The New 21st Century Zionism

An Israeli policy group taps the Israeli Diaspora as key catalyst for strengthening Jewish Peoplehood

by Abigail Pickus

Last December, the Israeli Government unleashed a stinging television ad campaign, via the Hebrew-language satellite channels, targeting Israelis living in North America. In one, set during the holiday season with the hanukkiah proudly displayed in the background, grandparents in Israel chatting through the computer with their young granddaughter in the States ask her what holiday it is, to which she proudly replies, “Christmas!”

“They will always remain Israeli,” the voiceover intones, “but their children will not. Help them return to Israel.” The message is clear: Israelis who leave Israel are not only abandoning their true homeland and their roots, but are raising their children in a Jewish wasteland.

While the point was to scare Israelis back to Israel, its dogma is as old as Zionism itself. For as long as the Jewish people have yearned for Zion, and even well after Israel became a reality, classical Zionist ideology has held that there is only one spiritual and physically home for the Jewish people. Even the language we use reflects this notion, with those who settle in Israel making aliyah or “ascending” while those who leave make yerida, “descending,” thereby plunging into a fetterless world that is, as the ad campaign implied, spiritually bankrupt. That for over a millennia Jewish life has thrived outside of Israel is irrelevant. As recently as March of this year, the acclaimed Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua told an American Jewish audience that living outside Israel “is a very deep failure of the Jewish people.”

But according to the Reut Institute, a policy group based in Tel Aviv, it’s time to rest this old paradigm on its laurels. In its recent study, The Israeli Diaspora as a Catalyst for Jewish Peoplehood: An Emerging Opportunity within the Changing Relationship between Israel and the Jewish world, the institute lays out a game plan for a new Israel-Diaspora dynamic. In it, an untapped “resource” is uncovered, which Reut dubs the “North American Jewish sabra.”

“The Israeli Diaspora presents an emerging opportunity for strengthening the relationship between Israel and world Jewry,” states the report. “By leveraging their unique hybrid identity, the Israeli Diaspora can play a critical role in catalyzing Jewish Peoplehood.”

With this report, Reut seeks to “impact the mindset and the understanding of Jewish and Israeli leadership and the challenges we face with the Israeli Diaspora on both the side of the Israeli Government, Jewish leadership in the Diaspora and the emerging leadership of the Diaspora Israeli community,” said Reut Founder and President Gidi Grinstein.

The report, in fact, came about almost accidentally. While working another project on Israel’s national security, Reut examined Israel’s relationship with the Jewish Diaspora and noticed something too crucial to ignore. “What we saw before us is a growing rift between Israel and the Jewish world and within that we saw a huge blind spot on the Israeli side: the Israeli Diaspora,” said Grinstein.

It is estimated that somewhere between 500,000 to a million Israelis live outside of Israel, primarily in North America, which accounts for a significant percentage of Israel’s 7.8 million population and depending on the city in North America, often a significant percentage of the local Jewish population, according to Reut. (This huge discrepancy in estimates can be attributed to how “Israeli” was determined and the ability to count those who aren’t officially recognized in the census data.) For the purposes of their study, Reut only looked at those Israelis who have been in North America over six years (in most cases, at least a decade), are settled (“they’re no longer living out of suitcases”) and their children are growing up in the Diaspora. They are also primarily, if not secular, then not Orthodox because Orthodox Jews tend to seek out community, such as synagogues, while the demographic Reut studied has not necessarily integrated so seamlessly into their local Jewish communities, according to Grinstein.

So how does this demographic fit into the classical notion of Zionism?

They don’t. And that, precisely, is the problem. “The traditional classical Zionist mindset with regard to the Israeli in the Diaspora is that they are yordim, which rejects the notion that there is an Israeli Diaspora,” said Grinstein, referring to what is commonly called the negation of the Diaspora. “The Israeli Diaspora is an oxymoron for Zionism. This entity of an Israeli Diaspora, of an Israeli second and third generation outside of Israel, create this hyphenated identity, which is something that Zionist thinking and ideology hasn’t contended with in a serious manner.”

This hyphenated identity (“tri-dentity”) Grinstein is referring to can actually be tapped as a resource, Reut argues, since Israelis in the Diaspora’s triple loyalties to Israel, North America and Jewishness can ultimately be channeled to help Israel and the Jewish world.

In other words, in a new 21st century Zionism, “yerida” is no longer a liability, but an asset. Who better to be ambassadors for Israel then Israelis themselves? Especially those Israelis living in the hotbed of the delegitimization of Israel? As the report states, the “Israeli diaspora is not a source of shame to the Zionist project” … and instead, should be “courted as a political, economic, social and cultural asset to the State of Israel.”

Yerida is not the only concept thrown out the window. Today’s Zionism centers on Peoplehood and “views the mission of Israel in a broader, more nuanced context of the Jewish people,” says the report. “If in the past the main project of the Jewish people was building the State of Israel, the focus today is on building Jewish communities – both within and outside of Israel.”

Within this new framework, the Jewish world is transitioning away from relationships centered on institutions and is moving toward relationships centered on issues or ideas. No longer is Israel the “poor nephew” of the Israeli Jewish Diaspora; instead Israel and the Jewish communities of the world are equals. And whereas the key players negotiating the relationship between Israel and world Jewish communities used to be the exclusive domain of the Israeli Government and the Jewish Agency, today more and more direct relationships are being formed between individuals, communities and philanthropists, according to the report.

Which brings us back to the Israeli Diaspora. Within this new global Jewish dynamic, Reut argues that they can play an instrumental role. For this to happen, however, a few cogs must fall into place. The first is for the Israeli Diaspora to actually view themselves as a unified entity. They must self-organize, as the report suggests. They must also not just celebrate but nurture their Israeliness, otherwise it will get lost. And they must teach their children not only Hebrew but Jewish education, because Hebrew alone is no guarantee that they will remain connected to their Israeli heritage – or to Judaism. To that end, Reut recommends the formation of Israeli cultural centers, bayit haIsraeli, modeled on the Goethe Institut. They also cite a few communities, such as in Los Angeles and New York, with active Israeli communities.

But for this to be effective, local Jewish communities are advised to be more welcoming to the Israelis in their midst and to “engage them on their own terms.” Finally, the Israeli Government is called to task. Stop with the outdated notion that only repatriation is the solution. Instead of viewing them as a “brain drain,” start considering Israelis abroad as “brain circulation,” as valuable members of the population living outside the country. And put on the agenda the issue of voting rights abroad, among other issues.

So far, Reut has been working with all the important players in the “ecosystem” of the Israeli Government, according to Grinstein, and have “seen very little or no ideological resistance.”

The question remains: What will come of this call to action? Will it remain nothing more than intellectual pontificating or will these ideas actually be taken seriously by the Jewish world? And how radical are these ideas, anyway?

“The ideas are only radical for those that have been playing ostrich,” said Grinstein. “I think that we have captured the reality. We may have framed the reality in a new way, but we are working with facts on the ground. There is nothing we have invented. Everything is based on hundreds of meetings and site visits with people on the frontier of this issue in some of the major cities in North America.”

“Although at some point, I’m sure the backlash will come,” he added.