This year’s Annual Assessment discusses several aspects of the bonds between Israel and the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. Seventy years after the founding of the state, there are causes for concern. Although prior to the creation of Israel Jewish communities divided over the nature of the Zionist enterprise and how it should be manifested, for at least a half century afterwards the hallmark of Diaspora Jewish life had been near unanimity on the value of Israel and the need to preserve it through extraordinary measures if need be. This unitary block has seen cracks and fissures in recent years. The political dimension has come under strain as the course of political transformation in Israel in recent years has diverged to some degree from the political attitudes held by many in Diaspora Jewish communities now overwhelmingly concentrated in the urban, liberal democratic West. This effect has also been exacerbated by an increase in domestic polarization within the countries in which these communities reside. Similarly, some in those communities are disturbed because they find themselves perceiving an increasing gulf between their own ethical and moral beliefs, for many the essence of their Jewish identity, and the governmental actions of the Jewish state in realms such as religious pluralism, adherence to democratic principles, or the condition of Palestinians in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.
Just how far traditional Jewish bonds have been strained and what this portends for the future is open to debate. There is another, more material set of bonds, beyond those of political and religious identity, that while important in themselves may also provide insight into how serious the present apparent crisis may prove to be. This consists of the types of financial support the Diaspora has provided to the Yishuv from its earliest days and throughout Israel’s history as an independent state.
The most common narrative is that from the first days of its independence, the financial backing of the Diaspora proved crucial to the State of Israel. Whether providing the means to purchase arms, for the ingathering and settlement of immigrants from Jewish communities in distress or the capital for building up the nascent agricultural, industrial and public infrastructure, Diaspora contributions were crucial for survival and for prosperity. Diaspora philanthropy came to the fore again during the crises of 1967 and 1973. But in the last quarter century, in light of Israel’s impressive economic performance, crowned by its accession into the ranks of the OECD and prominent participation in the major international R&D programs of the European Union, perhaps those days are over. The scale of Diaspora giving relative to the size of Israel’s GDP has shrunk markedly compared with its prior share. Even the testimony of the government itself suggests implicitly that this is the case. The Israeli government invests about 400 million shekels6 a year in assistance to the Diaspora Jewry. This investment is as explicitly presented as a recognition of both the shift in Israel’s economic fortunes and a coming of the time for paying a debt of gratitude toward the communities that had supported Israel in its infancy.