Pushing peoplehood

First-of-its-kind delegation sends IDF officers to U.K. to learn about Diaspora Jewry

In an initiative funded by the Israeli government and philanthropy, 63 mid-career personnel visit London’s Jewish community

A group of 63 Israel Defense Forces officers returned to Israel on Monday following a first-of-its-kind eight-day delegation to London as part of a new joint initiative organized by the military, the Gesher organization, Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry and AMI – the National Alliance Strengthening Israelis’ Connection to World Jewry.

“We’re used to going abroad and telling people, ‘This is why Israel matters, so come donate, come support us, come help lobby for us,’” Shlomit Mali, the CEO of AMI, who led the delegation, told eJewishPhilanthropy on Wednesday. “This was the opposite: We didn’t come to tell, we came to listen.”

While there are a growing number of initiatives to bring Israeli leaders to Diaspora communities, this trip represented the first such delegation made up solely of IDF officers. Mali said the vast majority of the participants – 56 of 63 – held the rank of major, while the different groups that the delegation was broken up into were each led by a lieutenant colonel. A number of more senior officers, including a brigadier general, also participated in the delegation. 

The delegation was funded jointly by the IDF, through the Defense Ministry budget, and AMI – the National Alliance Strengthening Israelis’ Connection to World Jewry, which is itself jointly funded by the Israeli government and private philanthropy, primarily the Maimonides Fund and the William Davidson Foundation.

Mali said this delegation was a pilot program with plans to expand the initiative to potentially eight trips each year by IDF officers to Jewish communities around the world. The organizers specifically chose to open this type of trip to majors because they are still “connected to the ground,” with regular contact with rank-and-file soldiers, “but they are also on track to hold higher ranks,” Mali said.

In a statement, Gesher explained that the goal of the trip was to both deepen the participants’ connection to Jews in the Diaspora and to strengthen the “feeling of significance and dedication toward IDF service.”

Ahead of the trip, the participants had two one-day seminars preparing them for the delegation, and they will have another debriefing session next week, Mali said.

In London, the delegation visited a number of Jewish communities, Jewish schools and British universities to speak with Jewish students. They also visited the House of Lords and met two Jewish lords and a Jewish baroness. “We heard what it’s like dealing with antisemitism. We heard about demographics. There was a panel with liberal Jewish communities and a panel with Haredi communities. We visited three synagogues on Shabbat,” Mali said.

While the focus of the trip was primarily to listen to British Jews in order to understand their experiences, challenges and considerations, the participants did also speak at some of the schools they visited to describe “the IDF’s challenges and significant activities.”

“Officers and commanders went out to understand the challenges facing the Jewish people in the Diaspora, what they deal with and particularly to ask what we in Israel can do to strengthen this connection to them. This is a breakthrough for the State of Israel and the IDF,” Ilan Geal Dor, the CEO of Gesher, said in a statement.

Mali said the organizers chose London after considering a number of other potential locations. “It’s a very interesting, varied community so we decided to start there,” she said, adding that in the future delegations will visit other countries and cities as well.

Mali said that many of the participants have personal connections to Diaspora Jewry – some made aliyah when they were younger and others have close relatives living outside of Israel. Though the overwhelming majority of the participants were Jewish Israelis, some were not, coming from either Israel’s Druze or Bedouin communities.

“It was a very strong [experience] for them as well,” Mali said, noting that they had chosen to join the delegation and “fully participated” in the discussions.

“The connection to Diaspora Jewry is a critical facet of the State of Israel’s national security,” Maj. Gen. Yaniv Assur, the head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, said in a statement. “Soldiers from 69 different countries and Jewish communities serve in the IDF.”

Mali said the officers participating in the program told her that it was an eye-opening experience for them. 

“Most Israelis don’t know anything about Diaspora Jewry. They don’t know where exactly they live, how they live, how many there are,” she said. “One officer came up to me and said, exaggerating a little, ‘I thought there were 10 Jews in the world. Now I found out there are vibrant, lustrous communities.’”