Israelis Shouldn’t Fund Diaspora Jews?

Photo courtesy: The Children’s Learning About Israel via Jack, Joseph & Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education.

By Michael Lawrence 

Israelis built this country. But not alone. Never alone. Jews abroad have given generously and philanthropically, strengthening Israel and Israeli life.

Last week the title of an opinion piece in Israel’s largest daily newspaper “Israel HaYom” caught my attention. It was titled the same as my piece is here. But without the last character.

The question mark.

There was no question in Itamar Fleishman’s mind that “Israelis shouldn’t fund Diaspora Jews.”

“No one is disputing the fact that Diaspora Jews are dealing with a myriad of challenges, especially in the coronavirus era; and no one disputes the need to maintain dialogue with Jewish communities overseas.”

He’s not just waxing eloquent. I’m quite sure he means it. I agree with him. The challenges are great.

But then comes the “but” – as it so often does – right on time.

“But with all due respect and sympathy, Diaspora Jews are our brethren – not Israeli citizens. They do not shoulder the burden of conscription and taxes, and while we would be happy to see them immigrate to Israel and help us carry the load, we cannot be expected to add their load to our own”.

It’s the buzz phrase “you don’t serve in the army so shhhh” reappearing again. Better seen (because oh how we suffer without your tourist dollars right now!) but not heard.

Make Aliyah, serve and then you can talk.

Of course there are all kinds of problems with the army conscription argument anyway seeing as we appear to have no problem with those “Diaspora parents” who send off their children (or more accurately, allow their children who request to do so) travel to Israel alone, serve in the IDF without family and risk (and in many cases, lose) their lives in defense of the State.

Like the “but” in the said article, right on time arrived our weekly Torah portion this past weekend. Vaetchanan, to provide us with perhaps a different path.

Quite in the theme of the Tisha B’Av day of fasting and mourning last week, The Torah described the scattering of the Jewish people around the world. In Deuteronomy 4:29 it described that when in distress, the exiled people will return to God. “Hashem, your God, is a merciful God, He will not abandon you nor destroy you and will not forget the covenant of the forefathers that He swore to them.” (4:31).

We would be wise to follow God’s personal example. Forget no one, abandon no one, be merciful to everyone – including those scattered around the globe or who have made their lives and built their wonderful communities elsewhere. Even more so I would argue, those Jews who have no access to Jewish life, Jewish education, Jewish safety, Jewish pride and who long for a connection to or a home in the Promised Land – all the things perhaps we take too often for granted in the modern State of Israel.

While Jews have built abroad, they have also built the State of Israel. Warned the Torah portion on Shabbat: “… When Hashem, your God, brings you to the Land that Hashem swore to your forefathers… to give you – great and good cities that you did not build, houses filled with every good thing you did not fill, chiseled cisterns that you did not chisel, orchards and olive trees that you did not plant – and you shall eat and be satisfied – beware for yourself lest you forget God who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery”. (Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

Perhaps the one word missing from these Torah sentences is “alone.” We need it there. We need to keep that word in our Israel-Diaspora conversation today.

Yes. Israelis built this country and rebuilt this land. But not alone. Never alone. Many of the millions of Israelis today are immigrants or children of. Jews of the Diaspora never hesitated to give of them time, their resources, their smarts, their energy, their dreams and their sleepless nights to the State of Israel over the last 72 years and before the State.

Fleishman concludes daringly “Israel’s heart and door are and will always be open to any Jew but it is time we leave our wallets out of it.”

Of course, Diaspora Jews never left their wallets out of it.” Jews abroad have given generously and philanthropically, strengthening and improving the lives of millions of Israelis at risk – elderly, children, the poor, minorities and those facing crisis. They have invested in innovation, development, health and economy in every corner of Israel, not always without any benefit to themselves, but always for Israel’s good.

If, as Fleishman suggests, “Diaspora Jews are our brethren,” why for a second would we consider not contributing too to their growth, well-being, safety and connection to Jewish life and to Israel in return? Many of these such activities and initiatives they themselves fund together with Israel and Israelis.

Maybe Itamar Fleishman is right when he contends “the term ‘Diaspora Jewry’ has developed something of a mystical hold on Israeli politicians, public officials, journalists, and academics alike.”

Perhaps not so mystical but ingrained in our tradition, a shared history (even if not necessarily an identical present or future) and certainly featuring prominently in the Torah last week and in the themes of Tisha B’Av no less.

Michael Lawrence has been Financial Resource Development Unit Head and Chief Development Officer at The Jewish Agency for Israel since 2016. He is a qualified lawyer in Israel and in his native New Zealand and has lived in Israel since 2000.