Just a few hundred yards separate the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and cabinet room from the Jerusalem headquarters of the Jewish People Policy Institute, the clumsily-named think tank set up in 2002 by the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel. Judging by a pair of recent blue-ribbon reports from the two offices on Israel’s relationship with the Jewish Diaspora, they might as well be on different planets.
The cabinet voted June 1 to approve a $53 million allocation as the government’s one-third share in a planned $160 million partnership with Jewish organizations around the world, aimed at bolstering the attachment of young Jews to Judaism and Israel. The plan goes by the catchy name of the Government of Israel-World Jewry Joint Initiative.
Diaspora affairs minister Naftali Bennett, the government’s point man on the initiative, has been describing it as a revolution in Israeli thinking: the first time Israeli officialdom has viewed the Diaspora as something beyond a source of cash, political support and immigrants. This is not a small thing.
The plan is to invest in teacher training, unspecified “content” and various “transformative immersive experiences” and “interlinked Jewish ecosystems,” which apparently is new-speak for summer camps and teen travel. By year four they expect to spend $230 million per year, coming in equal thirds from Israeli taxpayers, Jewish organizations and individual philanthropists. This will “enable Jewish youth and young adults to author their life trajectories as active participants in Jewish life with a strong engagement with Israel,” the plan declares.
Twelve days earlier, on May 21, the Jewish People Policy Institute released the results of a six-month, six-continent study of what Diaspora Jews would actually like to hear from Israel. Not a word there about “ecosystems” or “immersive” anythings. Instead it focuses on values like democracy and pluralism. Those words never appear in the Joint Initiative document.
Let’s stipulate that comparing the two documents is unfair in a certain sense. But only in a sense. The Joint Initiative discusses how to get Israel’s message across. The JPPI report explores what the message might be.
The JPPI report has two other limitations worth noting. First, the institute was asking a very specific question: What should it mean for Israel to be, as it calls itself, a “Jewish and democratic state”? This wasn’t a free-floating discussion of possible themes in Jewish education. It was a leading question.
The second limitation: JPPI consulted a very select group of Jews. It convened dozens of day-long seminars around the world, involving Jewish organizational leaders, scholars and public figures, several hundred people in all. The 81-page report summarizes their views. This is the Jewish establishment speaking, not the grass roots.
And yet, that limitation only makes the report’s challenge all the more striking. After consulting hundreds of people — heavily weighted toward advocates for Israel’s cause — the institute found repeated emphasis on three fraught themes. One was near-unanimous objection to Orthodox domination of Israeli religious life and the lack of Jewish religious pluralism. Participants felt the Jewish state excludes them personally as Jews. A second was concern over democratic treatment of minorities. The report notes a tendency among Diaspora Jews to “conflate” Jewish and democratic values, so a shortcoming in one becomes a deficiency in the other.