If World-Jewry Leadership Had an Agenda

By Gidi Grinstein

Today, on the eve of Rosh HaShana of 5778, the Government of Israel announced to Israel’s Supreme Court that it stands by its decision in June to cancel the so-called Kotel Compromise, sending shock waves across the pro-Israel community around the world and primarily in the USA. Indeed, some 600 rabbis and leaders of the Conservative Movement and the Jewish community recently signed a letter threatening to use their pulpits during the coming High Holidays for protesting against Israel. As justified as this anger may be, such a response also represents a missed opportunity to share a new and exciting vision for a future relationship between World Jewry and Israel.

Indeed, all of us who believe that Israel must remain the nation state of the entire Jewish People should be very concerned with this evident and unprecedented crisis. Israel’s most committed allies are pushed to embrace aggressive responses that include calls for targeted boycotts on and disassociation from Israel.

At the same time, these events also expose the extent to which the intellectual neglect and complacent leadership of World Jewry have created a void. There is no doubt that some of the underlying reasons for this crisis are deep trends in demography and culture, which are difficult to change (see the Conceptual Framework of the Reut Group). Yet, this crisis also highlights the absence of a constructive and coherent agenda for shaping an Israel-World-Jewry relationship that emanates from a vision of Israel as the nation state of the entire Jewish People. In that absence, Israeli-Palestinian relations and religious pluralism in Israel have come to dominate the public discourse and fill that vacuum.

Much work must be done in Israel about World Jewry: Israeli civic leaders, civil servants and influencers need to be engaged and educated. World-Jewry leadership too must shake up, beginning with the backbone of its Israel-engaged rabbis, embracing a narrative of pride in its legacy and place in Jewish history and future that emanates from a confident view that a vibrant Diaspora is a Zionist imperative (here), so that they are able to stare Israeli leaders in the eye without a sense of inferiority.

Once that essential outlook is formed, the question must be: what should be the subsequent agenda for Israel-World-Jewry relations? At the foundation of this agenda lies a tension between Israel’s sovereignty and its ethos. Being a sovereign nation that is also self-proclaimed as a nation-state of the entire Jewish People means that Israel is committed to nearly nine million Israelis, as well as to nearly ten million world Jews, albeit in different ways. This tension has implications on the workings and acts of Israel’s government and legislature, primarily in key areas.

Clearly, acceptance of and respect for all Jewish denominations is a cornerstone for such relationship, and consequently, the Kotel Compromise must be re-enacted. But what else? How do we work our way ‘back from a future’ when Israel is a focal point for a thriving global Jewry that makes an outsized contribution to humanity?

The first principle is significance. It calls for the Government of Israel to formalize the relations of Israel with world-Jewry as a national security asset. That statement must be substantiated with budgets, staff and procedures, primarily at the National Security Council. This is notwithstanding the important work of the Ministries of Diaspora Affairs and Foreign Affairs through the diplomatic missions around the world. The present condition, when the work of assessment and strategy in this area has basically been outsourced to non-governmental entities, such as the JPPI, is simply unhealthy.

The second principle calls for no-surprises by establishing permanent dialogue among World-Jewry institutions and the relevant agencies of the Government of Israel regarding areas that affect world Jewry. On such issues, no policy or legislation should be established without substantive prior consultations, as happened in the case of the Kotel Compromise, which was cancelled without discussion with the Jewish Agency or Nathan Sharansky, who led these negotiations.

The third principle speaks about areas that off-limit for state-level legislation or policy by the Knesset of the Government of Israel. These areas include conversions, kashrut or aspects of religious observance. In other words, these issues should only be enacted upon by local authorities. The underlying logic is that the evolution of the Jewish People has always emanated from self-regulating communities in a bottom-up manner. Therefore, Israel’s top-down legislation and policy-making on such matters is in fact a-Jewish and disrupts one of the key secretes for the resilience and longevity of the Jewish People. In other words, the legislature of the nation state of the Jewish People must be self-restrained.

The fourth principle is mutual acquaintance. The civic leadership of Israel, as well as its civil servants and political elite, must be deeply acquainted with the Jewish world through repeating immersive programs in Jewish communities, often referred to as ‘reverse Birthright.’ This would only be reciprocal, as Jewish leaders from around the world often know Israel intimately through repetitive quality visits.

The fifth principle calls for a dialogue of equals, based on the notion that a vibrant diaspora is a Zionist imperative. Therefore, the narrative of Jewish peoplehood which is respectful of World Jewry should be integrated as a core theme in the Israeli education system, as well as in universities, government colleges and other institutions that a relevant based on a narrative which is respectful of World Jewry.

The sixth principle highlights people-to-people engagement through programs such as Birthright Israel, Masa, Shlichim or Partnership Together, that must be significantly expanded.

Finally, there needs to be a shared vision that is relevant for the 21st century, The Jewish People enjoys unprecedented power, affluence and influence. For the first time in our history, we are able to contribute to humanity not only qualitatively, through our values and ideas, but also quantitatively by improving the lives of many millions of people. That ability must be translated into a commitment, which is shared by all Jewish communities and the State of Israel, to making an outsized contribution to humanity.

Gidi Grinstein is the Founder of the Reut Group and the author of Flexigidity: the Secret of Jewish Adaptability. Section IV of the book deals with the essence of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish People in the 21st century.