A New Government Initiative that Aims to Spend Hundreds of Millions of Shekels on Diaspora Jews Is a Good Start, but it Is Only a Start

June 22, 2014

Source: The Times of Israel


Earlier this month, the Israeli cabinet approved a new government initiative to invest some NIS 60 million ($17 million) in programs that connect Diaspora Jews with Israel. The new money isn’t much, but it’s only the beginning, intended as seed money for new programs that will be expanded if they prove successful. In 2016, the government has promised, the cabinet will hold a second vote, this time on a massive expansion of the funding by as much as NIS 400 million ($116 million) per year.


Since the Israeli taxpayer already spends roughly that much on programs for Diaspora Jews (including, for example, Birthright Israel and the Masa grant program), such an increase would bring the total Israeli government spending on Diaspora Jews to NIS 800 million annually. An official who served as a key planner for the new initiative suggested to The Times of Israel that the 2017 state budget would see the real number climb to as high as 1 billion shekels.


A billion shekels. It’s worth pausing to reflect on the astounding fact that the Israeli political system, which squirmed uncomfortably at the thought of spending a few millions of shekels on Birthright only a decade ago, is now ready and willing to spend such sums on something as long-term and amorphous, at least in the minds of most Israeli taxpayers, as “the Diaspora.”


In fact, if the budget increase is approved in 2016, Diaspora policy will become the fastest-growing area of government spending. The bastard child of Israeli foreign policy, which is even today splintered into four or five ministries with no clear strategy and only ad hoc funding, may be slowly coming into its own….


Yet while the plan is a victory for a few officials who have struggled in the trenches to shepherd it through the many obstacles that lay in its path — the two most important figures in this success are Diaspora Ministry director general Dvir Kahana and Jewish Agency director general Alan Hoffmann — it is a success limited by the fact that the new Diaspora policy is being constructed piecemeal, driven by a few simple, tested precedents rather than a broader understanding of what Israel actually wants and needs from the broader Jewish world.


At the end of the day, a thin layer of government officials, spurred by the Jewish Agency and a handful of other Diaspora-minded groups, are funding initiatives invented by the Diaspora and intended to serve the Diaspora’s needs. Again: this is a remarkable success. It is no small achievement for official Israel to be eagerly expanding its participation in the major identity-strengthening projects of the Jewish people.


Yet the thinking and underlying assumptions behind the new initiative are not driven by an Israeli strategy or any meaningful Israeli vision of the broad trends of Jewish history or of how Israel — the Jewish state and possessor of the lion’s share of the Jewish people’s combined resources — wants to shape that history….


With the loss of Europe, the Jewish people lost the overlapping cultural assumptions shared by the vast majority of Jews that made even very disparate Jewish societies comprehensible to each other. Today’s two major Jewish centers are based on fundamentally different assumptions about what constitutes Jewish identity and culture — and these differences are driving them further apart as the early-20th-century immigrant origins of each community recede farther into the distant past…


It is astonishing how little the Jews of the Jewish state actually know about their brethren overseas. There is no systematic teaching about Diaspora Jewry in Israeli education, even in schools that receive Diaspora Jewish funds for “school twinning” with Diaspora Jewish schools. Israeli newspapers rarely report on a Diaspora story that isn’t an anti-Semitic attack on a beleaguered Jewish community. Most Hebrew-speaking reporters openly admit that they do not really understand any other story…


Policies must be driven by knowledge. When Israeli ministers routinely and grotesquely misunderstand American Jewish reality, this dearth of knowledge becomes destructive….


If Israel is, as Israeli officials claim, the vehicle for Jewish history, it bears a responsibility that goes beyond military defense of beleaguered Jews. The overarching goal of a Diaspora policy must be to bridge the lost cultural overlap, to reforge a shared Jewish civilizational space three generations after it was sundered.


This means educating Israelis about the history and culture of living diasporas, not only dead ones. Beyond mass education, the elites must be trained to see and overcome the cultural gap. One hopeful sign is that the National Staff College, the educational institution of Israel’s security services, has hosted an annual lecture on Diaspora Jewry for the past fifteen years (full disclosure: delivered by this reporter’s father, Dr. Edward Rettig).


But such initiatives are few and far between, and don’t amount to a systematic effort to make sure the next generation of Israeli leaders are less ignorant about world Jewry than the last one.
Besides the education of Israelis, there are immense opportunities for Israel to act in the Jewish world.


Obsessed with continuity, and therefore with “the young,” American Jews as a community invest much of their identity-building efforts on those under 30. But this leaves millions largely unserved when it comes to Jewish identity programming. If Israel trips work at a younger age, why wouldn’t they work at an older one?

Israel should consider an expansion of Birthright-style visits to include older age groups (Birthright stops at 26), and to think carefully about funding long-term Hebrew and Israel studies in the Diaspora to allow returnees from such programs to continue to engage with Israel at a high level….


And everywhere, everywhere, no matter the program or the population being served, there must be teaching. Each side must learn about the other. Israelis who want aliyah must understand that Americans will only leave America if they already feel at home elsewhere, if they identify through deep knowledge and experience with Israeli culture and society. And that they are more likely than other immigrants to move back and forth without qualms between their two national homes. Americans are not opposed to such aliyah, as they have learned in recent years that a secular American Jew who isn’t imbibing the Hebrew culture of Israel, directly or indirectly, is unlikely to have Jewish grandchildren…


There is much work to be done and incalculable benefits to Israel and Diaspora Jewry from rebuilding a shared Jewish culture. Israel would do well by doing good, both financially and in every other benefit that can be had from a devoted diaspora. Diaspora Jewry, which invented Birthright, hardly needs to be convinced.


In a sense, the Jews have always been engaged in a rebellion against history. Haredim consciously defy modernity. Zionists spoke of the “catastrophes” of the 20th century decades before the Holocaust, and of the need to divert the flow of history to avoid disaster. Now, as the natural forces of history tear us apart in ways so deep that we are not entirely aware of the change, we, too, must recall that we are heirs to this history of rebellion. We can rebuild the lost unity that once defined the Jewish people, a unity of shared assumptions and values and commitments, before it is too late.


Read the entire article at The Israel Times.

Updated: Jun. 25, 2014