Over 100 prominent Diaspora Jews and Israelis including scholars, organizational leaders, philanthropists, opinion-makers and Israeli politicians recently gathered in Jerusalem under the auspices of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute to determine long-term strategies to cope with the challenges facing the Jewish people. Subjects reviewed included existential threats to Israel, the steadily eroding Israel-Diaspora relationship, the shrinking Diaspora, and the crisis of political and spiritual leadership both in Israel and abroad.
The opening address was an overview by JPPPI founding president, Prof. Yehezkel Dror, the brilliant political scientist who also happens to be a member of the Winograd Committee. He was followed by Prof.Irwin Cotler, who reviewed “the gathering storm” and the existential threats to the Jewish people, tempering his concern for the future by reminding participants that the presence of a Jewish state and a powerful American Jewish community was underestimated in the oft-quoted comparisons of the Jewish condition in 2007 to the conditions which prevailed in the 1930s.
The working groups concluded with a number of constructive recommendations as well as some unrealistic ones. But the importance of the JPPPI initiative was that instead of the conventional concentration on impending crises, a gathering of eminent Jews for the first time began seriously reviewing long-term strategies for the Jewish future.
Dror cautioned that the JPPPI should resist the temptation to transform itself into a lobbying group. Despite the distinguished participants, it is first and foremost, a think tank, and its objective should therefore be to encourage a responsible public discourse and create an informed public which should be in a position to promote strategic options for the future.
Inadequate leadership at all levels remains a core problem. However, until Israel overcomes its own leadership failings, the Diaspora will invariably continue to flounder. The sharp erosion of Diaspora support toward the Jewish state, combined with the emergence of post-Zionism, are largely by-products of failed Israeli leadership.
A new “Bundism” is being promoted by a number of Jewish activists who challenge the centrality of Israel in Jewish life. If one adds to this the demographic shrinkage engendered by intermarriage and low birth rates, the Diaspora and the Zionist enterprise are truly at a critical crossroad.
Yet one has to be blind not to see that even today, aside from religiously observant Jews, Israel still represents the principal element contributing toward the Diaspora’s Jewish identity.
In a somewhat shallow address, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert informed the JPPPI that whereas as a youngster he considered himself an Israeli, today he regards himself first and foremost as a Jew, and only then as an Israeli.
Likud Party Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu dealt with the issue more meaningfully, stating that if elected prime minister, he was determined to strengthen Jewish and Zionist values in the educational system to prevent Israeli children from graduating into Hebrew-speaking Canaanites.
Regrettably, the Israeli educational system polarizes the nation by obliging parents to choose between schools which either cater exclusively for children from observant Orthodox families, or the secular stream, which has become increasingly denuded of Jewish values.
The Israeli government also bears an urgent obligation to restore ties with Diaspora Jewish leaders, who in light of what was once termed “the irreversible peace process,” have remained in partial limbo since the Oslo Accords. At that time, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin decided Diaspora Jewish activism on behalf of Israel had become redundant and even counter-productive.
Since then, a combination of incompetence, failed policies and mediocre spokesmen, have contributed to Israel losing the war of ideas. In addition, marginal anti-Zionist splinter groups have emerged from the closet and many now occupy leading roles in campaigns to demonize and delegitimize Israel. Had Israeli governments succeeded in utilizing some of the vast reservoirs of talented Diaspora Jewish scholars, writers, and politicians volunteering their services, perhaps the outcome would have been different.
Ultimately, a Ministry of Diaspora Affairs was created. But following the retirement of Natan Sharansky, it closed down, and was recently again resurrected with Isaac Herzog assuming the role of a part-time minister. Regrettably, Herzog who was initially enthusiastically hailed because of his background and former interest in Diaspora affairs, has until now proven a great disappointment. His duties as minister for Social Welfare have so heavily engaged him that the Diaspora Ministry does not really function. Herzog’s brief participation at the JPPPI was the first time he surfaced in this capacity.
The Global anti-Semitism Conference created by Sharansky recently convened a successful international gathering, organized by Aviva Schechter of the Foreign Ministry. But allegedly due to inadequate resources, it remains dormant. At the JPPPI conference, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni seemed unaware of any problem but undertook “to look into the matter.”
Currently, beyond links with American Jewish professionals and major donors, there is no effective liaison with the Diaspora. Visiting Jewish leaders occasionally have photo-ops with the prime minister and other ministers, but they have scant liaison with Israeli representatives on a day-to-day basis. This problem was compounded by the collapse of the World Jewish Congress which over the past three years has concentrated exclusively in trying to overcome its own scandals.
The chaos in this area was exemplified a few weeks ago when it was reported that German Jewish leaders had formally requested that the German government prohibit NATIV, the once-clandestine agency formerly responsible for Soviet Jewry, from operating among former Russian Jews in Germany. The absence of coordination between the ministries involved and lack of liaison with the German Jewish community is symptomatic of the anarchy associated with Diaspora affairs.
The breakdown in Israel-Diaspora relations has also contributed to the decline in the quality of Diaspora Jewish leadership. In the United States, Jewish professionals continue providing effective leadership. But in Europe, where anti-Semitism and delegitimization of Israel have reached unprecedented levels, a number of Jewish leaders have begun floundering. As a consequence some youngsters have begun distancing themselves from Israel and even associating with the anti-Zionist chic in order to achieve social acceptability.
In this environment, the JPPPI should be commended for convening such a high-level meeting to try to create strategies for the future. Hopefully, there will be a follow up with smaller working groups concentrating on specific issues. Creating an informed public discourse in this area can become a precursor for dealing with many of our hitherto neglected long-term problems and overcoming the threats and challenges facing the Jewish people.
Our newly elected president, Shimon Peres, has signaled his willingness to be involved with the JPPPI in this process. Needless to say, his presence could have a major impact. We can only hope that he resists the temptation to promote some of his more outlandish views and concentrates on employing his undoubted talent, sophistication and charisma in helping to resolve the many challenges facing Israel and Diaspora Jewry.
The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel Relations Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is a veteran international Jewish leader. [email protected]