Diaspora to Israel: We Need You To Change

Damning Reports on How Jewish State Impacts World Jewry

Is This Who We Are? Two blue-ribbon reports acknowledge that Israel’s actions impact world Jewry as never before. But it’s far from clear that anyone plans to do anything about it.
getty images
Is This Who We Are? Two blue-ribbon reports acknowledge that Israel’s actions impact world Jewry as never before. But it’s far from clear that anyone plans to do anything about it.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published June 06, 2014, issue of June 13, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

The third theme, perhaps most alarming, was fear that Israel isn’t sufficiently alert to the damage its behavior does to its standing in the world — and, consequently, to Jews’ own standing and security in the countries where they live.

If this is what Israel’s strongest advocates are thinking, what can the mood be among ordinary folk who only know what they read in the papers?

Here’s a particularly striking passage: “One of the world Jewish community’s strongest messages in this report: If Israel wants to be ‘Jewish and democratic’ in a way that speaks to non-Israeli Jews, it needs to first modify its understanding of what being ‘Jewish’ means to many millions of Jews today — and find a way to be more inclusive of them.”

Here’s another: A “chief finding of our report is that a majority of Diaspora Jews expects Israel to uncompromisingly deploy Jewish and universal humanitarian values with respect to the rights of its minority citizens.”

One entire chapter (out of eight) discusses “The Impact [of] Israel’s Decisions on World Jewry.” It cites “clear evidence that periods of tension between Israel and its neighbors raise the frequency and severity of harassment attacks on Jews in locations around the world.”

Moreover: “When Israel is seen by other nations — as it is by some today — as a country that endangers the world, Jews around the world, whether they want to be associated with Israel or not, bear some of the consequences.”

It’s important to note that the principal author of the report, journalist and JPPI fellow Shmuel Rosner, is a moderate political conservative. It can’t have been easy for him to write these things. The findings must have been extremely strong for his draft to speak so unequivocally.

Unfortunately, the report’s impact is diluted by its executive summary. It focuses heavily on Jewish pluralism and the philosophical interplay of Judaism and democracy. These occupy three of the eight chapters. As a result, the sharpness of the policy challenge is largely lost. That seems to have influenced much of the press coverage. Government policymakers — to whom the seminar participants thought they were addressing their comments — probably never heard the heart of the argument.

It might have fallen on deaf ears anyway. The Diaspora affairs ministry is headed by Bennett and his Jewish Home party. Pluralism? They’re umbilically tied to the Orthodox chief rabbinate.

Democracy and minority rights? They’re among the main sponsors of the wave of anti-democratic legislation that has the Diaspora leaders so alarmed.

Israel’s image in the world? They’re the settler party. Fuggedabout it.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.