Can Israel rebuild the Jewish people?

A new government initiative that aims to spend hundreds of millions of shekels on Diaspora Jews is a good start, but it is only a start

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Birthright Israel participants at Masada, summer 2012 (photo credit: Courtesy Taglit-Birthright/JTA)
Birthright Israel participants at Masada, summer 2012 (photo credit: Courtesy Taglit-Birthright/JTA)

Earlier this month, the Israeli cabinet approved a new government initiative to invest some NIS 60 million ($17 million) in programs that connect Diaspora Jews with Israel.

The new money isn’t much, but it’s only the beginning, intended as seed money for new programs that will be expanded if they prove successful. In 2016, the government has promised, the cabinet will hold a second vote, this time on a massive expansion of the funding by as much as NIS 400 million ($116 million) per year.

Since the Israeli taxpayer already spends roughly that much on programs for Diaspora Jews (including, for example, Birthright Israel and the Masa grant program), such an increase would bring the total Israeli government spending on Diaspora Jews to NIS 800 million annually. An official who served as a key planner for the new initiative suggested to The Times of Israel that the 2017 state budget would see the real number climb to as high as 1 billion shekels.

A billion shekels. It’s worth pausing to reflect on the astounding fact that the Israeli political system, which squirmed uncomfortably at the thought of spending a few millions of shekels on Birthright only a decade ago, is now ready and willing to spend such sums on something as long-term and amorphous, at least in the minds of most Israeli taxpayers, as “the Diaspora.”

In fact, if the budget increase is approved in 2016, Diaspora policy will become the fastest-growing area of government spending. The bastard child of Israeli foreign policy, which is even today splintered into four or five ministries with no clear strategy and only ad hoc funding, may be slowly coming into its own.

It’s the economy, stupid

And that’s not an accident. The growing appetite to invest in the Jewish world is not driven only by an idealistic vision of a closer-knit Jewish people. The latest plan, which currently goes by the unfortunate moniker “The Government of Israel-World Jewry Initiative,” could not have triumphed over the many bureaucratic and political obstacles in its path if it didn’t offer Israel some very practical benefits.

The initiative was established by a mutually wary partnership of government and Jewish Agency officials. It wended its way past the cabinet’s internal rivalries, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman briefly trying to co-opt its PR benefits from Diaspora (and Economy) Minister Naftali Bennett with a half-baked plan of his own and Finance Minister Yair Lapid voting against the initiative in the cabinet though his own Finance Ministry gave its glowing approval. And as Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky noted, it won funding at a time when spending is being cut elsewhere in the government.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (L) with Finance Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset, March 11, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (L) with Finance Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset, March 11, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

But the plan survived all those challenges for two reasons: the praiseworthy stubbornness of its initiators — and the lucrative financial returns from previous investments in Diaspora programs.

As over a decade of spending on Birthright and Masa have shown, every taxpayer shekel spent on bringing Diaspora Jews to Israel is returned several times over into the Israeli economy through matching funds from Diaspora donors and participants’ spending while in Israel. There is a reason the hard-nosed Finance Ministry, even in a month that saw a much-publicized budget fight with the army, is eager to fund more such programs.

The cabinet decision is explicit about making sure this lucrative aspect of Israeli Diaspora spending continues. Alongside affirming rhetoric about a “shared responsibility for the future and continuity of the Jewish people,” the decision sets a high standard for matching funds. Every shekel spent by the Israeli taxpayer is conditioned on the acquisition of two additional shekels from donors and fundraising organizations. It even specifies that none of the new philanthropic money, from the Jewish Agency in particular, can come from other programs currently funded in partnership with the government.

So the benefits to Israel are clear: in the short term, vast sums of foreign currency, primarily from strong Anglophone economies, flowing into Israel; in the long term, a generation of young Jews more familiar with Israel, and thus more committed to its future safety and prosperity. And after years of research on the remarkable positive effects of Israel experience programs on Diaspora youths’ Jewish identity, consistently showing strong correlation between ties to Israel and strong ties to one’s Jewish identity and Diaspora Jewish community, the benefits to the Diaspora are also obvious.

Yet while the plan is a victory for a few officials who have struggled in the trenches to shepherd it through the many obstacles that lay in its path — the two most important figures in this success are Diaspora Ministry director general Dvir Kahana and Jewish Agency director general Alan Hoffmann — it is a success limited by the fact that the new Diaspora policy is being constructed piecemeal, driven by a few simple, tested precedents rather than a broader understanding of what Israel actually wants and needs from the broader Jewish world.

This is not a criticism of what has been accomplished, but a warning about the last major obstacle that lies in the path of the remarkable new willingness to invest in the Diaspora. What will happen when the government is asked, as it might be in 2016, to invest massively in programs that won’t see most of their spending taking place in Israel (for example, Hebrew studies in Diaspora Jewish schools), and will thus constitute a net drain on the Israeli economy? Will the cabinet still be as forthcoming when the economic logic fails?

At the end of the day, a thin layer of government officials, spurred by the Jewish Agency and a handful of other Diaspora-minded groups, are funding initiatives invented by the Diaspora and intended to serve the Diaspora’s needs. Again: this is a remarkable success. It is no small achievement for official Israel to be eagerly expanding its participation in the major identity-strengthening projects of the Jewish people.

Yet the thinking and underlying assumptions behind the new initiative are not driven by an Israeli strategy or any meaningful Israeli vision of the broad trends of Jewish history or of how Israel — the Jewish state and possessor of the lion’s share of the Jewish people’s combined resources — wants to shape that history.

A people divided

Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. That fact, the millions of Jews shot and incinerated at the hands of European insanity, will go down in history as the single greatest calamity in Jewish memory.

But even as Jews have taken great care to study and teach about the Holocaust’s human toll, they have paid relatively little attention to the cultural cataclysm it represents.

At the start of the 20th century, European Jewry was the center of the Jewish world. This is a simple demographic fact: central and eastern Europe accounted for 70 to 80 percent of the world’s Jews and were home to most of the infrastructure of the Jewish world: religious seminaries, cultural production in a Jewish language, and all the major ideas that drove the Jewish response to the dilemmas of modernity — emancipation, Zionism, socialism, haredism.

The surviving Jewish world of 1945 was comparable to an America that had lost all its coastal metropolises to nuclear war. That existential dilemma of the post-war Jewish people was not simply to remember the dead, but to rebuild the organizational capacity — the funds, the motivation, the dedicated personnel — to build a new Jewish civilizational center.

Mordechai Limon with Ben Gurion (photo credit: Commons)
Mordechai Limon, commander of Israel’s navy, with prime minister David Ben Gurion. (photo credit: Commons)

After 1945, there were only two communities that were up to the job, the Zionists in Israel and the Jews of America. And their success was stunning.

David Ben-Gurion was a master builder of bureaucracy, constructing (and famously micromanaging) an edifice that successfully shepherded the country through the immense stresses of mass aliyah, permanent war and the construction of a first-world economy out of third-world immigrants and no natural resources.

American Jewry, famously talented at self-organization, had already built much of the institutional framework we know today: schools, federations, “defense agencies” such as the ADL.

Both Jewish centers, together accounting for 80%-90% of world Jewry, grew and prospered in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Indeed, their success, each in its own terms, has been extraordinary, vastly surpassing the predictions of past generations.

Yet even as each side proved resilient and self-sustaining, these two principal Jewish societies developed fundamentally different ways of thinking about Jewish history and identity.

Secularism, liberalism and power

There are hundreds of thousands of secular Americans who are Jewish, but there isn’t a distinct secular Jewish culture in America, one that answers the test anthropologists ask of all cultures: that they be self-perpetuating. Or put another way: when American Jews shed their religion, they are unlikely to have Jewish grandchildren.

In Israel, on the other hand, a secular Jewish culture has developed that has already produced a nation full of secular great-grandchildren. Unlike in America, Israeli Jews live their lives with a Jewish language, a Jewish geography and a Jewish calendar. The very accessibility of the Jewish tradition, the way in which its frameworks structure and texture Israelis’ lives, has no parallel in America outside a religious community.

At the same time, because of the radical Protestant influence on the formation of American society, American Jews, like all other immigrant groups in America, tend to view their religion as one legitimated by individual choice. When an American Jew says they “feel” more comfortable in an Orthodox or Reform synagogue, that is all the justification they believe they need to supply.

A group of women hold hands around the Torah during the Shabbat morning service at the Union for Reform Judaism's biennial conference in San Diego, Dec. 14, 2013. (photo credit: URJ via JTA)
A group of women holds hands around the Torah during the Shabbat morning service at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial conference in San Diego, December 14, 2013. (photo credit: URJ via JTA)

Israelis tend to legitimate religion based on more traditional Jewish criteria, leading to the strange phenomenon of the secular Israeli who denounces Reform Judaism as illegitimate because it doesn’t comport with the Orthodox Judaism that he or she despises.

This deep difference, accepting what constitutes Judaism at the grassroots, individual level, is rarely discussed. But the situation is no better when it comes to politics, where the debate is ceaseless and cacophonous.

Israelis, who constitute in many ways a revolt against the catastrophic failure of European liberalism, the Holocaust, are baffled at American Jews’ comfort and faith in their Americanness. Israel’s population is largely composed of the descendants of refugees absorbed in the ethnic cleansing of much of Europe, Africa and Asia, and hails from places largely untouched by the individualism that produced the American Declaration of Independence.

Yet what is true in Yemen and Moldova, and makes sense in the shadow of a century of Jewish experience in Paris, from Alfred Dreyfus to the present-day spike of Jews fleeing a rising wave of Muslim and right-wing violence, doesn’t apply in America. American liberalism’s 19th-century promises came true for American Jews. They were not expelled, or murdered and they did not experience racist legislation against their right to work and prosper.

Israelis’ view of the world, and thus of their place in it, is profoundly shaped by the experience of the 20th century. Yet it is precisely that identity-forming history of Holocaust, pogrom and flight that, arguably, American Jews never experienced.

A Yemenite family walking through the desert on its way to a transit camp set up by the JDC, in 1949. (photo credit: CC BY-SA, Kluger Zoltan, Wikipedia)
A Yemenite family walking through the desert on its way to a transit camp set up by the JDC, in 1949. (photo credit: CC BY-SA, Kluger Zoltan, Wikipedia)

While both communities’ response to the 20th century was to become powerful, these different histories have also created very different concepts of what power means.

For American Jews, saved from the buffeting winds of the tumultuous east by American liberalism, power is overwhelmingly comprehended as the strength of an organized group in a democratic system that encourages its citizens to organize.

In Israel, where the unmitigated brutality of modernity is evident right across the border, the resort to power emphatically refers to the power of the state — not just the military, but all the institutional strengths of a parliament, courts, centralized economic planning, and the trappings of sovereignty and national solidarity.

Thus, Israelis’ military service is openly referred to as an expression of their Jewish identity and commitment, while American Jews, who rarely serve in the military, would see their own service as an expression of their general American identity, not their Jewish one. American Jews are not protected by their armed forces as Jews, but as Americans.

Thus, Israel’s Yom Hazikaron, the holy day of remembrance for the country’s fallen soldiers and terrorism victims, has no parallel on the American Jewish calendar. The day that expresses for Israelis the solidarity born of a shared history of pain and sacrifice, a day of identity-forming intermingling of individual and national loss — it is hard to find an Israeli Jew who does not commemorate a specific person on Yom Hazikaron — is not shared by American Jews.

Secularism and religion, history and power, remembrance and solidarity, language, geography and calendar — these are fundamental building blocks of culture, and they are no longer shared by the only two Jewish communities in the world that number in the millions.

With the loss of Europe, the Jewish people lost the overlapping cultural assumptions shared by the vast majority of Jews that made even very disparate Jewish societies comprehensible to each other. Today’s two major Jewish centers are based on fundamentally different assumptions about what constitutes Jewish identity and culture — and these differences are driving them further apart as the early-20th-century immigrant origins of each community recede farther into the distant past.

Yet neither side has really taken careful stock of the gap and begun to think seriously about its implications for the future of the Jews as a whole. Israelis do not yet understand that no American aliyah is possible across such a cultural gulf, or that the Diaspora’s vast philanthropic investment in Israel — US Jewry alone accounts for as much as 40% of the Israeli third, or nonprofit, sector — is also threatened by the divide. Can the love and identification with Israel that drive the uniquely American expression of Jewish power known as AIPAC survive this divergence over the long term?

Blissful ignorance

It is astonishing how little the Jews of the Jewish state actually know about their brethren overseas. There is no systematic teaching about Diaspora Jewry in Israeli education, even in schools that receive Diaspora Jewish funds for “school twinning” with Diaspora Jewish schools. Israeli newspapers rarely report on a Diaspora story that isn’t an anti-Semitic attack on a beleaguered Jewish community. Most Hebrew-speaking reporters openly admit that they do not really understand any other story.

It is a sad fact that only one graduate program in the whole country, the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at Haifa University, aims to teach the historical experience of American Jews. And even that welcome addition, boasting two dozen students in its first year, is only a year old.

Policies must be driven by knowledge. When Israeli ministers routinely and grotesquely misunderstand American Jewish reality, this dearth of knowledge becomes destructive. Eli Aflalo, a former absorption minister, reflected a widespread, if unstated, view among Israeli leaders when he suggested a few years ago that “an American Hitler will inevitably rise and then they’ll all make aliyah.” The most salient fact about American Jewish history as compared with the history of the rest of the world’s Jews is the story of the failure of that to happen.

It is a promising start to find Israeli officials willing to fund Diaspora Jewish programming on the Diaspora’s terms, but no Israeli “Diaspora policy” or “Diaspora strategy” can have any meaning if it doesn’t address Israel’s longstanding blindness to the history and culture of nearly half the world’s Jews.

If Israel is, as Israeli officials claim, the vehicle for Jewish history, it bears a responsibility that goes beyond military defense of beleaguered Jews. The overarching goal of a Diaspora policy must be to bridge the lost cultural overlap, to reforge a shared Jewish civilizational space three generations after it was sundered.

This means educating Israelis about the history and culture of living diasporas, not only dead ones. Beyond mass education, the elites must be trained to see and overcome the cultural gap. One hopeful sign is that the National Staff College, the educational institution of Israel’s security services, has hosted an annual lecture on Diaspora Jewry for the past fifteen years (full disclosure: delivered by this reporter’s father, Dr. Edward Rettig).

But such initiatives are few and far between, and don’t amount to a systematic effort to make sure the next generation of Israeli leaders are less ignorant about world Jewry than the last one.

Besides the education of Israelis, there are immense opportunities for Israel to act in the Jewish world.

Obsessed with continuity, and therefore with “the young,” American Jews as a community invest much of their identity-building efforts on those under 30. But this leaves millions largely unserved when it comes to Jewish identity programming. If Israel trips work at a younger age, why wouldn’t they work at an older one?

Israel should consider an expansion of Birthright-style visits to include older age groups (Birthright stops at 26), and to think carefully about funding long-term Hebrew and Israel studies in the Diaspora to allow returnees from such programs to continue to engage with Israel at a high level.

With the constant flaring of tensions with Diaspora religious groups (which crescendoed recently in an Israeli rabbinate decision to question conversions performed by even many Orthodox rabbis), Israel would be well served to develop a system for dialoguing more easily with the major institutions of American Jewish life. This currently only happens in a haphazard way when crises erupt.

Yet Israel also must recognize that it does not speak to Diaspora Jews merely by speaking to Diaspora Jewish leaders. In the American Jewish community, the major movements and organizations represent fewer and fewer actual affiliated Jews with each passing year, and Israel does not have to limit itself to an increasingly narrow conversation with the American Jewish elite. The start-up nation has the skills to speak to the Jewish community outside the traditional frameworks; it should use them. Partnership minyans and other independent synagogues, bloggers, even summer camps are all ripe for online engagement by Israeli emissaries.

And everywhere, everywhere, no matter the program or the population being served, there must be teaching. Each side must learn about the other. Israelis who want aliyah must understand that Americans will only leave America if they already feel at home elsewhere, if they identify through deep knowledge and experience with Israeli culture and society. And that they are more likely than other immigrants to move back and forth without qualms between their two national homes. Americans are not opposed to such aliyah, as they have learned in recent years that a secular American Jew who isn’t imbibing the Hebrew culture of Israel, directly or indirectly, is unlikely to have Jewish grandchildren.

This is not a policy paper, but merely a suggestion that something profound is missing in the burgeoning world of Israeli Diaspora policy, a guiding vision that could help Israeli officials, in the words of William F. Buckley, stand athwart history.

There is much work to be done and incalculable benefits to Israel and Diaspora Jewry from rebuilding a shared Jewish culture. Israel would do well by doing good, both financially and in every other benefit that can be had from a devoted diaspora. Diaspora Jewry, which invented Birthright, hardly needs to be convinced.

In a sense, the Jews have always been engaged in a rebellion against history. Haredim consciously defy modernity. Zionists spoke of the “catastrophes” of the 20th century decades before the Holocaust, and of the need to divert the flow of history to avoid disaster. Now, as the natural forces of history tear us apart in ways so deep that we are not entirely aware of the change, we, too, must recall that we are heirs to this history of rebellion. We can rebuild the lost unity that once defined the Jewish people, a unity of shared assumptions and values and commitments, before it is too late.

(Full disclosure: This reporter has served as an adviser on Diaspora policy to various officials in recent years. The research into the cultural differences between Israeli and American Jews is based on a decade-long doctoral study of the subject by this reporter’s father, Dr. Edward Rettig.)

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed