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70 Years of Israel-Diaspora Relations: The Next Generation

Israel-Diaspora relations are in a state of flux, with the Jewish world’s center of gravity shifting toward Israel – and Diaspora Jews, whether quickly or slowly, happily or unhappily, are growing accustomed to this change and acknowledging it. The shift in the center of gravity accounts for much of the difficulty that has plagued the relationship in recent years. On both sides of the equation there are Jews who understand that change has occurred but have not internalized its meaning or the adjustments it entails.

Israeli Jews, especially their official representatives in the political sphere, see this shifting center of gravity as obviating the need for awareness of, or consideration for, Diaspora Jewry’s wishes. Moreover, many Israelis view this shift as an indication that the rest of the Jewish world is declining – a trend that is expected to intensify. They conclude that it is pointless to listen to those who persist along a path leading to the extinction of the Jewish tribe. As far as Israeli governmental policy is concerned, the last few years have witnessed a process that is eroding global Jewry’s ability to exert an influence. As indicated in an earlier JPPI publication that addressed the freezing of the Kotel compromise, this decline in Diaspora Jewry’s impact stems from an ongoing erosion of the power of organized Jewry in the Diaspora, and from internal Israeli processes that pose challenges for the institutions that world Jewry has used as vehicles for impact (such as Israel’s High Court).

Diaspora Jews, especially those of the younger generation, and Americans in particular, may accept this change as fact – as indicated by their near-unanimous consensus that Israel is the “center of the Jewish world” – but they do not translate this fact into a new plan of action. These Jews, who feel that Israel does not listen to them, are usually gratified by the Jewish state’s success, but have trouble accepting that a strong Israel has less need (or at least feels that it has less need) of them and their counsel and will naturally be less inclined to take their opinions into consideration. The fact that they are growing weaker as a group (as they themselves acknowledge), compared with an Israel that is growing stronger, does not lead them to the conclusion drawn by Israelis, namely, that Israel knows what it is doing and where it is going, and has no need of direction or demands from those who have not kept their own community afloat.

These divergent sentiments often give rise to a tug-of-war atmosphere that does nothing constructive for the Jewish people as a whole; they are leading both groups ineluctably along a path of conflict and mutual disappointment (mutually disappointed expectations). World Jewry is unable to influence Israeli policy in a substantive way, while Israeli Jews lack the patience to listen to those who are unwilling to accept Israel’s decisions – decisions arrived at through an orderly democratic process according to well-known rules. This conflict intensifies when the parties are drawn into confrontation on the Israeli political plane, where the balance of power is least equitable and where the game is often zero-sum. Thus, while communal/cultural activity and interpersonal/organizational relations proceed as usual, creating a sense of positive reciprocity among their participants, the political arena produces constant friction and rising anger, which frequently overshadow the constructive relations maintained in other spheres. This is why one of this paper’s main recommendations is to move the center of gravity of Jewish relations, to the extent possible, outside the political arena.

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As Israel approaches its 70th year of independence, its relationship with Diaspora Jews – nearly all of whom, by now, have decided not to become Israeli – is undergoing a rapid process of change and adjustment to new circumstances. These adjustments are necessitated by changes in Israel’s situation, the situation of Diaspora Jewry, the state of the global arena, and the relationship dynamic itself. As in any process of change and adjustment, the Israel-Diaspora change dynamic is engendering tension, fear, opposition and a sense of uncertainty about the future. Some hope to profit from the change, while others fear that it will result in loss. Some view it as fate, others believe that it is the result of human action. Some think they know where the change is leading, while others see a range of possibilities, requiring choosing the best option and the appropriate policy adjustments.

JPPI’s 2018 Dialogue, with 70 Years of Israeli Independence as its theme, focused more on the views and sentiments of young Jews from across the globe (without neglecting the positions of older Jews) than did earlier Dialogues. The 2018 Dialogue reflects all of these processes, hopes and concerns. On the one hand, it gives expression to the basic desire for a continued close and special relationship between all Jews, all over the world. On the other hand, it calls attention to a broad array of challenges that are complicating and overshadowing that relationship.

As noted, both the challenges and the opportunities derive from changes that have already occurred or are now taking place – in Israel, in Diaspora Jewry, and in the relationship dynamic. Nearly a decade ago, a JPPI study on a “new paradigm” In all Diaspora communities, their great variations notwithstanding, two key phenomena are deeply affecting Jewish life; one is qualitative and the other quantitative. The qualitative phenomenon is the danger of erosion in meaning and intensity in the experience of Jewish identity. Most researchers agree that in the absence of concerted action this trend is expected to continue, despite the vast scope and range of current efforts throughout the Jewish world to preserve – and make meaningful – Jewish identity. The quantitative phenomenon is the demographic decline that characterizes Jewish communities everywhere, except for a few rare cases. Demographers are divided regarding the rates of decline, and some forecasts are bleaker than others, but the basic trends are glaringly and painfully clear.”

