Israel and Diaspora – a Vision for a New Partnership

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By Michael Fridman

On May 14, 1948, an event that became the key milestone in the 5,000-year history of the Jewish people took place on Tel-Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. It was also one of the key events of the 20th century: the People’s Administration, headed by David Ben-Gurion, adopted the Declaration of Independence for the State of Israel. De jure this marked the creation of the Jewish State. Later on, as Prime Minister, Ben-Gurion would utter his famous statement, one that remains the best description of this historic event: “In Israel, in order to be a realist, one has to believe in miracles.”

A miracle. This is perhaps the most accurate expression of what the Jewish people feel when we speak with pride about the creation of Israel. The Jewish State came into being after centuries of repressions and subjugation, pogroms and attempts to effect “the final solution to the Jewish question.”

Over the course of centuries our ancestors would say, “Next year in Jerusalem”, as they finished reading the Haggadah at the Passover Seder. For centuries, they believed that this miracle would happen – by the grace of G-d and by the effort of the entire Jewish people. And so it did.

Today, almost 70 years since the founding of the State, Jews all over the world have many reasons to be proud. Not only did Israel obtain its independence – it also evolved into a powerful, free and prosperous country. It possesses a strong defense force, an effective economy, advanced science and technology, and a democratically-elected government. Modern cities, roads and parks have been built on a barren desert. Cutting edge hi-tech, advanced agriculture, culturally important theaters and museums, tourism and science – this is what Israel represents today, and what engenders great love and pride for the Israelis and the Diaspora alike.

There are however, causes for concern that compel us Jews from different parts of the world, to address the Israeli society and political leadership with this letter.

Over the past few years we have witnessed public opinion in the worlds’ most advanced democracies turn increasingly negative toward Israel. The criticism against the Israeli government has grown ever more severe. We have been watching these developments with growing alarm. This dangerous trend is particularly pronounced among the youth and students, as well as among the creative and intellectual elites in Western countries – a great cause for concern, as these are the very social groups that influence and shape the future agenda of their societies.

The purpose of this article is not to determine the causes of this trend; nor is it to seek to resolve who is right and who is wrong. I do, however, want to analyze the apparent consequences of these shifting attitudes, and present my view on what could and should be done to remedy them in the very near future.

Without a doubt, the growing avalanche of criticism towards Israeli policies by Western media, NGOs and public institutions weakens the support for Israel by the Diaspora in these countries. Undoubtedly, many of us have heard this phrase from our friends and colleagues: “I am proud to be a Jew, but I am ashamed of Israel’s policies.” One also hears a softer version: “I support Israel, but I don’t agree with the policies of its government.” These sentiments were on display in the end of June when tensions escalated between the government of Israel and Diaspora leaders over the access to the Wailing Wall and a highly restrictive bill on conversions.

All this attests to a visible trend where Jewish organizations and parts of the Diaspora community begin to distance themselves from Israel, either avoiding display of support for Israel’s domestic and foreign policy – or becoming its vociferous critics. Over time, this makes Jewish communities ever less prepared and less capable of vigorous mobilization to act in support of Israel and its interests should there come an hour of need.

One cannot overestimate the importance of such solidarity. It was precisely this solidarity of Jews all over the world, who were prepared to take the most decisive steps and make the most serious sacrifices, that ultimately enabled the miracle of May, 1948.

The long history of our people teaches us that, after years of peace and prosperity, a time of trouble and challenge inevitably follows. Sad as it may be, we must prepare for it now. Going forward, the solidarity and support of influential, energetic Jewish communities across the world may well be required, and Israel may call upon us to step forward and lend support. After all, some countries still wish to erase the Jewish State from the map.

Declining public support for Israel in the Diaspora is not only a threat to the Jewish State. Growing estrangement from Israel among Jews represents an even greater threat to the Jewish Diaspora. Today, Israel represents the only common denominator for Jewish living outside the Jewish State, a unifier of a people that otherwise look very diverse – millions of Jews who carry different passports, speak different languages, and often have a rather superficial understanding of common religious concepts and rituals.

