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Moreover, it appeared that the Israelis were prepared to listen as well as preach. The guests, it quickly became clear, had been invited to Jerusalem to help shape the initiative. The talking points hardly came up. With a wide-open agenda and a professional facilitator to keep things moving, the mix of entrepreneurs and social scientists, Chabad and Reform rabbis, teachers and fundraisers from America, Argentina, Russia ended up sparking animated exchanges.
The thrust of the free-flowing discussion, according to participants (reporters were thrown out after the opening speeches) was seeking ways to restore a common language between Israelis and Diaspora Jews and shore up their sense of shared destiny and values.
“What is new is the fact that this is a partnership between equals,” Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky told me during a break. “And the resources will not be redirected from other budgets. We are talking about finding new resources.”
Another Israeli official put it in more familiar terms. “I can tell you that for us the paradigm has shifted,” said Dvir Kahane, director-general (Israel-speak for chief of staff) of the tiny ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs, the third partner in the initiative. “It’s no longer just a question of what the Diaspora can do for Israel, but what Israel can do for the Diaspora.”
A quick scan of the attendance list backed up the claims. Of the 75-odd Israelis present, no fewer than five were from the ministry of finance — attending, I was told, to provide input on what the state budget could provide. Five more were from Israel’s national security council and ministry of strategic affairs.
Why the security establishment?
“The world Jewish community is a strategic asset for the state of Israel,” one government official told me. “It’s been taken for granted for a long time. It took the new findings about weakening Jewish identity to wake up people here.”
“Israeli security is a table with four legs,” said Gidi Mark, CEO of Birthright Israel, the massive young adult travel program. “There’s the economy, the military, foreign relations and world Jewry. Take away any one of them and the table collapses.”
Besides, Mark said, “there’s a new sense of confidence here. Israelis no longer need to tell themselves that we’re somehow above the rest of the Jewish world. We can start to appreciate what the Diaspora can teach Israel about Jewish identity, about passion, about the freedom to choose. So there’s a new eagerness to engage.”
The elephant in the room is whether Israel can shore up its standing among the new generation of American Jews without addressing its worsening image — often crudely exaggerated, but increasingly pervasive in the global village — as an occupying power and human rights abuser.
The handful of participants who tried to bring the topic up at the summit were quickly dismissed by others, mostly older Diaspora leaders, who wouldn’t hear of it. But the security people heard it. And that, said several participants on both sides, is another reason they needed to be there.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org