The study noted, correctly, the emergence of “concerns about a growing discernible fear of an ever-widening gap between Israel and the Diaspora and concern over the diminishing sense of mutual connectivity between Israel and Jews around the world. This gap especially manifests itself in the distancing of Diaspora youngsters from Israel, decreasing identification with Israel, steadily declining interest in its affairs and less concern for its future.” It is worth mentioning at this early point in the present report that, over the decade since the aforementioned concerns were noted, there has been no real difference in the phenomena discussed: the danger of eroded meaning still exists; the demographic downturn, or stagnation, continues. And the implications for the complex relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry remain unchanged.

However, the quality and quantity of the Diaspora Jewish communities are not the only factors affecting the relationship. As noted, Israel-Diaspora relations are influenced by a variety of trends and changes taking place in Israel, in the Diaspora, on the global plane, and in the relationship dynamic itself. A few trends exerting a major impact on the relationship are noted below:

Changes taking place in Israel: the transition from a small and intimate society to a large population encompassing subgroups that all have their own social and ideological agendas; high birthrates and rapid demographic change; military might and political power; economic growth and the development of a Western-style society of abundance; the dominance of a political right based on religious and traditional voters, many of them Mizrachim.

Changes underway within Diaspora Jewry: growing assimilation within Western society as a whole; diminished group cohesion due to the waning of outside threats; the dwindling influence of the organized community; changing patterns of philanthropy; skyrocketing rates of mixed marriage, with attendant changes in Jewish consciousness; a growing demand for change in the relationship with today’s stronger Israel; opposition among some groups within the Jewish community to Israeli foreign policy (especially vis-a-vis the peace process), and to Israeli policy with respect to religion and state.

Changes on the global plane: an overall decline in anti-Semitism (despite recent worrying indications of a resurgence); geostrategic changes (the end of the Cold War, American dominance, developments in the Middle East, and more); the ascendancy of nations with no history of problematic relations with the Jews (China, India); technological developments that make the world smaller; the growing ease of travel to faraway destinations.

Changes in the relationship dynamic: Israel’s numerical ascendancy compared with world Jewry as a whole; less need for economic or political assistance from the Diaspora in order to ensure Israel’s survival; a rift in historical memory as the younger generation drifts away from shared (mainly) European roots; intensified political and cultural differences due to a variety of circumstances.

These developments and many more, both together and separately, are producing multidimensional change in the Israel-Diaspora relationship. This has positive aspects (more reciprocal visiting than before; relative ease of monitoring developments in other Jewish communities), and negative aspects (widened [greater emphasis on] political and cultural gaps, difficulty in pooling resources for collective goals). The change poses a new challenge for the Jewish people: the relationship needs to be managed so as to preserve the sense of Jewish solidarity and mutual responsibility, despite an accelerating process of necessary mutual adjustment.

JPPI’s 2018 Dialogue, whose findings are presented in this paper, does not cover all of the topics on the relationship-management agenda. It does not, for instance, address the economic aspects of the relationship, beyond a brief sketch for background when discussing other matters. Nor is it concerned with geostrategic issues over which the Jewish people have little influence (the Jews neither started nor ended the Cold War, though its course and outcomes definitely affected them). It does not prominently or directly address the potential impact of changing religious/theological approaches on the future of the Jewish people or on relations between Jews, though these may well be significantly affected by theological undercurrents.

In other words, a substantial number of the variables determining the quality and future of Israel-Diaspora relations are treated as givens in this report, not as topics for discussion and development. For example, the continued growth of Israel’s Jewish population compared with Diaspora Jewry’s numerical decline or stagnation, is an issue that the Dialogue framework does not specifically address, out of an understanding that such demographic trends require separate, in-depth and focused discussion (which may not, after all, produce practical results: Jews have the number of children they want to have as individuals, not the number “desired” by scholars of Jewish peoplehood).

With what issues are the Dialogue concerned? Focus groups held throughout the Jewish world (see the Appendix for a list of countries, communities, and participants) and the accompanying survey both concentrated on various aspects of mutual commitment or lack of commitment between Jews. The commitment discussion emphasized the commitment of Israel, as the Jewish nation state, to Jews who are not its residents or citizens – and the commitment of Jews who are not residents or citizens of Israel to the Jewish people’s nation state. With the help of the Dialogue’s hundreds of participants, we tried to pinpoint the exact practical meaning of commitment; to understand Israel’s expectations of Diaspora Jewry and Diaspora Jewry’s expectations of Israel (and of Israeli Jewry); to identify the difficulties that hinder or may undermine relations; and to propose ways of improving dialogue, understanding, and cooperation between Israel and the Diaspora.

It should be stated unequivocally, here in the Introduction, that the working assumption behind this paper is that a healthy, strong, and reciprocal relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry is a worthwhile and invaluable enterprise. And it bears noting that, among the Jews who took part in the Dialogue, there were occasionally those who cast doubt on this working assumption. Their voices also need to be heard, and their views understood; it should be determined whether and to what degree their opinions are prevalent in the Jewish discursive space. “As far as I’m concerned, Judaism is a religion. I’m not aware that Catholics in Argentina feel a need for relations with Catholics in France,” an Israeli participant said at one of the meetings. This woman’s opinion was unusual compared to most other participants, but she was not alone in expressing it.

