Israel Discovers Jewish Diaspora Crisis in Confidence

Conference Takes Aim at Disengagement From Jewish State

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published November 07, 2013, issue of November 15, 2013.
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With the startling results of the Pew survey on American Jewish identity still echoing loudly around the globe, this was a fortuitous moment for an international Jewish summit to convene in Jerusalem and hash out strategies for shoring up the next generation.

In fact the two-day summit, beginning November 6 and involving some 120 community professionals, philanthropists, academics and Israeli politicians, had been in the works for the past year, long before the Pew survey surfaced. The plan was to kick off a new, long-term, heavily funded initiative to combat assimilation. It was dreamed up by officials in the Israeli prime minister’s office, working in partnership with the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel. The timing of the kickoff event, seemingly feeding off the anxiety of the Pew survey, was just a lucky coincidence.

Or perhaps unlucky. For anyone familiar with the Pew survey, it was hard not to notice the contrast between the crisis of identity that the summit was supposed to address and the forces convened to tackle the job. On one hand, an emerging generation of young Jews who are overwhelmingly uninterested in traditional forms of Jewish organization, strikingly more liberal than their predecessors, disengaged from Israel and suspicious of its policies and actions.

On the other hand, a task force led by the world’s largest and arguably most hidebound Jewish organization, the Jewish Agency, in partnership with the most conservative government in Israel’s history.

The contradiction wasn’t lost on the participants arriving for the opening session at the Jerusalem Convention Center. Asked what they expected, most of those I questioned replied with shrugs and wry smiles. Several pointed to the published agenda: “to strengthen the younger generation’s Jewish identity and deepen the connection between world Jewry and Israel,” hardly a trailblazing manifesto. “It looks like the same old same-old,” one participant told me.

The conference working paper, sent out in advance to frame the discussions, was even more discouraging. The problems it defined were all about the fraying of Diaspora Jewish identity, but the solutions it proposed were mostly about Israel’s needs: getting young Jews to identify with Israel, defend its policies (or “cultivate a robust pro-Israel environment,” as the document put it) and, ideally, move there.

Compounding the skepticism was the simple fact that most participants — the Americans, at least — knew each other. If they’d been hoping for new faces and new ideas, that didn’t seem to be in the cards.

So what was the point? To begin with, organizers said, there was the fact that the Israeli government was directing its attention — and its resources — to the Jewish Diaspora. The initiative is envisioned as a $300 million per year bundle of programs, with one-third coming from the Israeli taxpayer, one-third from Diaspora donors and one-third from program user fees.

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 goldberg@forward.com


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