These realities combined with the fact that developed countries around the world continue to grow ever more secular, and the role of religion in public life continues to decline, puts Israel’s very existence at risk. It may be difficult in the future to count on the consolidated force of Jewish communities around the globe to provide strong support for the pro-Israel cause and assure Israel as a major anchor for Jewish identity around the world.

These changes are taking place against the background of another key trend: democratic societies are becoming more tolerant, while xenophobia and other forms of religious intolerance become less and less acceptable. In advanced societies, discrimination, repression, restrictions on civil rights of Jews are now increasingly a thing of the past. This is great news for those of us living now. But as these features of the past fade away, together with them dissolves an invisible edge, a dividing line that kept Jewish communities apart and separate from the rest of the world.

The modern public discourse has softened – although we can’t be sure for how long. But for now, the society no longer knocks on the door of the Jewish house with a heavy hand, to show us our place and remind how different we are. On the contrary, it opens its arms in an embrace that promises to erase all differences and traits. Assimilation is gaining speed, and breaking the Diaspora’s ties with Israel. This melting pot stands to become a powerful catalyst for the eventual dissolution of our People. Should these ties continue to weaken, then in a foreseeable future, many Western countries will have no Jewish Diaspora left.

Instead, these countries will have small religious minorities, and millions of regular Americans, Germans and Britons, with slightly irregular last names. The very phenomenon of world Jewry – the phenomenon that gifted human civilization with thousands of outstanding writers and philosophers, scientists and entrepreneurs, statesmen and musicians – will vanish gradually yet irreversibly.

What can we do – Jews who live in Israel and beyond? How can we counteract the negative trends we are witnessing?

I believe it is imperative to take decisive and urgent steps to strengthen the engagement between the Jewish Diaspora and the State of Israel. This engagement should not only be a matter of public/grassroots initiative, which is important, but should also be institutionalized. I believe an effective solution would be to establish a consultative body – for instance, an Assembly (or Congress) of Jewish Communities. This body could be formed on the basis of agreed principles, perhaps through elections, and would include the brightest, most respected and influential members of the Diaspora. While it would have a consultative voice, I believe it would be very important to have its role established in law by the Knesset. It is possible that the statute, mandate and operating principles of this body could be enshrined by a constitutional law. The role of this Assembly would be to develop recommendations on key issues of Israel’s foreign and domestic policy that impact the way the Jewish State is perceived abroad.

As such, it would facilitate achievement of two primary objectives:

  1. Assist Israeli leadership in adjusting the political course in a way that would improve Israel’s international reputation, based on input from Diaspora leaders and their analyses of public perception in the countries where they live;
  2. Facilitate the establishment of additional pro-Israel “support groups” among the prominent representatives of the Diaspora, particularly those that are involved in setting the political agenda, and take part in strategic decision-making on issues relevant to Israel’s international position.

Clearly, no one can claim the right to make decisions on behalf of Israel other than the citizens of the Jewish State, and their elected political leadership. For that reason, any decision of such a body can only carry a consultative status, i.e. that of a recommendation. Nevertheless, I believe that the mere fact of establishment of such a high-stature forum facilitating exchange of ideas with the brightest and most talented representatives of the Diaspora, would be enormously valuable both for the Israeli society, and for the Diaspora as well.

The history of the Jewish people is unique and is unlike that of any other people on Earth. For a very long time, the Jewish people remained a repressed and persecuted minority, which was scattered across many countries, yet maintained its unique identity, religion, philosophy and culture. During this time, Jewish Diasporas accumulated priceless experiences in effectively interacting with other peoples’ cultures; they made enormous contributions to their host nations – yet throughout these centuries, they remained themselves, as Jews. This is one of the miracles that we have to believe in order to remain realists. It is our duty to take advantage of the rich historical inheritance of our people, to use it wisely, to the very last drop – for it has been paid for in blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors. And right now this precious gift is being squandered away, light-heartedly and carelessly.

The dualistic nature of world Jewry – Israel and the Diaspora – requires continuous work to maintain a balance and an effective, vital interaction between these two pillars. All the Jews who live in our time bear this responsibility. For us, failure is not an option – for the price of our mistake could be too high.

Michael Fridman is an international businessman and philanthropist, who has co-founded several Jewish philanthropic organizations, including Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Genesis Prize Foundation.