And on the other hand, as shown by the survey administered to all Dialogue participants, a very substantial majority of the Israeli participants (90%) felt that “concern for world Jewry is a very important part of my Jewishness.” A very strong majority of the non-Israeli participants (88%), for their part, felt that “concern for Israel is a very important part of my Jewishness.” That is, an adherence to the idea of mutual Jewish responsibility, with its tacit assumption that Jews do not merely share a religious faith but also belong to the same people, also exists among young Jews. Accordingly, only a handful of Israeli and non-Israeli Dialogue participants agreed with the statement: “There is no need for a special relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.” Of the Israelis, only 2% “somewhat” agreed with this statement, versus 97% who disagreed (34% “somewhat” and 63% “strongly [completely]”). The data for the non-Israelis were very similar: 4% agreed (strongly or somewhat), while 96% disagreed (21% somewhat, 75% strongly). “The relationship with Israel is one of the basic elements of American Jewish identity,” said a young participant from Northeastern University in Boston. 91% of the American Dialogue participants said that “concern for Israel is a very important part of my Jewishness” (for the younger American participants, those under age 30, the figure was 82%).

This data are not a one-off phenomenon rooted in the specific character of the Dialogue participants – which does not represent the entire Jewish world but tends, rather, to focus on Jews who hold leadership positions or are more engaged than others in organized community life (see the Appendix for information on the participant profile, participant opinions, and the difference between the participant population and the general Jewish population). The Dialogue findings, at least in this regard, accord with earlier, similar findings produced by a wide variety of studies in Israel and the broader Jewish world – outcomes that we will be discussing in the coming chapters. That is, even in a situation where the relationship is changing, and to some degree deteriorating, a mutual desire to maintain close relations within the Jewish world is still in evidence. “The question of whether there is a need for a good relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is a strange one in my view,” said a Dialogue participant in Wilmington, Delaware. In his view, the need for such relations is clear – the only question is how to achieve or maintain them, and what exactly would constitute, for both communities, a “good” relationship.

This, then, was the primary goal of the 2018 Dialogue: to find out what those who will be shaping Israel-Diaspora relations for the next generation, young Jews now in their twenties and early thirties, perceive as the desired model for Israel-Diaspora relations. This year’s Dialogue intentionally focused on groups of young people in this age group, for whom the relationship as it stands today is a given that has to be dealt with as is. Young Jews form their expectations in accordance with this state of affairs, unable to compare it first-hand with “what came before” (though “what came before” is also subject to debate, with no unequivocal conclusion).

JPPI’s 2018 Dialogue was held under the wider umbrella of its Pluralism and Democracy project, which is supported by the William Davidson Foundation. The Dialogue process included unmediated study of relevant Jewish opinion via 33 discussion groups in Jewish communities around the world and featured a meeting with a Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations delegation. Within this framework, surveys were also administered to the participants, and other studies of Jewish public opinion were analyzed, including research on Jewish populations whose connection with organized Jewish life is tenuous. Discussions in the communities were conducted in accordance with the Chatham House Rules: participants agreed to be quoted, but without any particular statement being attributed to a specific person. This arrangement was meant to ensure open and free discussion. Accordingly, the present report quotes extensively from the discussions held by JPPI, without mentioning the speakers’ names. The names of some of the participants are provided in the Appendix. As in previous years, we obtained additional information via the JPPI surveys conducted in Israel.

The Dialogue was held from November 2017 to March 2018, at dozens of gatherings around the world. Participants received a short background document for review and took part in seminars lasting from 90 to 120 minutes. The events were organized as follows:

  • Brief presentation on the history of Israel-Diaspora relations;
  • Survey administered to participants, from which the JPPI obtained data on participant opinions;
  • Structured and moderated discussion of the state of Israel-Diaspora relations. Participants were presented with several test case scenarios and asked to comment on them and to clarify the various nuances of their positions regarding the desired and current status of these relations.

This was the fifth consecutive year in which a JPPI-initiated worldwide Dialogue was held. Last year (2017) the Dialogue investigated the Jewish people’s relationship with Jerusalem; the results were presented to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on the eve of the 50th Jerusalem Day. The year before that, the Dialogue considered “Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity” – in essence an investigation of the communal meaning of “Jewishness” in our time (2016). The 2015 Dialogue looked at “Jewish Values and Israel’s Use of Force in Armed Conflict,” and the inaugural Dialogue in 2014 was part of a broader effort to formulate recommendations for a possible “constitutional arrangement dealing with Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state.”

All the Dialogue final reports have garnered media attention and were recognized as major contributions in promoting discourse between Israel and the Diaspora. This year, the report is being presented for the first time to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who has given the Dialogue his endorsement in advance of Israel’s 70th Independence Day. The main points will be presented afterward, as they are each year, to the Government of Israel and to decision-makers in Israel and throughout Jewish world.

JPPI is grateful to the dozens of organizations and hundreds of Dialogue participants. The names of the individual participants and communities that took part in the effort appear in the appendix.