Bringing Jews Together in an Age of Polarization

The melting-pot of Israeli society preserves within it the memory of two thousand years of exile, wars, and pogroms. Despite the disparities, disagreements, and tensions between the different sectors of society, the social melting-pot became the engine driving Israel to unprecedented achievements over the years of its existence.

“The State of Israel is not like the other countries of the world and is not authorized to confine itself to the needs of the moment. This state was not founded solely by and for its existing inhabitants. It is not merely a purpose unto itself, but also a means for achieving the historical mission of the entire Hebrew nation […] This mission may be succinctly defined in terms of two concepts: (A) the ingathering of the exiles; (B) ‘Love your fellow as yourself’.”

(David Ben-Gurion, address to the Assembly of Practitioners of Liberal Professions, 14 Tevet 5709, 15 January 1949)

Kiruv levavot between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora

The Jewish people currently number 15 million. A small people. Half live in Israel, 6 million in the United States and Canada, and a million and a half in the rest of the Diaspora. We must not lose even a single Jew. Each and every one is a world unto himself or herself. This is a moral, ethical, and existential obligation.

The relationship between the State of Israel and the Jewish people in its various places of dispersion is a strategic matter that has existential and ethical dimensions. Without the support of Diaspora Jewry, in particular that of American Jewry and the volunteers from abroad who fought in Israel’s War of Independence, it is highly doubtful whether my parents’ generation, Natan Alterman’s “silver platter” generation, would have survived the war. The strategic alliance established with the United States was also largely due to the influence of American Jewry. Without the airlift operation during the Yom Kippur War, and without the tremendous American support provided at the end of the war to rebuild the IDF and strengthen Israel during the great crisis that followed the war, we would have now been in a totally different place.

The strategic surprise that I and my fellow combatants experienced in the Yom Kippur War is deeply etched in our memory, along with the understanding that the future too may bring surprises, and not just in the form of terrorist attacks, missiles, or unconventional weapons, but rather in the form of a coronavirus pandemic, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. In times of emergency each person is crucial: every doctor, every scientist, every soldier, every volunteer. In times of emergency, Israel’s strategic alliances are a major factor in our ability to fight and to endure.

Israel’s strength today is due in large extent to world Jewry’s contribution to its development and demographic growth. The credit is shared by all the Zionist organizations, including KKL-JNF, Keren Hayesod-UIA, the North American federations, private and institutional foundations, and numerous investors. Some 3.5 million immigrants have arrived in Israel since the War of Independence, and hundreds of billions of shekels have been donated and invested in Israel by world Jewry for the construction of new communities, hospitals, industrial plants, universities, research institutes, high-tech companies, and more. For Israel, every Jew anywhere in the world should be the people in its entirety; for world Jewry, Israel should be an “Iron Dome” – a symbol of mutual responsibility and existential security; a source of strength and inspiration; the crowning achievement of the Zionist enterprise; the home and homeland of all Jews; the Start-Up Nation; technological creativity transcending the limits of the possible; the hope of tikkun olam, repairing the world, for a more just society; a powerful and awe-inspiring rebirth in the wake of the destruction of European Jewry; the ness echad ain sheni lo – Natan Alterman’s  “only miracle,” rising like the phoenix after two millennia of exile.

By what acts and by what means may we fulfill the commandment of kiruv levavot – bringing Israeli and Diaspora Jews together?

Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (2018) defines the State of Israel’s responsibility to world Jewry: to secure their welfare when they “are in straits […] due to their Jewishness or due to their citizenship”; “to strengthen the affinity between the State and members of the Jewish People; and “to preserve the cultural, historical, and religious heritage of the Jewish People among Jews of the Diaspora.”

Social reality arises from a culture of ongoing activity over years and generations. The social multiculturalism of Israeli life brings people together and creates broad enough common ground to enable Israel to move forward on the difficult challenges it faces, despite areas of perpetual friction and confrontation, such as bearing the defense and economic burden, and religion-state tensions.

The multicultural social cohesion that has formed in Israel over its 75 years of statehood does not exist in the Jewish communities of the United States and elsewhere in the world. The sole chance of strengthening the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora lies in the state’s ability to reach the hearts of all Jews and Jewish communities around the world. We must not lose half of our people. This is a huge challenge and meeting it will require the best that Israel and the Diaspora can muster in terms of intellectual and executive capabilities. It is the greatest challenge we currently face.

The means of connecting Israel and the Diaspora has to be one of kiruv levavot; reaching out at any cost to cope with the tremendous challenge we face, so that we do not leave large numbers of our people behind.

