AnalysisIsrael is the 'center of gravity' for the Jewish world

Abrasive Israel, apathetic Diaspora behind Jewry’s widening gap, says report

Jerusalem-based think tank JPPI says now that the Jewish state is indisputably Judaism’s ‘center of gravity,’ it bears the onus of mending rift with splintered community abroad

Amanda Borschel-Dan

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

People carry Israeli flags as they march during the annual Celebrate Israel Parade, June 3, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
People carry Israeli flags as they march during the annual Celebrate Israel Parade, June 3, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

In September 1950, president of the non-Zionist American Jewish Committee Jacob Blaustein returned home to the United States from fledgling Israel and did as leaders of Jewish communities are wont to do: He issued a press release.

Blaustein, a millionaire industrialist, stated that prime minister David Ben-Gurion had assured him that “the State of Israel speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of Jews who are citizens of any other country; and that the Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have no political attachment to Israel.”

The Ben-Gurion statement was made among allegations of dual political loyalties following the foundation of Israel. After its issuance, the statement was taken as a de facto blueprint for this new stage in the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

“The prime minister’s statement goes further. He specifically states that Israel has no desire and no intention to interfere in any way with the internal affairs of Jewish communities in other countries and that the latter’s indigenous social, economic and cultural institutions are and will be respected by the Israeli government and the Israeli people,” said Blaustein.

This statement by Ben-Gurion was quickly disregarded — and not for the first or last time. The prime minister was faced with Jews’ persecution in Diaspora communities a year after claiming he wouldn’t “interfere” abroad. In 1951, the State of Israel airlifted some 110,000 Iraqi Jews to the Holy Land as part of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah in a move that was heralded — and funded — by US Jewish communities.

In this May 1962 image, Jacob Blaustein, left, honorary president of the American Jewish Committee, presents Judge Thurgood Marshall with the American Liberties Medallion during the committee’s annual dinner in New York. (AP Photo)

It was easy for the Israeli government to excuse its interference. The rescue operation was, after all, carried out in the face of an existential threat to the Jewish people. It reaffirmed the essence of the Jewish state as refuge.

When to step and when not, along with other push-pull tensions, still surround Israel’s influence and impact in the Diaspora — and vice versa. Now they are the focus of a new Jewish People Policy Institute report, “70 Years of Israel-Diaspora Relations: The Next Generation,” compiled by Shmuel Rosner and John Ruskay.

The JPPI conducted a series of dialogues and surveys between November 2017 and March 2018 with 675 participants in 33 international groups, including in Israel. The participants skewed young and were, writes the report, “Jews who, for the most part, are committed both to their Judaism and to the relationship with Israel.”

According to the report, a quarter of all Diaspora-based participants — some of whom had Jewish leadership roles — had visited Israel 10 times or more. Only two percent had never visited the Jewish state, and 10% had only come once.

JPPI President Avinoam Bar-Yosef (left) and Senior Fellow Shmuel Rosner present the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Pluralism Index in Jerusalem on April 20, 2017. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

The 130-page report is an in-depth look at the cracks in the bridge between the two largest Jewish centers — the US and Israel — as well as a survey of the fault lines felt in Diaspora communities around the globe in an increasingly divisive era.

“Israel-Diaspora relations are in a state of flux, with the Jewish world’s center of gravity shifting toward Israel – and Diaspora Jews, whether quickly or slowly, happily or unhappily, are growing accustomed to this change and acknowledging it,” according to the report.

Among the highlighted themes are the leadership vacuum and subsequent communication breakdown between the mega-communities; the importance for US Jews to feel necessary for Israel’s survival; Israelis’ stark independent streak; and the implications of Israel’s utter dominance in the Jewish world today.

Also included in the report are several recommendations proposed by the JPPI, an independent think tank founded by the Jewish Agency. Among them are the need for civil discourse and recognition of the validity of all forms of Diaspora Judaism. The JPPI disseminates reports such as this dialogue survey, as well as its annual assessments, to thought leaders and the Knesset.

On Sunday, JPPI co-chairs Amb. Dennis Ross and Amb. Stuart Eizenstat, along with the institute’s president, Avinoam Bar-Yosef, presented its 2018 Annual Assessment of the Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People to the cabinet. The dialogue report pushes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “as a first step toward rebuilding trust, to unfreeze the agreed upon Kotel arrangement [which would see a larger, permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall], and implement it.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly government cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 24, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

The cabinet spent an hour and a half talking about Diaspora-Israel relations with JPPI, as well as the growing partisan divide over Israel in the US Congress. JPPI released a statement saying that Netanyahu said, “The Kotel issue will be solved and we are very close to doing it, but the conversion issue is more complicated politically.”

It was announced last week that former Supreme Court president Miriam Naor and Amb. Sallai Meridor, a former head of the Jewish Agency, will soon join the JPPI board of directors. Naor has been tapped to lead a project dealing with relations and the legal aspects behind untangling Israel’s religion and state — a thorny problem that often has the largely liberal Diaspora Jewry up in arms.

The key takeaway from the dialogue report is that while Israel is now the inarguable base for the Jewish world, Diaspora Jewry has an increasingly ambivalent relationship with its government.

“Israel’s impact on the consciousness of Diaspora Jews, and on their status in their communities, is sometimes desirable and sometimes not, but only rarely denied,” reads the report.

But all is not lost: according to the report, it is person-to-person contact that creates true bonds between the communities and “contributes to a feeling of a shared fate.”

“The impression is that ‘the Jews themselves’ are what brings Israel and the Diaspora closer,” writes the report.

Or, as Blaustein wrote in 1950, “The greatest wealth of Israel is its people.”

70 years sees a lot of changes

Over the past seven decades, upstart Israel has gone from being mom and pop Cheers (“Where everybody knows your name”), to corporate Aroma, where your name is (usually incorrectly) blasted for a second, then gone.

Drastic changes have taken place in Israel since its foundation, including “The transition from a small and intimate society to a large population encompassing subgroups that all have their own social and ideological agendas; high birthrates and rapid demographic change; military might and political power; economic growth and the development of a Western-style society of abundance; the dominance of a political right based on religious and traditional voters, many of them Mizrachim,” notes the report.

May 15, 1948: David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, stands with an Israeli official who holds the signed document which proclaims the establishment of the State of Israel. (AP Photo, File)

On the side of Diaspora Jewry, the report notes a “growing assimilation within Western society as a whole; diminished group cohesion due to the waning of outside threats; the dwindling influence of the organized community; changing patterns of philanthropy; skyrocketing rates of mixed marriage, with attendant changes in Jewish consciousness; a growing demand for change in the relationship with today’s stronger Israel; opposition among some groups within the Jewish community to Israeli foreign policy (especially vis-a-vis the peace process), and to Israeli policy with respect to religion and state.”

A recent AJC poll of 1,000 Israelis and 1,001 American Jews points to further dissent. “The surveys reveal sharp differences of opinion between the world’s two largest Jewish communities on [US] President [Donald] Trump, US-Israel relations, and Israel’s security and peace process policies,” the AJC said in a statement.

“The gap between American Jews and Israelis regarding President Trump’s approach to Israel is profound,” the AJC said.

The poll illustrated both communities value good ties, but differ greatly on religion and state. A point of conflict is the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly over Israeli religious affairs as the vast majority of American Jews identify as liberal Jews, largely Reform or Conservative.

Class of the 100th Israeli Reform Rabbi: (from left) Yair Tobias, Leora Ezrahi-Vered, Rinat Safania Schwartz, and David Laor (Courtesy HUC-JIR)

At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said he understood the need to reach out to the liberal streams. “We know that non-Orthodox and progressives have some concerns,” said Netanyahu. “Contrary to popular opinion, it is not true that I am writing off liberals, Democrats and non-Orthodox Jews. We know we have a problem,” he said.

Older dialogue participants report more feelings of divide. “In terms of age cohorts, the older participants actually tended to feel more acutely that Israel and the Diaspora are drifting apart than their younger counterparts,” writes the report.

In the report, some 57% of all participants said that they “discern distancing” between the two communities; among them, only 48% were Israelis versus 60% Diaspora Jews. “It should be noted that participants belonging to the US Jewish community were slightly more likely (68%) to say that Israeli and Diaspora Jews are drifting apart, compared with Jews in other countries,” writes the report.

While this all sounds dire, the report also notes that in many cases, dialogue participants rehashed the same problems and issues heard a decade ago at previous JPPI meet-ups.

Young adults from the San Francisco Bay Area on a Birthright Israel trip. (George Duffield)

Interestingly, despite the some 500,000 young adults who have come to Israel on a Birthright trip, “The Diaspora’s younger generation seems less committed to relations with Israel than its predecessors,” writes the report. “This trend is the result of changes both in the Diaspora Jewish communities and in Israel’s character,” it concludes.

As a possible countermeasure, at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Diaspora and Education Minister Naftali Bennett suggested that the Israeli government allocate another 1 billion shekels for young Diaspora Jews, according to a JPPI press release.

Communication breakdown

There also seems to be a disconnect between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry. When Diaspora Jewry speaks of “pursuing justice” for the plight of illegal immigrants, for example, Israelis facing an influx of African migrants may have very different connotations, according to the report.

But increasingly, even if official Israel does decide to speak decide to speak with the Diaspora, the question is, with whom?

Unlike the handful of Jewish leaders who conferred with Ben-Gurion before and after the founding of the state, Netanyahu is faced with an eclectic alphabet soup of organizations that largely represent the few.

Unlike relatively homogeneous Israel, the Diaspora is so vast and diverse as to let voices be drowned out in their plenty. For every Jewish organization to have a seat at the intimate negotiating table is increasingly complicated. The report points to the “ongoing erosion of the power of organized Jewry in the Diaspora.”

