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Jerusalem and the Jewish People: Unity and Division

For 2000 years Jews around the world have faced Jerusalem in prayer. This year we celebrate 50 years of reunification. Despite the challenges posed by demography and the composition of its citizens, most Jews feel at home the moment they step into the city. Not just religious, but also traditional and secular Israelis stand before the Kotel and find spiritual meaning at crucial life junctures. These feelings are shared by Jews around the globe – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or unaffiliated.  This is why the Cabinet decision to freeze the plan for an egalitarian worship space has created such sharp tension.

For this reason, the decision to dedicate JPPI’s 2017 Structured Jewish World Dialogue to the significance of Jerusalem for Israel-Diaspora ties was at once obvious and appropriate. One of the most significant findings of this year’s Dialogue process was that Diaspora Jewish leaders everywhere, and many non-Israeli Jews too, feel that their views should be taken into consideration in the shaping of the cultural and political future of Jerusalem, the eternal capital at the core of Jewish identity writ large.

What are the common concerns of Israeli and Diaspora Jews? First and foremost is that the city maintains a Jewish majority, which is currently threatened by the growth of the non-Jewish population within the broad borders of greater Jerusalem. A second concern is the “Haredization” of the city, which imperils its original pluralistic character and its economic well-being. Many Israeli and Diaspora Jews worry that the Orthodox religious system has become a monopoly that uses the Israel political system to advance the agenda of one part of the Jewish people.

This is the fourth year that JPPI has been building a structure for a systematic discourse on issues at the core of what connects all Jews globally. We are still on a learning curve.

The first Dialogue was on the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; the second dealt with Jewish values and the use of force in wartime; the third took on the Jewish spectrum in this era of fluid identity. It is not surprising that Jerusalem is the nerve center of them all.

In 2018 we will celebrate 70 years of renewed Jewish sovereignty. Israel is home to the largest Jewish community in the world. This is precisely the right time to look at what unites us as a people, and also at what may generate distance as a result of geographical and ideological diffusion. For this reason, we are engaging a substantial representation of younger-generation participants, drawing on joint programs of Israeli and Diaspora youth to stimulate a lively conversation between them.

I would like to express my gratitude to the William Davidson Foundation for their support of our Pluralism and Democracy project and this Dialogue endeavor, which is encouraging a deeper mutual understanding among Jews the world over. Special thanks and deep appreciation go to the project heads, our Senior Fellows, the Israeli Shmuel Rosner and his American partner John Ruskay for their extremely impressive work. They represent the two biggest Jewish communities in the world. I would also like to thank Noah Slepkov for his statistical analysis and Chaya Ekstein-Koppel for coordinating the process.

The 2017 Dialogue was launched in Jerusalem at a meeting of representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and was concluded at the President of Israel’s official residence. President Rivlin initiated a tradition with JPPI three years ago to bring together representatives of all the streams to study Jewish texts together on Tisha b’Av. More than 500 individuals participated in approximately 50 discussion seminars worldwide. JPPI’s effort to enhance pluralism in the Jewish world has from its inception enjoyed the encouragement of Israeli leaders like the late President Shimon Peres z”l, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and JAFI’s Chairman Natan Sharansky as well as the support and cooperation of Jewish communities and organizations abroad.

Last but certainly not least, I want to mention the help and commitment of the Institute’s leadership, especially Stuart Eizenstat, Dennis Ross, Leonid Nevzlin, and Elliott Abrams who make an invaluable contribution to our Professional Guiding Council.

Avinoam Bar-Yosef