A Comment on the Prime Minister’s Diaspora Initiative

It is beyond me how the Prime Minister and various Ministers can support the PMI at the expense of ensuring that Israel’s educational system is successful in instilling a healthy sense of Jewish identity and until we have responded to the critical social welfare needs that are plaguing Israel society.

by Stephen Donshik

I have spent a good portion of my professional career working in areas at the intersection of the Israel-Diaspora relationship. In addition to my social work education I have a certificate in Jewish communal service from Hebrew Union College. During my career I have monitored and evaluated programs funded by the local Federation campaigns in Israel; I represented the precursor to the Jewish Federations of North America, the Council of Jewish Federations of North America, in Israel; and I was director of the Israel Office of the UJA-Federation of New York. I cite these aspects of my professional experience to set the stage for my comments on the new “Joint Initiative of The Government of Israel and World Jewry”, sometimes referred to as the Prime Minister’s Initiative (PMI), proposed by the Israeli government.

I have lived in Israel for more than 30 years and I have witnessed and participated in the absorption of Jews from all around the globe. Bringing Jews from the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia was no less than a miracle, which was made possible both by a change in global politics and the unique partnership between Israel and Jewish communities around the world. Israel has never been a rich country, although today there are very wealthy Israelis who are part of the social fabric of the country that is 65 years old.

Throughout Israel’s history, Jewish communities around the world have always been willing and able to assist Israel when it has needed either political or financial support to defend itself in wars or to bring Jews “home” to Israel. From even before the state was created, there have been programs and projects with the goal of bringing needed resources to the Jewish state. Whether it was finding a way to supply needed armaments during the War of Independence, or providing funds in the 1950s to build schools, or facilitating new immigrants to make their way to Israel, there was always a helpful response from allied Jewish communities from the various continents.

The Zionist pioneers who founded the country anticipated that Jews from all around the world would “come home” and be part of the Jewish people’s eternal dream of returning to the land of Israel. It quickly became evident that this would not happen and that Jews from the free democratic countries and from the totalitarian regimes would not want to come or would not be able to come, respectively. Yet, it was also evident that Jews throughout the world felt a strong sense of both pride in and identification with the Jewish State – which was translated into people coming on missions to Israel and generously supporting fundraising campaigns to assist in the building and strengthening of the state from afar.

During its first four to five decades of existence Israel was struggling to absorb immigrants from more than 100 different countries, and its economy could not support everything that needed to be accomplished to build a strong Jewish democratic state. So there were continuous fundraising campaigns and in times of war – whether the War of Independence, the Sinai Campaign, Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Gulf War, Shalom B’Galil War, or the Second Lebanese War – there was an even greater outpouring of support.

Over time programs were created to instill a sense of mutuality between the Diaspora and Israel so that it was just not one side giving and the other side receiving. In the 1970s Menachem Begin initiated Project Renewal to enlist local Israelis in the planning, development, and implementation of social and capital projects in their communities. It was the beginning of the change in the relationship between Jews who were supporting Israel and the Israelis who were beneficiaries of this support. With the advent of Partnership 2000 more than 20 years ago, Israeli civic leaders and public officials were asked to work together with leadership of Jewish communities in the Diaspora with an even stronger focus on mutuality. This program continues to link geographic areas in Israel with specific Diaspora communities for the purposes of enhancing their relationship and providing support for Israeli programs.

Throughout all this time Israel struggled to develop and maintain educational, health, and human services. Leaving its ideological socialism behind, it became more free enterprise oriented. As a result, the hi-tech boom of the late 1990s created a new layer of Israel society, people who had such wealth that the founding generation would have never envisioned such a phenomenon. Are these super-wealthy doing their fair share, in supporting philanthropy in Israel?

While these economic changes were ongoing in Israel, Jewish communities around the world struggled with the meaning of Jewish identity and devastating demographic projections. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey and the recent Pew study have indicated that Jews in the United States, in particular, are facing a continuity crisis and there is real fear over the loss of the upcoming young Jewish generation. So, the Israeli governments in concert with Israeli and American Jewish leaders are working on a new Jewish Diaspora Initiative (PMI) that will seek to save the Jews from themselves in free democratic societies.

Taglit-Birthright Israel, which provides free ten-day trips to Israel, was designed to provide young Jewish adults a “blast Jewish experience” that was thought would ensure their identification with the Jewish people for the future. However, we now understand that although it is a creative and successful program, it cannot possibly guarantee that every participant will want to live a strongly identified Jewish life after their ten-day experience. So, Jewish social scientists, communal leaders, and religious personalities are again concerned about the fate of our people.

Reading this week’s article in The Jerusalem Post about the PMI stunned me. Steven Cohen, a sociologist studying North American Jewry who was involved in the planning process, is quoted as saying, “Never has the Israeli taxpayer been called upon to invest as much in Jewish education in the Diaspora.” I do not mean to be insulting, but I almost choked on this statement. Where are the Israeli politicians? What planet are they on? Who do they think they are?

Israel’s education system has not proven its ability to instill a sense of Jewish identity in Israeli citizens! The educational establishment in Israel does not even have an agreed-on concept of Jewish identity. There are multiple school systems in Israel, each with its own concept, philosophy, and approach to Jewish education and identity. For example, the tensions between religious and secular Israelis are indicative of the inability of the educational system to communicate a sense of “respect for the other” as exemplified by the mitzvot ben-adam-l-chavaro, those religious behavioral guidelines for the relationship between people. The outright intolerance of ultra-Orthodox Jews for secular and vice versa has unfortunately become a hallmark of our society. What are Israeli educators going to teach Jews in the Diaspora about education and identity?

Another example of the absurdity of the PMI is the use of precious financial resources in Israel to provide services to the Diaspora. I would encourage every Jewish leader to read the recent State of the Nation Report: Society, Economy and Policy in Israel 2011-12 released by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. Among the developed Western countries Israel has very high rates of poverty among children and elderly Holocaust survivors, and there is a growing disparity in income levels between minority populations and the rest of society. The gap between the Jewish sector and the Israeli Arab sector is particularly large. It is beyond me how the Prime Minister and various Ministers can support the PMI at the expense of ensuring that Israel’s educational system is successful in instilling a healthy sense of Jewish identity and until we have responded to the critical social welfare needs that are plaguing Israel society.

If there is a Jewish identity crisis in the Diaspora among Jews between the ages of 12–35, then those communities must understand the source of the problem and address it. Perhaps the communities need to invest more of their own resources in strengthening Jewish families and not waiting for the child to enter adolescence to begin to worry about his or her identity. However, this is another issue and I will leave it for a future post. In the meantime, I would hope that my fellow Israelis would be a little bit more modest and focus on local issues before solving problems in communities around the world.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.

Also see, “Is It a Camel or a Horse? Some Thoughts on The Prime Minister’s Initiative.