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One People

Reports from Jerusalem, where the Jewish Agency for Israel was holding its quarterly board meeting this past week, indicate a spike in tensions within the institution designated under Israeli law as the formal link between Israelis and their Diaspora Jewish cousins. A group of wealthy American philanthropists is reportedly threatening to cut off support to the Jewish Agency — and to the federated Jewish philanthropies that support it — unless it cuts its ties to its parent body, the World Zionist Organization. According to a report in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, the Americans want to end the entanglement of the Jewish Agency, a massive social-service body funded by Diaspora donations, with the Israeli political establishment. The Zionist organization is seen, correctly, as an extension of the political system; as such, donors believe, it has no place in the governance of a philanthropy.

The divorce, if it happens, will cap a half-century of growing mutual incomprehension between Diaspora and Israeli Jews. The Jewish Agency began as the operating arm of the World Zionist Organization, doing the day-to-day work of making Theodor Herzl’s vision a reality. The Diaspora donors who finance the work have long been alienated and impatient with the divisive ideological debates among Israel’s founders and leaders. Israelis, for their part, are bewildered by the corporate, results-oriented mentality of the Americans. Underlying it all is a deep conundrum: How to structure a formal relationship between a sovereign Jewish state and the voluntary communities of the Diaspora. For years, enthusiasts have built structures, one after the other, to bridge the two worlds, and each has failed. For years the donors have whittled away at the traditional links between the philanthropic Jewish Agency and the ideological Zionist organization. Now they speak of divorce.

The proposed Zionist divorce is not the only sign of tension. During the Jewish Agency board meeting this week, Israel’s interior minister, Meir Sheetrit, who oversees citizenship and population registry, launched a full-throated attack on the revered Law of Return. The automatic citizenship granted to Jewish immigrants and their relatives has resulted in endless social problems, Sheetrit argued. It’s time to put Israel’s Jewish immigrants through the same sort of testing that immigrants everywhere must undergo. Sheetrit, as it happens, is a former Jewish Agency treasurer and longtime advocate of Diaspora-Israel dialogue. Still, his stance on the Law of Return might have been written for him by the Palestinian Authority. Not that it’s a bad thing.

Bonds are fraying here in America, too. It’s not just the apathy of the younger generation. The older generation is having its own trouble with the reality of Jewish statehood. Major Jewish organizations have been virtually silent on the approaching Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Annapolis, despite the urgency that Israel’s government attaches to the parley. No local agency has embraced the concessions that Israel is offering as the price of peace. Several are lobbying Congress to block a peace deal. The Saudi arms deal proposed by the Bush administration and endorsed by Jerusalem is actually being fought by the organized Jewish community. For Jewish loyalists, it seems, Israel arose to avenge the crimes of the Jews’ enemies. The idea of embracing those enemies, of offering compromises and forgiving the past, seems incomprehensible to them.

Drift and change are part of life. There was no way for the Jewish communities of America and Israel to maintain forever the close kinship they once shared. But the disintegration of the global Jewish community would be a disaster of historic proportions. One way or another, the two great communities must find a way to understand each other and forge new links. Until they do, both sides must make do with patience, hope and tolerance. We didn’t come this far just to collapse at the finish line.

A wise man was asked once if he thought there would be one Jewish people in the year 2000. He replied that he didn’t know the answer, but he was delighted to hear the question. After all, he said, it wasn’t so long ago that folks asked if there would be one Jew in the year 2000.


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