Article Library / Structured Jewish World Dialogue

70 Years of Israel-Diaspora Relations: The Next Generation

The dialogue between Israel and Diaspora Jewry takes place on at least three different levels: constant and ongoing dialogue ever since the early days of Zionism between the leadership in Eretz Israel – later the Government of Israel – and major organizations of Diaspora Jewry; unofficial dialogue at the organizational and institutional level, between various bodies of Diaspora Jewry and organizations in Israel; and also interpersonal dialogue among Jews –
Jews from the Diaspora visiting Israel, Israelis living in the Diaspora, family relations, friendships, professional contacts, and so on.

THREE TIERS OF DISCOURSE

Different tiers naturally produce different expectations, and different rules of engagement.
Relations between the Government of Israel and Diaspora Jewry’s organizational leadership are mainly political; the unofficial organizational relationship is mainly ideological and philanthropic; non-organizational relations are cultural and personal, more or less close, more or less open, sometimes subject to environmental influences, but not necessarily dictated by events in the political and social arena.

Greater public attention is given to organized Jewish discourse, rather than to the cultural and personal discourse, although it is possible to argue that such relations between Jews are no less important, and sometimes even more important, than organizational ones, and that such discussions contribute to the strength of the long-term relationship between different Jewish communities no less, and perhaps even more, than organizational relations. At some of the Dialogue meetings it was argued that “it is not certain that relationships should take place by means of the government,” and that it makes sense to divert relations toward entities that are “unofficial, such as organizations and communities, and then there are no clashes that are due to politics,” as proposed by a young Israeli from the Kol Ami Leadership Academy in Gush Etzion. At this stage, we will not deal at length with personal relationships between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, but we do note that strengthening and expanding the channels enabling such relationships could also contribute a great deal to strengthening the other tiers. The next chapter relates to this point in greater depth.

The organizational discourse between Israel and the Diaspora is divided, as noted, into two main levels: between official Israel and the organized leadership of Diaspora Jewry, and between various kinds of Israeli organizations and various kinds of Jewish organizations in the Diaspora.

It is not necessary to carry out an in-depth study to characterize Israel-Diaspora discourse as not a discussion between two entities of similar nature.

At the level of official discourse: on the Israeli side there is a representative body that is authorized to decide on binding policy for all Israelis – the Government of Israel. This is a strong, authoritative body whose legitimacy is granted by all the Jews subject to its rule. On the part of Diaspora Jewry, there is no single body, but rather a collection of voluntary organizations of different kinds, representing different interest groups and populations, and communities in different countries. These organizations do not always enjoy a high degree of legitimacy (and according to various yardsticks, their legitimacy is in the process of being eroded), nor do they have the authority to present, and certainly not to enforce, a uniform policy on Diaspora Jewry. “Jewish organizations suffer from a much bigger problem than leadership legacy,” writes Yehuda Kurtzer. “After serving the Jewish people nobly during the 20th century, they are coming under pressure from the general Jewish public’s skepticism with regard to their relevance, mainly in the face of a flourishing, creative sector that is more important in light of the changing trends of Jewish affiliation, which place Jewish identity outside the normative frameworks [of the organizations].” In JPPI’s policy paper on Jewish leadership in North America, it states that “there is broad and ongoing concern with regard to the leadership of North American Jewry.”

This concern is also expressed in some of the Dialogue meetings. “Who is the Israeli government supposed to consult with?,” asked a participant in New York. “It is not certain that we have institutions that represent us,” said another. “I don’t believe that it is possible to find someone who represents all the Jews in America, nor is it realistic to invent such a body,” said a participant in Minnesota. “Jewish organizations are something that most of my friends shy away from – so do they represent us,?” asked a young participant in Boston. “Jews in the Diaspora don’t have to listen to anyone other than their government, and certainly won’t listen to the Jewish organizations if they tell them what to think about Israel,” remarked a young Canadian.