Kiruv levavot doesn’t happen solely through prayer. It requires action. It can be done through Zoom meetings or other advanced communication technologies, but it has to be based on broad and deep physical closeness to Diaspora Jewry: being there with them when they sit shiva for a family member, being there with them in hospitals to share their worry, being there with them in fun and happy times at the community club or on excursions, being there with them at synagogue services, being there with them during Shabbat meals, the Passover seder, Rosh Hashana night and all other Jewish holidays; bringing the Jewish multicultural narrative to all Jews around the world, with its many difficult challenges; the Israeli melting-pot, the problems and the pride, the fear and the courage, the suffering and the exaltation, the loss and the consolation, the pain and the hope; to show every Jewish person the “only miracle.”

Kiruv levavot entails great national effort driven by a sense of mission dictating that we must not leave even a single Jew behind, not even those who see Israel as an occupying power or an apartheid state. The effort to bring Israeli and Diaspora Jews together should be a broad-based national endeavor: Israeli family to Diaspora family, Israeli school to Diaspora school, community to community, city to city, factory to factory, industry to industry, nonprofit to nonprofit, Israeli to Jew, person to person.

In order for Israel to be a model and a source of inspiration to world Jewry, we need to intensify the efforts of our missions abroad and of the emissaries who carry out their work with a sense of the magnitude of the occasion. Every research fellow abroad, every sabbatical-year professor, every IDF officer on a year of overseas study, all of Israel’s major organizations, in particular the IDF and our great industries – Elbit, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries, the high-tech industry, universities and research institutes – all of the organizations that send people abroad, all must mobilize for the kiruv levavot effort. Because we must not give up on anyone. We have to physically reach every Jewish home so that we can bring Israel into the home of every Jew around the world. This is an effort from which both sides will gain. Israelis will learn to value, honor, and esteem the cultural wealth that characterizes all Jewish communities abroad, and many of us will say: “I left Israeli and returned Jewish.” Diaspora Jews will experience first-hand the Israeli ethos in all its many variations, without the filters of the media and other mediators. This is an effort of mutual learning, and it should start in elementary school – Israeli children should learn about Diaspora Jewry and Diaspora children should learn about Israel, because we are one people.

The Jewish Agency is the executive body founded by the Jewish people in 1929, ninety-four years ago. It is an organization established on the basis of a broad consensus between all Jewish sectors – the Orthodox, the Conservative and the Reform. It is an organization that is now jointly owned by the Jewish people across the Diaspora and in all its forms, working to promote Aliyah to Israel, to strengthen the relationship of Israeli Jews with all the Jewish communities abroad, and to strengthen Israeli society. It is an executive body with a special legal status vis-à-vis the Israeli government that endows it with a unique, and sometimes exclusive, mandate to act as a mission-driven executive arm. The Jewish Agency is a professional executive body with mighty capabilities that has developed tools, mechanisms, methods, and means for carrying out the mission defined in Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. It is an entity that needs to expand its system of emissaries and missions abroad for the task of bringing people together, building up pride in the Jewish people and the State of Israel, promoting Aliyah, increasing activity, inspiring all Jews around the world, and strengthening the disadvantaged sectors in Israel and in Jewish communities abroad.

My election to the office of Jewish Agency Chairman, a unanimous choice by all factions, as someone with a background of deep social engagement on behalf of the disadvantaged, on behalf of those whose voices aren’t heard, is, for me, a journey on behalf of the Jewish people as a whole; a quest to bring people together through deeds, kiruv levavot with wall-to-wall consent, kiruv levavot that dissolves the strict boundaries between our many different factions, kiruv levavot that creates social cohesion among a people of exuberant creativity, nourished and empowered by difference and out of respect for the other.

Kiruv levavot as a national endeavor

In its 75th year of statehood, Israel faces social rifts from within and without that constitute a true existential threat. Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel,” the Declaration of Independence affirms. Peace should start at home. A model society can be established only where there is a constant aspiration to bring people together – despite their differences, despite the polarization, despite the disparities. According to the Talmud (Bavli, Shabbat 56b), the destruction of the First Temple began on the day King David told Mephibosheth, the crippled son of his beloved friend Jonathan: “Thou and Ziba divide the land” (2 Samuel 19:30). On that day, “a divine voice told him: Rehoboam and Jeroboam will divide the kingdom.”

The idea of the model society is closely related to our treatment of the other, our tolerance of those who are different from us, our ability to engage in respectful dialogue while recognizing the differences between us. This has a crucial impact on our ability to exist as a society.

By what acts and by what means may we fulfill the mitzvah of kiruv levavot between Jews in Israel?

