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Israeli Prime Minister Turns Tables, Asks Diaspora: What Can We Do for You?

Ehud Olmert’s appearance at the annual meeting of the Jewish Agency for Israel in late June was a boilerplate appearance for a prime minister, but what came out of his mouth when he got to the podium was anything but a standard stump speech.

Olmert used his appearance to tackle the fraught relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Israeli prime ministers have generally had a rather predictable take on this, promoting the classical Zionist view that Israel should be the place for the ingathering of the exiles — or, at the very least, the ingathering of their philanthropic dollars.

Over the past decade, a number of studies and conferences have suggested the degree to which this classical Zionist view has been challenged by practical realities, particularly as immigration to Israel has declined. While this new reality has been widely discussed in both Israel and the Diaspora, many who heard Olmert’s recent speech detected a revolutionary turn in the prime minister’s words.

“This is the first time an Israeli prime minister — who traditionally had been saying, ‘Your job is to help us’ — is standing up and saying, ‘We recognize there are new realities, and it is time to change our relationship.’ That’s huge,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York. In his June 22 speech in Jerusalem, Olmert argued that the time has come for Israel and Diaspora communities to work together to promote Jewish identity worldwide.

“The old paradigm of the Diaspora as benefactor and Israel as beneficiary may no longer continue,” Olmert told the board. “For the past 60 years, Israel has been the project of the Jewish people. For the next 60 years, the Jewish people will need to be the joint project of Israel and Jewish communities around the world.”

Olmert suggested a number of practical possibilities — among them an international network of Israeli cultural houses, programs that would send Israeli teachers to Jewish schools around the world and venues to connect Israeli expatriates to local Jewish communities — all to be jointly funded by Diaspora Jews and the Israeli government.

This is a sharp break from what American Jewish leaders are used to hearing on this count.

“Ben-Gurion and other Israeli prime ministers would scold American Jews for many years for not making aliyah,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “Even a decade ago, President [Ezer] Weizman would routinely lecture Diaspora Jews on aliyah.”

In 2004, Ariel Sharon, then prime minister, landed in hot water with some Diaspora leaders when he urged French Jews to make aliyah “immediately” in the wake of a string of antisemitic incidents in France. Jewish leaders in France promptly took umbrage at his statement, and Sharon backed down.

The debate over the Diaspora’s proper role in the Zionist enterprise is one with a serious historical pedigree. A century ago, there were two strands in Zionist thought — one holding that, ultimately, all Jews should move to Israel, and one holding that Jews could support a Jewish homeland in Israel while remaining in the Diaspora. In the end, the latter view, espoused by American lawyer and Zionist leader Louis Brandeis, held sway in America. It also proved to be more realistic, as the vast majority of those who immigrated to Israel proved to be refugees fleeing economic and political distress, as Brandeis had predicted. Jews in free, stable countries like America largely stayed put.

That reality began to strike home in Israel in a serious way in the 1990s, when, in the wake of massive airlifts of Jews from Ethiopia, and a surge of emigration from the former Soviet Union, it became clear that there were relatively few Jews left in the Diaspora who were likely to immigrate.

Since the mid-1990s, a number of think tanks and study groups have convened to discuss ways for Israel to cooperate more with the Diaspora, with varying degrees of success. Knesset member Yossi Beilin and later Israeli President Moshe Katzav called for the creation a world Jewish parliament, an idea that went nowhere. Somewhat more successfully, a study group convened by Beilin along with a number of Israeli and American Jewish leaders helped lead to the creation of the Birthright Israel trips for Diaspora Jews. These trips are widely considered a great success, and their creation marked the first time that the Israeli government spent tax dollars on a Diaspora-focused program.

In recent years, a think tank called the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute has consistently pushed for more Israeli involvement in Diaspora issues. The think tank’s director-general, Avinoam Bar-Yosef, said that his group had twice presented recommendations to Olmert’s Cabinet.

Until now, however, these think tank initiatives had failed to make headway in influencing attitudes at the highest levels of government.

Initially, Olmert had not initially been a major player in the Israeli-Diaspora dialogue, but in the past few years he began to give hints that his ideas on the issue were evolving. In a speech he gave at JPPPI’s 2007 conference, Olmert told the crowd that as he had grown older, he had come to define himself as a Jew first and an Israeli afterward.

Even in the wake of his more recent speech, it remains unclear whether Olmert’s call for a new relationship between Israel and the Diaspora will filter down to the Israeli populace as a whole.

“I think you’ll find more of a positive response from Diaspora Jewry,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “I’m not sure Israel is ready for it.”

A poll of Israelis, conducted by the B’nai B’rith World Center after Olmert’s speech, found that the response had been relatively positive: A total of 46% said they agreed with Olmert’s goals, while 38% said the government’s aim still should be to promote mass aliyah. But the poll also hinted at the persistence of Israeli skepticism about the viability of life in the Diaspora: Of those polled, 76% said it was safer to live as a Jew in Israel, while only 10% said it was safer in the Diaspora.

There also remains the larger question of whether the change in thinking that Olmert’s speech signified translates into concrete changes in in the way Israel deals with the Diaspora. Olmert’s political future is in grave danger as a result of corruption charges, and the Jewish Agency — the main body that deals with Israel-Diaspora affairs — is facing budget cutbacks. In addition, the Israeli government has moved in recent years toward cutting its expenditures rather than expanding the budget. Observers say that, important though the speech may be, the ultimate test will be whether Olmert’s words translate into new programs with money behind them.

“It’s a good speech. But it’s just the start,” Bar-Yosef said. “It points the direction, and we need to translate it into a plan with a budget.”

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