By: Dr. Shlomo Fischer, Dr. John Ruskay
The State of Israel has upgraded its commitment to Diaspora Jewry through a constitutional obligation enshrined in the Basic Law: Israel – The Nation-State of the Jewish People. This Basic Law, which is part of the state’s emerging constitution, stipulates, among other things, that Israel will act to preserve ties between the state and Jews living outside it, and that it will act to preserve the Jewish heritage of Diaspora Jewry. What is the meaning of this commitment, and how should we work to fulfill it? This is the topic addressed by the Jewish People Policy Institute’s 2021 Jewish World Dialogue.
In the past, a large majority of Jews in Israel and abroad shared a natural sense that we are one people, that the ties between the different parts of the people are strong and clear. However, this feeling seems to have diminished in the past generation. Jews in Israel and abroad do not always experience the natural solidarity with each other that they did in the past. There are general, universal reasons for this (the post-modern age, identity politics, the impact of social media, and more) that have also led other groups (such as American society and Israeli society) to division and increasing strife. But beyond this, the distancing between Diaspora Jewry and Israel is the result of significant differences between the life experiences of Israeli and Diaspora Jews, as well as concrete disagreements over national, religious, and cultural issues.
Can these distancing trends be addressed and mitigated? Can actions be taken to bring us – Jews in Israel and Jews abroad – closer together? Can the commitment made by the State of Israel in the Nation-State Law serve as a starting point for a beneficial effort in this area?
It is fascinating that the tragic crisis in Ukraine, which is deepening at the time of this writing, has actually rekindled the natural feeling of being “one people.” The State of Israel, the Jewish Agency, and the major Jewish organizations in the Diaspora are cooperating on behalf of the Jews of Ukraine, who are in real trouble. The dormant musculature of solidarity between Jews has been reactivated and is once again being exercised. Thus, a recent Jewish People Policy Institute survey, conducted against the backdrop of this tragic development, found that three-quarters of Israeli Jews feel close to Diaspora Jewry. But, of course, this is not enough. We must work systematically toward a long-term goal of unity within the Jewish people, even under routine conditions. How?
The fascinating Dialogue presented here between Jews of different continents, different ages, and diverse backgrounds, shows that there is a basic desire to renew the connection between Jews in Israel and outside it, and measures should be undertaken that are tailored to different target populations:
First, with regard to Israeli Jews, a significant meaningful educational effort must be undertaken, with the goal of bringing the history and experience of Diaspora Jewry into the awareness Israeli Jews. There is a lack of basic knowledge, which causes alienation and indifference to their brethren overseas. We at the Jewish People Policy Institute hope to address this problem through a defined course of action.
Second, regarding the Diaspora Jews who feel distant from Israel and sometimes dissatisfied with it, an organized effort is required to dramatically scale up opportunities for interpersonal encounters that advance mutual understanding, despite the differences and disagreements. As the Dialogue shows, most participants feel that resources should be invested in promoting the physical accessibility of Jews from both Israel and abroad. Person to person encounters are the best remedy for the alienation we are currently experiencing.
Third, some Diaspora Jews show, in part, a willingness to allow Israeli involvement in Diaspora Jewish education, either through economic support (in formal and informal education systems) or the preparation of relevant curricula (with an emphasis on Hebrew learning). However, many of them caution against politicization in this sphere, and against patronizing attitudes on Israel’s part, which, of course, must be avoided.
The authors of this Dialogue report – Dr. John Ruskay and Dr. Shlomo Fischer, both Senior Fellows at JPPI – recommend a polyphonic approach to our shared identity. This means opening our hearts to each other – not out of agreement with each other’s views, but as a basis for understanding them. The secret of maintaining Jewish brotherhood, even in an era of disagreement, lies in our ability to be tolerant of one another. Our life circumstances differ, our choices – personal and collective – are not identical, but we are still family, one people.
Many thanks to the hundreds of Dialogue participants and, of course, to John and Shlomo, who conducted it with great sensitivity and talent. We at JPPI will do everything in our power to make the policy recommendations contained in this report accessible to decision makers in Israel and abroad.
Prof. Yedidia Stern, President
The Jewish People Policy Institute