Ehud Olmert’s stock with the Israeli public has fallen so low these days that virtually anything Olmert says or does is taken to be a cynical ploy to save his job. That’s a pity, because the Israeli prime minister has had some very good ideas of late.
One of his best ideas surfaced in a June 22 address to the governing board of the Jewish Agency for Israel. In the address, Olmert called for a “new paradigm” in Israeli relations with the Jewish Diaspora. The old paradigm is of plucky Israelis building a new nation from the ashes of the Holocaust, reclaiming the desert and offering refuge to millions of Jews fleeing oppression, all of it financed from afar by adoring American Jews. Today, Olmert told the agency leaders, none of those truths is self-evident. Israel is an economic powerhouse, the ingathering of the downtrodden is largely done — and American Jews aren’t as adoring as they used to be.
It’s time, Olmert said, for the next great challenge: rescuing Jews in America and the West from assimilation, and restructuring the relationships between the world’s great Jewish communities. That can’t be done by one party acting alone; it will require a genuine partnership between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora, not the one-sided we-give-you-take relationship of the past.
“For the past 60 years, Israel has been a project for the Jewish people,” Olmert said. “For the next 60 years, the Jewish people will need to be the joint project of Israel and Jewish communities around the world.” He sketched out a massive program to expand Israel travel programs, like Birthright, to dispatch Israeli teachers to far-flung communities and to nurture Jewish learning, culture and values in venues around the globe, including in Israel. Funding, Olmert said, should come jointly from the Israeli government and from Diaspora-federated philanthropies. The Jewish Agency — historically “the outstretched arm of the Jewish people in its central project” of building Israel — would coordinate worldwide implementation.
Olmert’s thesis is a surprising one, particularly coming from the mouth of an Israeli prime minister. After all, Jerusalem has pressing needs of its own. For all its might and resources, Israel is still fighting for survival. Diaspora Jews, many of them, still revel in the vicarious thrill of helping to build and defend the fledgling Jewish state, and they won’t take kindly to the puncturing of their myths. Israeli politicians’ eyes light up when they see all that cash coming in, and they love to rub shoulders with the big donors. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear that the federated philanthropies and the United Jewish Communities could raise the sums they do if building Israel and fighting its enemies were no longer the central message. True, most younger Jews don’t rally to the cause of Israel, but younger Jews don’t sustain the UJC, either.
That said, Olmert’s conclusions are unavoidable. The changes he describes have been building inexorably for decades. A handful of Israeli political leaders noticed the shift in the past and tried to address it — Yossi Beilin by organizing a high-level dialogue, and Benjamin Netanyahu by putting Israeli tax dollars into Birthright, the first time an Israeli government sent money to the Diaspora rather than the opposite. But these and similar initiatives nibbled at the margins. Olmert proposes a historic effort to alter the course of history through what amounts to a Marshall Plan for Jewish identity. He’s right to think in those terms, and the Jewish Agency, the one broadly accepted world Jewish body with massive resources and a global reach, is the right place to begin.
Skeptics say that Olmert no longer has time or sufficient authority to get a project of this magnitude rolling. That may be true, although Olmert has frequently surprised his detractors. It’s also said that Israel won’t be able to find the needed millions in its strapped budget, and that the Jewish Agency is too calcified to transform itself in the manner required. Again, very possibly true, but beside the point. Responsible observers have been predicting for years now that the world’s Jewish community is facing demographic and cultural disintegration in the coming decades, unless something like a miracle occurs. It’s time to start organizing that miracle.