Next month, we may get an idea of the shape of a dramatic paradigm shift in Israeli-Diaspora relations. The government of Israel is expected to spend as much as $1.5 billion in the next 20 years on a new initiative to strengthen Jewish identity outside Israel.
The Jerusalem Post reports that working groups are considering programs in seven different areas, primarily targeting Diaspora Jews aged 12 to 35. Ideas being floated include a world Jewish peace corps, Hebrew language courses in public schools, and the expansion of Birthright-style programs to younger Jews and more financial support for Jewish summer camps.
The program, which first made news last summer, seems to be a significant shift away from the traditional Israeli position that the reconstitution of Jewish sovereignty in the state of Israel should logically and inevitably lead to the “negation of the Diaspora.” As Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett said last year, “In Israel, we typically view the world as a source of aliyah and a big fat wallet, and that’s got to change.”
The Israeli government is apparently prepared to put up $30 million this year, rising to $300 million annually within five years. The initiative has a 20-year timeline.
The potential is enormous. But there are issues to address as the idea comes to fruition. In initial discussions, the issues of intermarriage and assimilation in the Diaspora appear to be significant motivators for the Israeli proponents. Certainly, the creation of more social and programmatic opportunities for young Diaspora Jews to meet one another will increase the possibility that they will find their bashert. However, there has been, at least in certain parts of the Diaspora, an effort to recognize intermarriage and accommodate it, in order to ensure that our communities are inclusive and accepting of diverse families. It would not be a welcome measure if the Israeli government were to initiate public relations campaigns that appear to condemn or stigmatize intermarried families.
There is also the not-insignificant reality that, it could be argued, the Diaspora has more effectively managed relations between Judaism’s religious streams than has Israel. The quasi-governmental role in religious affairs we see in Israel represents a degree of discrimination against the very streams of Judaism that represent a majority of Jews in the Diaspora. There are a great number of things that Israel would do well to export to the Diaspora; relations between religious streams and secular Jews is not among them.
Especially among secular Israelis, Israeli-ness is often considered effectively a successor to Jewishness. The Diaspora experience has nothing to parallel this reality. Israel is founded on Jewish traditions, values and rituals. It follows a Jewish calendar. It observes Jewish holidays. Its citizens – religious, secular, even non-Jewish – are confronted and absorbed every day with a culture that is intrinsically Jewish. In the Diaspora, Jewish people must make a personal effort to engage with their Jewishness. In many instances, the synagogue is the point of connection between Jewish families and their identity. In Israel, belonging to a synagogue can have a very different connotation.
The proponents of this program – in the government of Israel and in the Jewish Agency for Israel – appear to be making tremendous effort to incorporate the interests and needs of Diaspora communities into the planning of the program. There is great reason for optimism that this could be the beginning of a profoundly improved and dramatically more integrated relationship between and among the world’s Jews. If, as early indicators suggest, this program progresses as a mutually supportive undertaking, and not as Israelis telling Diaspora Jews how to run their affairs, it could be a turning point in Jewish life for the 21st century and beyond. Israel has much to teach the Diaspora. And the Diaspora has much to teach Israelis.
Any increase in dialogue and understanding between Jews inside and outside of Israel is a step in the right direction. But neither group should attempt to define for the other the right way to be.