President Reuven Rivlin speaks during a conference of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Los Angeles, on November 14, 2017 (Mark Neyman/GPO)

“There is no single body, but rather a collection of voluntary organizations of different kinds, representing different interest groups and populations, and communities in different countries. These organizations do not always enjoy a high degree of legitimacy (and according to various yardsticks, their legitimacy is in the process of being eroded), nor do they have the authority to present, and certainly not to enforce, a uniform policy on Diaspora Jewry,” writes the report.

In a telling statement, the authors write, “Jewish communities in the Diaspora are split not only geographically, but also ideologically, in the absence of an umbrella organization bringing together Haredi Jews with Reform Jews, and atheist Jews. A large number of Dialogue participants had no interest in creating such a body, because they saw significant benefit in the split of the Diaspora.”

The Diaspora needs to feel needed

The stronger and more independent Israel becomes, the less the Diaspora wants to be involved with the Jewish state, claims the report. Likewise, over half of Jewish Israelis believe the country will be just fine without their Diaspora cousins.

“As long as Diaspora Jews believe that their contribution to Israel’s survival is critical, they will be more strongly motivated to maintain the relationship despite its pitfalls (out of a sense of weighty responsibility for the Jewish state’s destiny),” writes the report.

“On one hand, Israel needs to be strong enough to manage on its own; on the other hand, it would do well to keep persuading Diaspora Jewry that its support is important (since if the Diaspora comes to believe otherwise, it might distance itself from Israel even further),” writes the report.

Philanthropist Morris Kahn, left, Genesis Prize Laureate Natalie Portman, center, and Stan Polovets, co-founder and Chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation. (Genesis Foundation)

There are several quotes from participants included in the report. One American participant said, “If we send money, it is logical that we should also have influence. We invest in Israel, and we want to see a return on our investment.”

Who is a Jew is increasingly critical

The question of Who is a Jew is not only a point of conflict between Israel and the Diaspora, but also between global Jewish communities vis a vis their commitment with halacha. An engaged Los Angeles Reform Jew whose Judaism is garnered through patrilineal descent is not considered halachically Jewish by the Orthodox community down his block (though it may be welcoming).

During this year’s JPPI dialogue groups, the side effects of the skyrocketing rates of intermarriage were brought to the forefront in the idea that in a few generations, descendants of today’s Jewish leadership may not be eligible for Israel’s Law of Return. Based on the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, the Israeli law grants citizenship for all Jews (including officially recognized converts), or anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent.

In this January 30, 2018 photo, new Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine arrive on a flight funded by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The authors write, “The idea that ‘my grandchildren may not be able to enjoy the same rights is very troubling to me’ was raised in the dialogue when participants were [hypothetically] asked what would happen if the criteria of the Law of Return were restricted.”

There is no real discussion about a change in the Law of Return in the Knesset. However, notes the report, the increasing trend of Jewish communities to include among their numbers “Jews of Multiple Religions” may put the law to the test.

“These Jews maintain a religion other than Judaism, but for various reasons see themselves as belonging to the Jewish people. As mentioned, a number of communities (as happened this year in San Francisco and Washington) count this group in the framework of the general Jewish community – in Washington this group represents 9% of the total community,” writes the report.

The legacy of Blaustein-Ben-Gurion

For the first time in its 112-year history, the American Jewish Committee held its annual Global Forum in Jerusalem this month. Over 2,000 participants attended.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin spoke at the event and said, “After 70 years of statehood, the Ben-Gurion-Blaustein agreement is no longer enough. We need a new vision for the next 70 years.”

“The gaps are getting deeper and deeper. First, we must fix relations between us. We are one family… You are part of Israel’s flesh and part of our soul,” said Rivlin.

A family can work out its problems. How open dialogue can be between Israel and the Diaspora — and what obligations the two communities should be under — is a matter of debate. Since the center of gravity of the Jewish world has shifted to Israel, the onus is now on the Jewish state.

People participate in the annual Celebrate Israel Parade on June 3, 2018 in New York City. (Danielle Ziri, Times of Israel)

“It was much easier to obtain clear statements from the participants with regard to Israel’s obligations toward Diaspora Jewry, and harder to understand what they feel the obligations of Diaspora Jewry toward Israel to be,” write the authors.

“Basically speaking, there was a prevailing opinion that Diaspora Jews can act as they see fit with regard to their communities, without needing to check how Israel would respond, or what its position would be with regard to their actions” — but not the opposite.

For some Diaspora Jews, their overt criticism of Israel and its policy is meant to serve as a catalyst for change. “In many cases, our aim is to oppose Israel, even to annoy it, in order to challenge the status quo,” said one New York participant.

The JPPI proposes a new concept of dialogue opportunities. Instead of Israel’s liberal minority speaking with US Jewry’s liberal majority, the think tank suggests the opposite is more productive. Conservative-majority Israel should speak with liberal US Jewry; minority American Conservative Jews should speak with leftist Israelis.


However, as one Israeli participant put it, “I don’t want some Jew coming from abroad and telling us what to do — even if by chance it is similar to my own position.”

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