Doubts Cloud Israel’s Diaspora Push

Doubts Cloud Israel’s Diaspora Push

Practical, ideological questions hover over big-money project to fortify Jewish identity.

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

The Israeli government is about to finalize a major initiative intended to inspire, engage and empower Jews around the world. At a cost of up to several hundred million dollars annually over the next six or seven years, it seeks to promote Jewish identity throughout the diaspora, particularly among young people.

The move marks a new level of the paradigm shift in the Israel-diaspora relationship, a dramatic transition from one that saw the diaspora giving (money) to now receiving (Jewish connections), and to Israel taking on the role of benefactor rather than schnorrer.

So why are American Jewish communal and professional leaders greeting the news with more skepticism than enthusiasm?

Most likely because the project, formally known as The Joint Initiative of the Government of Israel and World Jewry, is still more of a concept than a reality. And there are still major issues to be resolved, like, for starters, where will the money come from, who will decide how it’s spent and what exactly will it be funding?

“Most successful projects begin with a Big Idea,” one veteran Jewish communal professional told me the other day, “and then you go out and convince organizations and philanthropists to fund it. This is the opposite.” He said that the PMI plan calls for raising large sums of money — one-third from the Israeli government, one-third from Jewish federations and philanthropists and one-third from fees for service — and then convening an array of diaspora and Israeli leaders to decide what to do with it.

In truth the initiative has been public since last summer when an impressive group of Israeli and diaspora leaders, experts and funders met to discuss how to translate an idea — strengthening the connection between Israeli and diaspora Jews — into reality. The consensus was to focus on “transformative and immersive” programs like Jewish teen summers in Israel; educators to personally engage Jewish students on campus; and opportunities for post-college young adults to connect with each other and the community.

Led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, the initiative formed seven “content teams” that produced a document to define a strategy. It sets the stage for serious collaboration between Israeli and diaspora partners. A series of consultations in recent months deepened the dialogue and engaged more than 2,000 Jews from around the world who shared ideas through online discussion.

This attempt seems both grander and more serious than previous ones along these lines because it is being driven by an Israeli government prepared to open its coffers, not some outside think-tank. Some say Jerusalem’s motive is based on a sense of responsibility to preserve and sustain Jewish peoplehood around the world. Others, more cynical, say it is an act of self-interest, pointing out that a shrinking diaspora with fewer committed Jews weakens Israel’s clout in Washington and elsewhere.

I suspect the purpose for the initiative is a combination of both.

`The Next Big Jewish World Start-Up’

Bennett, who serves not only as minister of diaspora affairs but also as minister of the economy, is direct in describing the problem as he sees it.

“We’re at an inflection point,” he told me in an exclusive phone interview a few days ago. “What has worked for years [in engaging diaspora Jews] is not working anymore, especially among younger people. We see a drifting away, with some losing their desire to have a strong Jewish identity. So we see this strategic initiative as the next big Jewish World Start-Up.”

He said that he and other Israeli leaders approach this project “very humbly — we don’t have the answers as to what needs to be done. It has to be a partnership, not with Israel dictating. We have to put our money where our mouth is.”

This is a marked change in Israeli thinking, he acknowledged, given that “many Israelis see the diaspora, and especially American Jews, as either a source of aliyah or a wallet [for financial support].” Noting that a goal of the Joint Initiative is “to strengthen connections between diaspora and Israeli Jews,” he said that a key element is “getting a gradual buy-in from Israelis.”

At a time when Israel has incurred the biggest budget cut in its history, Bennett said, it is a sign of true commitment that the state is prepared to “invest for the future of the Jewish people around the world … which means that taxpayers in Tel Aviv and Haifa” will be contributing to this effort.

Not surprisingly, there are those in Israel who argue that it is misguided, if not unethical, for Israel to put aside serious funding for the diaspora when it has chronic social welfare needs and a declining educational system at home. And some American Jewish leaders question the Joint Initiative on ideological and/or practical grounds. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, opposes the idea of Jerusalem dictating diaspora identity. He wrote on The Times Of Israel website that “the multimillion-dollar plan uses the guise of an altruistic and philanthropic effort to essentially obliterate the self-defined and idiosyncratic identity of American Jewry, and to replace it with a version better aligned to [Israel’s] own self-interest.”

Kurtzer and others also question whether the Jerusalem government and Jewish Agency, neither of which is known for its organizational skills, should be driving the project.

Not to mention the serious issue raised over where “new” money for major projects will come from — given that the federation system is struggling to meet financial goals for existing programs at home and abroad.

`Don’t Sit On The Sidelines’

Naftali Bennett remains upbeat. He acknowledges that “we will face political problems” in providing funds for the diaspora, but insists, “we will get this done.”

He said that the beauty of the project is “you get a threefold return on your money,” with the matching funding from the government, funders and service fees. He asserted that the Joint Initiative will be a true partnership and that it will be driven by “a lean, energetic and flexible leadership,” yet to be determined, and “operating at high-tech speed, not government speed.”

His overall response to skeptics was “join us, don’t sit on the sidelines. I don’t have all the answers, but together, with creative energy and investment, big things can happen.”

Filling in on some of the details, Hagay Elitzur, who serves as the day-to-day point person on the Israeli team, said that the idea is to start small and build out; experiment and see what works. Funds would also go to existing programs that are successful, like Birthright Israel and Masa, which offer short and long-term stays in Israel for young adults, as well as Hillel efforts on campus.

“We know we have to prove ourselves,” he said. “We will start with pilot programs” and expand from there, involving funders on a “pay-to-play” basis, with decision-making based in part on levels of commitment.

It’s easy to see why veterans in the Jewish communal world have their doubts about this much-lauded initiative, given the “fuzziness” of it at this point, in the words of one professional. “Everything depends on what they end up doing,” says a major federation exec, though there is a kind of circular logic at play here; the Joint Initiative advocates insist that more participation will lead to more creativity and success.

Jewish And Democratic

Aside from the fact that the initiative is geared only to young people at this point, there also seems to be lag in addressing a growing concern among young diaspora Jews: Is Israel living up to its mandate to be a Jewish and democratic state?

A new report from the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), an Israel-diaspora think tank, finds wide agreement among Jews here and in Israel that being both Jewish and democratic is desirable and possible for Jerusalem. But the report, “Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry,” also notes that there is a strong connection between the feelings of young Jews about Judaism and their feelings about Israel.

“Their growing assertiveness in expressing criticism of Israel was conspicuous,” the report says, “particularly on subjects related to Israel’s Jewish identity.” That would include dissatisfaction with the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish life, and frustration over the continuing occupation as inconsistent with values of democracy and human rights.

Further, diaspora Jews want a voice in these matters, in part because “Israel’s policy and its world image have an impact on diaspora Jews’ security and wellbeing,” according to the report.

The Prime Ministers Initiative is significant, and potentially historic, in that it seeks to be a true partnership in expanding and creating programs to educate diaspora Jews about Jewish identity and strengthening the ties of Jewish peoplehood worldwide.

But as the JPPI report indicates, the initiative needs to define partnership beyond dollars and programming. The more Israeli society reflects and responds to the democratic impulses of young diaspora Jews — while educating them about the reality of life in the Mideast and the limits it creates — the more hope there is for strengthening the Israel-diaspora bonds that have become frayed.

Gary Rosenblatt has been the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week for 20 years and has written more than 1,000 "Between The Lines" columns since 1993. Now a collection of 80 of those columns, ranging from Mideast analysis to childhood remembrances as "the Jewish rabbi's son" in Annapolis, Md., is available. Click here for details. 


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