Americans donate about $1.4 billion to Israel-related charities each year. Now the government of Israel is asking for more. And, at the same time, it wants to send some money our way.
In the next few weeks, the Netanyahu government and the Jewish Agency for Israel are supposed to announce the framework for what’s being called the Prime Minister’s Initiative, aimed at strengthening Jewish identity in the Diaspora with Israel at the animating core. The initiative is expected to launch in 2015 and after five years, when fully implemented, it will cost $300 million annually — $100 million from the Israeli government, $100 million from philanthropists worldwide, and the rest from fees for services.
Despite the ambitious budget, the initiative is aimed only at four narrow demographics: teens, college students and young adults in the Diaspora, and young Israelis whose “strong sense of belonging and commitment to the Jewish people” needs cultivating. That’s according to a February draft report from the “content team” outlining the overall strategy; how the budget will be allocated and which bureaucracy in Israel will administer it all hasn’t yet been decided.
This strategic intervention could be, as its supporters proclaim, a grand reset button, a powerful antidote to the growing indifference to traditional Jewish life and disengagement from Israel that polls show characterizes more and more younger Jews. It could write an exciting new chapter of modern Zionism, focused no longer on building a state or protecting a state, but placing that state at the heart of a vibrant, connected Jewish global experience.
But we’re Jews. We’re journalists. We have questions.
Why should Diaspora Jews — Americans, in particular — trust, depend on and defer to Israelis to strengthen our Jewish identity?
As Yehuda Kurtzer wrote recently in the Times of Israel: “the multimillion dollar plan uses the guise of an altruistic and philanthropic effort to essentially obliterate the self-defined and idiosyncratic identity of American Jewry, and to replace it with a version better aligned to [Israel’s] own self-interest.”
Kurtzer, who as president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America oversees an array of educational programs across the continent, is understandably concerned that an initiative run out of Jerusalem will, as he put it in an interview, “misdiagnose the problem and misprescribe the solution when great initiatives are starved for resources here.”