” both in our peace, development and shared living as well as through the promotion of innovation both in technology and in social innovation.

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