'Ask not what the Diaspora can do for Israel'

Diaspora minister calls for new paradigm in Israel’s ties to Jews abroad

In speech at event marking 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, Nachman Shai says foreign Jews must play greater role in Jerusalem’s decision-making

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai addresses a World Zionist Organization conference marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, on August 28, 2022. (Courtesy)
Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai addresses a World Zionist Organization conference marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, on August 28, 2022. (Courtesy)

Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai on Sunday called for a reversal in the thinking about Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora, from how Jews abroad can help Israel to how Israel can help them.

Shai made his remarks at an event in Basel, Switzerland, organized by the World Zionist Organization, marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, where Zionist leader Theodor Herzl laid the groundwork for the formation of the State of Israel 51 years later.

“Here 125 years ago, Herzl walked the streets of Basel and formulated his vision. He turned to leaders and influential Jews all over the world to harness support for a task that seemed impossible — establishing a state for the Jewish people. Without Diaspora Jewry, the State of Israel would probably not have been established,” Shai said.

“Today, 125 years after that pivotal congress, the paradigm has changed. The State of Israel is thriving and leading in many fields — and it is now time to ask what Israel can do to secure the destiny of the Jewish people and Jewish resilience around the world,” he said.

Appropriating a quote from former US president John F. Kennedy, the Diaspora affairs minister called for Israel to “Ask not what the Diaspora can do for Israel – ask what Israel can do for the Diaspora.”

In the speech, Shai also referred to the long-running debate over the role that Jews outside of Israel play in the country’s policies. Though foreign Jews played pivotal roles in the formation of the state and in its continued existence, they do not have the right to vote in Israel and thus lack an official voice in the country’s decision-making processes.

American Jewish leader Jacob Blaustein, left, speaks with then-prime minister David Ben Gurion, in an undated photograph. (Ben Gurion Archive)

The Diaspora affairs minister spoke specifically of an agreement between Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion and American Jewish leader Jacob Blaustein, which created a “delicate balance between involvement and non-interference.” That largely meant that American Jews were encouraged to engage with the nascent state from a certain distance, and Israel in turn would not too forcefully seek to entice them to immigrate.

Shai called for Israel and Diaspora Jewry to create a new “Blaustein-Ben-Gurion” agreement to encourage greater involvement and engagement between the two communities.

“Instead of staying sidelined, we need a relationship of involvement,” Shai said.

“It is our duty, as a state and as a government, to find ways to integrate the voices of world Jewry into the decision-making process within the State of Israel. Many of the decisions we make in Jerusalem affect not only the citizens of Israel, but Jewish communities around the world alike,” he said.

Shai specifically referred to the ongoing controversies surrounding the Western Wall compromise, a long-frozen deal that would give non-Orthodox streams of Judaism official representation in the management of the holy site. As the Reform and Conservative movements represent the majority of American Jews, this issue remains a stumbling block in improving ties between American Jewry and Israel, as could be seen this summer after Israeli police allowed Orthodox extremists to overrun a number of bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel.

“The issue of the Kotel is a bleeding wound that we, as a society, need to mend. I say this not as a politician, but as an Israeli and a Jew. Under no circumstances should such a rupture take place,” Shai said.

Ultra-Orthodox youths interrupt a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)

The World Zionist Organization event kicked off on Sunday and was scheduled to continue through Tuesday.

Some 1,400 guests were expected at the gathering, according to organizers. Speakers will include President Isaac Herzog; Miriam Adelson; former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, who now heads SoftBank’s operations in Israel; Jewish Agency chairman Doron Almog; ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt; and Baroness Ariane De Rothschild, president of the board of the Edmond de Rothschild Group, among others.

The conference marks 125 years since the three-day 1897 First Zionist Congress, during which Theodor Herzl addressed more than 200 delegates from around the world. After the conference, Herzl wrote that “In Basel, [he] founded the Jewish state,” a claim that would become true 51 years later.

“Many of us were born into the reality of the State of Israel existing as a sovereign, powerful, Jewish and value-based entity,” WZO chairman Yaakov Hagoel said in a press statement. “But just five generations before, it was a distant dream. In a conference hall in Basel, the hearts of the delegates of the First Zionist Congress were stirred, paving the way for the establishment of the Jewish State.”

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