Speaking before the organization that has historically linked Diaspora Jews and Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called in late-June for a massive rethinking of the relationship between the two groups that could reshape everything from funding patterns to the very notion of Jewish peoplehood.
In a speech he made before the board of the Jewish Agency for Israel on June 22, Olmert argued that with Israel strong and economically vibrant, and with world Jewry facing “a serious crisis,” it was time to replace the system by which Diaspora Jewry funnels money to Israel with one in which Jews worldwide are seen as economic and spiritual equals.
“[T]he time has come to significantly shift the paradigm of Diaspora-Israel relations and for the government of Israel to assume much greater responsibility for the Jewish future worldwide,” Olmert told the board. “In practical terms, greater responsibility translates into greater investment.”
The announcement comes at a time when both Olmert and the Jewish Agency face difficulties. Olmert’s political future is in peril as a result of an ongoing bribery investigation, while the Jewish Agency is experiencing a series of budget shortfalls because of the weakening American dollar (see accompanying article, below). In fact, only days before Olmert’s speech, Jewish Agency executive Zeev Bielski went before the Knesset to request Israeli government funding for the agency’s programs.
Despite the uncertainty, leaders in the Jewish world hailed Olmert’s speech as a watershed moment.
John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, hailed Olmert’s speech as “a total paradigm change” for recognizing the value of Jewish identity outside Israel.
“Whoever is prime minister in five or 10 years, people will say [Olmert] was the first prime minister who recognized what was going on,” said Ruskay, who was present during Olmert’s speech.
Olmert cited a series of issues that have become matters of concern and debate in the American Jewish community, including low rates of communal affiliation and identification with Israel among young Jews, and high rates of intermarriage.
The Jewish Agency quickly embraced Olmert’s proposal and moved to set up a coordinating committee that will discuss the matter and develop proposals.
Olmert seems to have tapped into an increasingly popular line of thinking. One day after Olmert’s speech, but independently from it, Yehezkel Dror, founding president of Israel’s Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, made a similar proposal. Dror, acting as an individual, proposed a coordination group consisting of Diaspora Jewish organizations and religious streams and also Israeli government representatives. The head of the group would participate in government deliberations to represent the interests of world Jewry. Dror suggested that the body be funded to the tune of $1 billion. Half would come from Diaspora Jews and half from the Israeli government, and $100 million would go to non-Jews in Israel.