The question of Jewish leadership in the Diaspora is not the only question being raised. The Government of Israel, too, does not necessarily enjoy trust – even at the structural level – as a body that can represent the Jews of Israel in dialogue with world Jewry. The government represents a civil state, in which there are also non-Jews. This is what prompted a young Australian to say that “Judaism and Israel are two separate things. Israel is Israel. A large Jewish organization should not talk with the political representatives of Israel.” This is what caused a young Israeli to say: “the Israeli government is responsible for Israel. Period. Jews have only one way to get support from the Government of Israel – and that is to immigrate to Israel, as the law allows them to do.” Another young Israeli said: “I don’t understand what my government is looking for among world Jewry, other than support. Its only authority, and only obligation, is to look out for us [Israeli citizens].”

At the level of unofficial organizational discourse: on the part of Israel, there is a constant appeal to Diaspora organizations for economic, political, and sometimes also moral support for its actions (usually in Israel). This is an appeal of need, depending on the goodwill of Jews in the Diaspora, and requiring the Israeli organizations to take into account, and sometimes also to subordinate their agenda to the priorities of those Diaspora Jews with whom they are in contact.

On the part of Diaspora Jewry, there is an appeal to organizations in Israel to express support, find a channel for capitalizing influence, and maintain a space for direct conversation with Israeli society. This is both an appeal of desire and need for contact, but alongside it, also an expectation of influence, and sometimes a sense of ownership with regard to the organizations and the objectives Diaspora Jewry is prepared to support. As expressed by an American participant: “If we send money, it is logical that we should also have influence. We invest in Israel, and we want to see a return on our investment.”

In both cases, this is a dialogue that aspires to clear and immediate benefits, and therefore mainly brings together Jews who have few disagreements between them. Organizations of Liberal Jewry, such as the New Israel Fund, find Israeli interlocutors with whom to collaborate. But this act on their part, which certainly brings together donors and recipients, also leads to tension between Diaspora Jewry and those Israelis who do not agree with the ideological objectives of the fund. Certainly, a similar situation also exists with regard to conservative organizations or philanthropists, such as Sheldon Adelson, and the recipients of their support in Israel. “The New Israel Fund drives the Jews of the United States away from Israel,” charges Evelyn Gordon. “In the previous generation, an organization in which the managers and donation recipients expressed anti-Israeli sentiments or supported a boycott against Israel was as toxic among American Jews as it was among Israelis. The fact that the New Israel Fund today enjoys a hearing and broad support among American Jewry tells Israelis everything they need to know in order to understand just how far many American Jews have turned against Israel.”

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg presented a different, opposing perspective in her speech at the 2017 AIPAC Policy Conference. She, of course, is interested in increasing educated involvement by Diaspora Jewry organizations in what is taking place in Israeli society. “Pro-Israel is not pro-occupation. Pro-Israel is supporting a secure future, a future of prosperity and peace. This is also the position of the majority of Jews in the United States, who are not prepared to leave their liberal, democratic values out of the discussion on Israel, but on the contrary – understand that implementing these values is the key to a sustainable future for Israel. It is therefore an illusion to think that ‘non-interference’ is an option. Non-interference is interference in favor of continuation of the occupation. Moreover, here in the U.S. there is massive intervention in favor of the occupation and the settlers. This week a U.S. ambassador to Israel was confirmed [referring to David Friedman] who headed a fundraising campaign for settlement in the West Bank. You should know that this is a narrow political interest that does not represent the majority of Israelis. It is damaging to the majority of Israelis.”

These two examples show how a meeting at the organization level creates closeness (among those who are in agreement), alongside conflict (with those who do not agree). Israelis like Zandberg may perhaps feel closer to liberal Diaspora Jews but will push away conservative Diaspora Jews. Conservative Israelis (see, for example, the article by Galit Distel Etebaryan: “U.S. Jewry in the guise of the underdog”) will have the opposite feeling: they will keep away from Diaspora Jews aspiring to influence Israelis to follow the path they believe is to be correct. Among other things, this is the reason why the JPPI’s recommendations this year include the particular need to hold meetings between a group of the Israeli majority – conservative Jews – and a group of the Diaspora majority – liberal Jews. In current conditions, at least with regard to the organizational discourse, most of the exchanges are unbalanced meetings between a majority and a minority – liberals in the Diaspora (majority) with liberals in Israel (minority), conservatives in the Diaspora (minority) with conservatives in Israel (majority).