We are charged with the task of forging connections between Haredim, Datiim, Conservative Jews, Reform Jews, secular Jews, and Masortim. Today, all of these groups remain enclosed within the defined boundaries of their worldviews. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The everyday life that I have known in Israel since childhood is a life of multicultural social cohesion that guides our actions as a heterogeneous Israeli society built from a mosaic of identities. This is an approach that recognizes Israel’s unique value to the entire nation, including the state’s minority citizens. In the IDF units in which I served as a combat soldier and commander over the course of 35 years, I witnessed a spirit of sacrifice, friendship, and love of humanity regardless of race, religion, gender, or color. During my years of service, I lost my brother Eran in the Yom Kippur War, as well as many friends in hundreds of battles. The religious affiliations of fellow servicemen never gave rise to discord. Defending the state and its citizens was the most important thing, a mission that demands of all of us that we be ready to sacrifice and risk our lives. I was privileged to be the first soldier to land at Entebbe in the daring operation to rescue 105 hostages on the night of July 3-4, 1976. We went there in the name of the entire Israeli populace and the Jewish people, with their many factions and tribes. No one asked before the operation what religious worldview the hostages or the soldiers held. We saw our effort as pikuach nefesh – putting human life first, mutual responsibility at its best. The motto “one for all and all for one” expresses this well. That spirit is also evident today, when one of our fellows is struck by crisis, disease or loss and others mobilize in WhatsApp groups and join together as one to support him in his time of trouble. The military melting-pot gave rise to kiruv levavot and camaraderie that transcended any differences. The first journey of my life in the defense of the State of Israel and its citizens was a journey at the core of the Jewish people’s most meaningful melting-pot of modern times.

The IDF and the Israeli security forces are not just a defense system ensuring the state’s physical existence; they are also a force of social cohesion that has an impact on all areas of life. Reservists are also college and university professors, hospital doctors, research center scientists, engineers with high-tech companies, businesspeople, teachers, CEOs, social entrepreneurs, and more and more. The social melting-pot is present in all spheres. When Haredim from ZAKA are rushing to save lives on Israel’s roadways and around the world, exhibiting courage and heroism on a daily basis, they don’t ask, before jumping into their vehicles, who the injured people are. On the principle of pikuach nefesh they are ready to sacrifice and risk their lives. Israeli hospitals also operate in accordance with the spirit of pikuach nefesh. Medical teams representing all sectors of the nation work in harmony.

Kiruv levavot should be realized not only in a context of ideological disagreement, but also in a context of solidarity with the disadvantaged.

My spouse Didi and I began the second Jewish journey of our lives after the birth of our son Eran, who was born with a major disability. At the rehabilitation village we founded in southern Israel, ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran, I witness love of mankind on a daily basis, between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Eran, the child who never spoke and never called me Abba, became the greatest teacher I ever had. It was he who taught me what love and mutual responsibility are, and how to assess the world from the position of the disadvantaged. There, at the rehabilitation village that bears his name since his passing in 2007, I experience wonderful cooperation and harmony born of the ideal that people with disabilities should have a central place in society. This outlook accords with the words of Rav Moshe Shapiro, a major Jerusalem rabbinical figure, in a letter to the father of a child with Down syndrome: “Every soul is sent to this world with the purpose of rectifying something specific to it. […] Some souls, however, are sent as people incapable of adequately rectifying themselves. In defining their existence, then, we must understand that their entire purpose is to improve those around them” (for the complete correspondence between the Rabbi and the child’s parents, see the Aish HaTorah website).

The moral compass that guides our social behavior directs us not to leave behind the wounded, the disabled, or the elderly; to envelop them with love and the best professional care available. Our moral compass teaches us that a society’s strength will always be measured in terms of the strength of its weaker links. The more we strive to reinforce those links, the better people we will be and the stronger our society will be.

Thus, in situations of pikuach nefesh and working toward a lofty goal according to our social value system, the strict boundaries that separate different Jewish populations crumble. In the melting-pot of Israel, every day we witness deeds that reflect our common fate and the value system we share in spite of our differences in outlook; deeds that bring people together, deeds that build a nation, an identity, a sense of belonging and pride; deeds with the power to bridge the yawning gaps in outlook that divide us.

The melting-pot of Israeli society preserves within it the memory of two thousand years of exile, wars and pogroms, the memory of the six million who were cruelly murdered in the Second World War, of the pledge passed down from generation to generation: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill,” the reading and study of the Book of Books, a culture of justice and charity, mutual responsibility and love of humanity. Despite the disparities, disagreements, and tensions between the different sectors of society, the social melting-pot became the engine driving Israel to unprecedented achievements over the years of its existence.

In my present role as Jewish Agency Chairman, I hope to embark on the third Jewish journey of my life, on behalf of the entire Jewish people, a journey of kiruv levavot – as in the words of the prophet: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).

Major General (Res.) Doron Almog is Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel.