Details are slowly emerging about a major initiative to strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora. The plan, coming from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has been in the works for months. But details are seeping out slowly – and reaction from the Diaspora is keeping pace.
The plan, called the Prime Minister’s Initiative, is expected to pour $300 million a year into programs that enhance Jewish identity among non-Israeli Jews and to build connections between Israel and the Diaspora. The project is overwhelmingly aimed at the young, proposing a Birthright-style program for teens, more Israeli peers deployed to Diaspora university campuses, and a Global Jewish Service Corps providing young adults an opportunity to work on Jewish-oriented projects.
An editorial in the American Jewish newspaper the Forward took exception to aspects of the plan. “Why should Diaspora Jews – Americans, in particular – trust, depend on and defer to Israelis to strengthen our Jewish identity?” the paper asked. “Why should Israelis pay for Jewish identity programs in the Diaspora when there are pressing needs at home?” the editorial continues, and: “Is making the Israeli government the driver of Jewish identity the best and only way to reach younger, disaffected Diaspora Jews?” A commentator elsewhere has suggested the plan is intended to reshape Diaspora Judaism into a form that serves Israel’s best interests.
There are several factors here that deserve unpacking. Among the first is the amusing scene of American Jews getting defensive about Israelis deigning to intervene in Diaspora Jewish affairs. Has there been any topic more obsessive to Diaspora – especially American – Jews over the past decades than Israel? There is hardly a Diaspora Jew who doesn’t think they could run Israel better than can Israelis. Yet, turn the tables and suggest Israelis might have something to say about the way Jewish life unfolds around the world and suddenly it’s time for everyone to mind our own business.
It is not surprising that American Jews should be among the first to call out the Israeli initiative. For one thing, the proposal suggests an upturning of the traditional relationship, in which American Jews send money and volunteers to the Jewish state with an underlying sense of benevolent paternalism. Jewish Americans still send huge proportions of philanthropic budgets to Israel and so it may strike them as counterproductive that Israel is now planning on spending $300 million a year on programming for the Diaspora. But it’s about more than the money. Jewish Americans are familiar with their role as the rich, generous benefactors to their younger Israeli cousins. And Americans – Jewish or not – are unaccustomed to having outsiders tell them how they should run their affairs. It is also notable that the strongest reaction should come from American Jews because, statistically, Diaspora Jews are American Jews, for the most part. Seventy percent of Diaspora Jews are Americans. The next largest Diaspora Jewish population is France, with fewer than one-tenth the number of Jews as the United States. Unless explicitly targeting the few thousand Jews of Venezuela, India or Latvia, the term “Diaspora,” numerically speaking, can be interpreted to mean “mostly American.”
It is certainly true, as some commentators have pointed out, that Israel has not really deciphered what Judaism in the 21st century means within the Jewish state, so it may be premature to start exporting a half-baked and often troubled understanding abroad.
But there is no reason to believe that the Prime Minister’s Initiative will seek to tell Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Jews how to daven or order an all-new Chumash for Diaspora synagogues.
In reality, the initiative is perhaps long overdue, an opportunity for the Diaspora-Israel relationship to recalibrate to a more symbiotic dialogue, rather than the unidirectional tradition in which money (and advice) flows only to Israel. It is, in fact, a sign of a maturing of both Israel and the Israel-Diaspora relationship. The question now seems to be whether the Diaspora is mature and secure enough to adapt to the new balance in that relationship.