THE RULES OF DISCOURSE

What should and what should not be discussed between Israel and the Diaspora? This question, too, should be asked in a number of ways.

What is the significance of the discourse: is it intended to exchange information or to exercise reciprocal influence? And, of course, in any situation of reciprocal input of information there is the potential to change attitudes and exert a reciprocal influence – but nonetheless there is a difference between discourse intended from the outset to influence, on the assumption of a right or obligation to influence, and discourse intended to inform, in the knowledge that informing can sometimes lead to influence. And it should be noted: at many Dialogue sessions in the Diaspora a note of skepticism was found with regard to the ability to influence Israel – and therefore also the question of whether, and to what degree, there is any point in holding a dialogue. “So we talked, what came of it?,” asked a participant in Minnesota. “We see a lot of talking, and nothing good comes out of it,” said another in New York. A participant in Israel said that there is a fundamental difficulty in holding a fruitful dialogue because “let’s admit the truth, they don’t really know what is happening over here, and we don’t really know what is happening over there.”

What are the topics of the discourse: there are many and varied topics of conversation occurring between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. There is a conversation relating to clearly political matters – Israel’s wish for political support, or the desire of a Diaspora community for political support. There is a conversation with regard to practical, urgent questions – dealing with a community in distress, – or less urgent, such as developing programs that serve the broader Jewish people. There are conversations with regard to Jewish content and culture in Israel and in the Diaspora, both in the context of identity and in the context of policy. Issues of religion and state, Jewishness and Jewish nationhood, and all their policy implications, and the nature of Israel-Diaspora relations (such as: Who is a Jew?; What is conversion? Who has the right to pray according to which custom at the Western Wall?; Israel’s attitude toward Progressive Judaism; mixed marriages in the Diaspora and so forth).
In some Dialogue meetings, the argument was raised that the discourse between Israel and the Diaspora too often focuses on divisive issues, and not on what could be unifying. “If we talk all the time about the Western Wall and the settlements, this obviously leads mainly to anger,” said a participant in Minnesota. And on the other hand, in the same conversation and also in others, it was argued that these are precisely the issues that need to be discussed. “I don’t see the point in talking about shared culture while Israel is expanding the settlements.”

Parties of the discourse: obviously there is one set of rules for interpersonal discourse between friends from Israel and the Diaspora, who can talk to whomever they choose, and another set for inter-organizational discourse where the main interest is to reach understandings and agreements on actions in support of a joint objective (for example, strengthening the Yeshiva world, or supporting education in the periphery, or helping Bedouins in the south); and another for discourse between the Government of Israel – the official ship of state – and heads of Diaspora organizations.

IS THERE ENOUGH DIALOGUE?

The question of whether current dialogue between Israel and Diaspora Jewry is sufficient has follow-on questions: Sufficient for whom? Sufficient in whose view? Sufficient in what respect?

Dialogue participants did not feel there is a shortage of communication channels between the Israeli government and Diaspora organizations. At the same time, some felt that organizations are the wrong conduit for communication – because the number of Jews who belong to them, or feel represented by them, is small. Some felt that the organizations included in the Dialogue process did not constitute a broad enough umbrella of representation – this claim was raised mainly with regard to the exclusion of left-wing Jewish organizations, such as J-Street and Jewish Voice for Peace, from the conversation with Israel (and as expected, there was an argument over this, with different groups of participants choosing to define the arena of legitimate discourse in their own way). Very many of them felt that the ongoing interactive discourse did not provide the desired results – in other words, in most cases it did not motivate the Israeli government to change its policy in matters in which Diaspora Jewry has an interest (from policy in the West Bank, through the expulsion of illegal foreign workers, to issues of marriage and divorce).

Some of the discussions included arguments over the question of whether there was any point to formalizing Israel-Diaspora communication channels, for example the proposal of space in the Knesset for representatives of Diaspora Jewry or creating other official mechanisms of representation. However, at most of the meetings it quickly emerged that the Jews, in Israel and in the Diaspora, cannot see any reasonable practical way for creating such a channel. “How many representatives will they have in the Knesset – two, three? And what would happen when Israel embarks on an operation in Gaza, will they also vote in favor or against? Can you imagine a situation in which the Diaspora Jews, with their two votes, bring down the government?,” asked an Israeli participant. An American participant said: “It raises again the question of how representatives are chosen, who chooses them, to what extent they represent all of us – it won’t work.” Another said: “I am not at all sure that, as an American citizen, I want a representative in the parliament of a foreign country. American Jews have always taken care over this separation, and we have to continue to take care over it, even if it means that we have less influence in Israel.”

RECIPROCAL ASSESSMENT OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL AND THE DIASPORA

Israeli Dialogue participants saw “assimilation” as the main reason for a negative assessment of trends and developments of Jewish communities in the Diaspora (“anti-Semitism” was next in line). At the same time, most Israeli participants gave the development of communities in the Diaspora a generally positive assessment. Similarly, a significant majority among Dialogue participants outside Israel also assessed the trend of Israel’s development as being positive. Among the reasons given for a possible negative assessment, the first two, by a wide margin, were “relations between Israel and the Arabs,” and “the religious space in Israel” (Israelis marked “Israel’s political culture” as the most problematic factor, with 37%; a similar number (about one fifth of them) marked “relations with the Palestinians,” and “relations between religion and state in Israel”).

It must be taken into account that the reciprocal assessment of the state of the Jewish communities is not always knowledge-based. This year’s survey included a brief test of participant knowledge, in order to check how familiar they were with what is taking place on the other side of the Israel-Diaspora equation. Diaspora Jews were asked, among other things: Who is Shlomo Artzi? (60% of them were able to answer correctly); and What is the distance between the Green Line and the seashore at Israel’s narrow waist? (66% knew the answer). Jews in Israel were asked, among other things: What is the traditional dish eaten by American Jews on Christmas Eve? (38% knew the answer); and Who was Abraham Joshua Heschel? (38% answered correctly).

In all the communities, there were some not very interested in learning about the other community. “I admit that it is not at the top of my priorities,” said a student participant from Austin, Texas, some of whose fellow Dialogue participants did in fact display great familiarity with various matters relating to Israel. At meetings in Israel, it was rarer to find such familiarity. “I never felt the need to learn about communities abroad, I don’t know what I need to know about them other than the fact that they exist. I don’t know what I will gain from it,” said an Israeli participant. Naturally enough, the opinion of those who do not know a great deal carries less weight when talking about a realistic assessment of the state of the Jews. At the same time, the working assumptions and perceptions of Jews with regard to their approach to one another certainly has an impact on the degree of their willingness to learn more, to invest, and to cultivate relations.

Already last year, in the Dialogue on Jewish People and Jerusalem, we added a standard question to the participant survey that teaches us something about the way in which Jews – at least those represented in the Dialogue – see the situation of Israel and of world Jewry generally. The answers we obtained, both last year and this year, clearly show that despite all the criticism directed at Israel and its policy (as we will see later in the report), Jews see Israel as being in a better state than the rest of world Jewry. Last year, more than 80% of Dialogue participants noted that Israel seems to them “strong and flourishing,” by comparison with just over a half who said the same thing about “the Jewish world outside Israel.” At the same time, only a small group of Dialogue participants saw Israel as “declining and weakening,” while a much more significant group saw the Jewish world “outside Israel” as “declining and weakening.”

This year there were notable differences in the assessment of the state of the Diaspora according to geographic location. Surprisingly, it was the Israelis who had a more positive assessment of the Diaspora than the others. Jews living in what we have called “the rest of the world” – that is, not in one of the two main groups living in Israel or the United States – had the most negative assessment of the direction in which the Diaspora is developing (about a third named anti-Semitism as the main reason for their negative attitude – 31%).

Already last year we noticed significant gaps in this question according to participant age. Last year, the Dialogue’s youngest age cohort had the darkest view of Israel’s situation. They were the most likely (31% last year) to say that Israel is “declining and weakening,” and the least likely (69% last year) to say that Israel is “strong and flourishing.” No parallel gap in terms of age was found in the assessment of the state of Diaspora Jewry.

This year’s Dialogue focused on groups of young people, and it was therefore possible to examine questions of Israel-Diaspora relations and mutual perceptions by age in a more systematic way. And the gaps were clear. The assessment of Israel’s direction of development was similar among young and old in this year’s Dialogue, and it was mainly positive. At the same time, there were gaps in the assessment of the main challenges facing Israel. While relations between Israel and the Arabs was the main challenge mentioned by young people (over 50% of young people aged under 30), among the older participants there was a stronger tendency to mention “Israel’s political culture” (21%), and the religious arena (33%) as problematic.

The gap between older participants and their younger counterparts (under 30) was much more significant in their assessment of the state of the Diaspora. While fewer than half of the older participants felt that the Jewish communities in the Diaspora were developing in the right direction (45%), a relative optimism could be detected among the young, and 62% felt that the Diaspora is developing in the right direction. Furthermore, older and younger participants were also divided with regard to the challenges facing Diaspora Jewry. The older age cohort placed “assimilation” as the number one factor (42%). This, together with “little commitment to Judaism” (another 29%) overshadowed all other possible factors. But this is not what the younger age cohort thought. Among them, only around a fifth cited assimilation as the main reason for a negative assessment of the state of the Diaspora (22%). The factor of greatest concern to the largest group of the younger age cohort (29%) was “anti-Semitism” – mentioned by a much smaller percentage of the older participant (14%) as the main cause of concern with regard to the future of the Diaspora.

When analyzing survey answers according to whether respondents were Israeli or Diaspora Jews (in contradistinction to age cohort), a somewhat different picture is obtained, and all in all, a realistic understanding of the main challenges facing the Jewish people in practice. Despite the context of discussions on Israel and the Diaspora, which often focus on issues of religion and state or society and morality, participants did not lose sight of the other weighty challenges of contemporary reality. Among Diaspora participants, a significant majority identified the issue of Jewish-Arab relations as the main challenge on Israel’s agenda. With regard to Diaspora Jewry, there is a clear gap between Israeli participants and those from other countries. Although the two groups tended to state that “assimilation” is the Diaspora’s main challenge, the numbers were strikingly different. In the Diaspora, 35% of respondents answered that assimilation most challenged the Diaspora, while in Israel, 45% so answered – by a large margin relative to the other possible choices.

In the Dialogue meetings themselves, broader expression was given to the subject of religion and state. “As long as Israel doesn’t regulate the matter of state and religion, it will not be a well-administered country,” said a young participant from Boston. “Israel has a long way to go before it is a really good place, first of all the conflict with the Palestinians, but also questions of religious pluralism. I am impressed by Israel’s achievements, but I don’t forget that it has a lot of problems,” said a British participant. “It is hard to decide which direction Israel is going. In economic and technological terms, it is making good progress, but in other respects it is going in a bad direction,” said an Australian participant. “Improving the situation with regard to religion and state is a major obligation of Israel to the Jewish people,” said a participant in Washington. Israeli participants sometimes expressed their sense that Diaspora Jewry is fading. “I don’t know how much I need to take them into account, because it is not certain that they will still be around for long,” one of them said. “The truth needs to be said,” contended another, “soon there will be no Jews there, at least not Jews in the way we understand what a Jew is.” Historical analogies were also repeated among young participants: “There have been Jewish communities in many places, and we know how that ended,” said one participant. “I hear talk of the future of the Jews in the Diaspora, and I don’t believe it. That’s exactly how they talked in the 19th century, until the Holocaust came along,” said another.

Previous
Next