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Interview

Diaspora minister: Ukraine war is showing Israelis that ties with Jews abroad matter

As ‘Diaspora Week’ kicks off, Nachman Shai says he’s fighting to keep rightward-moving Israeli Jews connected to leftward-moving American ones

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

Demonstrators gather at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on March 20, 2022, to watch a televised video address by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Jack Guez/ AFP)
Demonstrators gather at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on March 20, 2022, to watch a televised video address by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Jack Guez/ AFP)

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nahman Shai sees a silver lining in the horror and misery caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Israelis and their government suddenly became deeply interested in the lives of Jews abroad and jumped to help them.

That attention to Jewish communities outside of Israel, known collectively as the Diaspora, is relatively rare in Israeli society. According to a recent survey conducted by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, only a slight majority of Jewish Israelis — 56 percent — say they feel a sense of kinship toward their non-Israeli coreligionists. Fewer still — 37% — say they feel “a personal sense of responsibility toward Jews around the world even if they’ve decided not to immigrate to Israel,” according to the poll.

Speaking ahead of his ministry’s “Diaspora Week,” which launched Sunday, Shai said Jewish Israelis have increasingly limited interactions with Jews abroad as fewer and fewer have close family ties outside the country. Whereas Israel was once a state made up primarily of new immigrants, the majority of Israelis today — 78% — are native-born.

“They’ve never lived in a Diaspora. Most of them don’t even have relatives in the Diaspora. This is a generational change, which affects all aspects of life in Israel, out of the country, and in the relationship between the two,” Shai told The Times of Israel in a phone interview.

Israelis do develop closer ties to Jews in the Diaspora when the issue comes to the fore in the news, but this is normally around attacks and other negative incidents, he said.

“The case of Ukraine is very helpful. Unfortunately, it is coming from a crisis that is affecting the lives of millions of people,” Shai said.

“It has changed the perception of the Diaspora. More Israelis were exposed to Jewish life in Ukraine now than ever before. Unfortunately, it happened only through crisis.”

A soldier walks amid the destruction caused after the shelling of a shopping center last March 21 in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Shai and his ministry’s goal is to deepen those ties between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora on a positive level, not only in response to antisemitism or war.

“It normally happens when there is a terror attack, like the one in Colleyville, Texas, or like the ones in Paris and Toulouse. All of those cases made Israelis feel closer to their [fellow Jews]. But a)  that’s not enough and b) I would like people to feel that sense of peoplehood not only through crisis, but in normal times,” he said.

“I would like that when Israelis visit abroad or go to live abroad, they would seek out the Jewish community, which currently they don’t do,” Shai said.

Indeed, in the United States, the high costs of Jewish day school tuition and synagogue membership fees keep many secular Israelis from joining the local American Jewish community, especially as many see themselves as more culturally Israeli rather than Jewish.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai arrives at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

In his effort to address these issues, Shai’s ministry is launching “Diaspora Week” this week, kicking it off with an event at the President’s Residence on Sunday.

The survey that was released by Shai’s ministry on Sunday puts together results into a score from 1 to 10 measuring Israel’s connection to the Diaspora. This year, that score was 5.17 out of 10, effectively no change from last year’s 5.2, but a slight decrease from the previous year’s 5.52. The survey was conducted in February, with 1,001 Jewish Israeli respondents from a variety of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds that are meant to simulate the makeup of the country.

“We are at a five, which means we are only halfway. We are trying to figure out how to increase the awareness, the knowledge of Israelis about Jews around the globe,” he said.

Though the government has marked Diaspora Weeks in the past, this year the ministry has put far more emphasis on the event and bills it as the largest one yet.

One of the float-balloons in Israel for the “Unity” parade, taking place December 3, 2018 (Courtesy 2bVibes)

According to Shai, the focus this year is on Diaspora Jews’ role in Israeli history.

“This is the week of the Diaspora in Israel. That’s the focus — not the Diaspora in the Diaspora, but the Diaspora in Israel. Next year, we’ll do a week on Israel’s role in the Diaspora, which is something else. But this year, we want to mark the Diaspora’s role in Israel,” Shai said.

Throughout the week, museums with Diaspora-related content will be open free to the public, some schools will discuss the concept of Jewish peoplehood, foreign-born soldiers will share their experiences with their native-born comrades, and young foreign Jews in Israel will participate in joint events with Jewish Israelis.

“The background to all of this is that I am extremely concerned about the future of the Jewish people. I am looking at the shrinking number of Jews and the growing number of interfaith marriages,” Shai said. (The global Jewish population is, in fact, steadily growing, according to demographer Sergio DellaPergola.)

The issue of interfaith marriages is deeply contentious within the Jewish world. In the United States 42% of married Jews say their spouse is not Jewish, with the percentages being significantly higher among younger Jews than older ones, indicating a growing trend, according to a 2020 Pew survey. Some in the US and in Israel have gone so far as to refer to the phenomenon of interfaith marriages as a “second Holocaust” as fewer Jews — by some religious standards — are being born than otherwise would be. Others, however, sharply condemn this rhetoric as both trivializing the Holocaust and alienating to large portions of the American Jewish community. The 2020 Pew survey also showed that an increasing percentage of the offspring of interfaith marriages identify themselves as Jewish, adding further complexity to the issue of how interfaith marriages affect future generations.

Unprompted, Shai noted that he has “nothing against” interfaith marriages, but said that the growing trend demands consideration.

“We also need to figure out what to do with intermarried couples. The number is growing all of the time. Are we throwing them out of the Jewish world? Ignoring them? Or do we embrace them? And then we have to think about what to do with the non-Jewish spouse? What about him or her? This is a new reality in Jewish history,” he said.

Mending the rift

In recent years, the ties between the State of Israel and US Jewry — by far the two largest Jewish communities in the world, making up more than 94% of the global population of Jews, by some estimates — have been increasingly strained.

Though this can be traced in part to specific incidents and issues, such as former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech against then-US president Barack Obama in Congress in 2015 or the ongoing failure to implement the so-called Western Wall compromise, which would give non-Orthodox Jews greater representation at the holy site, the growing rift can be more clearly tied to larger political trends in the two countries. Namely, most American Jews identify as liberal, increasingly so among younger American Jews, and Jewish Israelis are moving increasingly rightward politically.

Illustrative: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders poses with IfNotNow activists in New Hampshire, including University of Michigan student Becca Lubow on the far left, and holds a sign that reads ‘Jews Against Occupation.’ (Courtesy/IfNotNow)

While Shai and others working to repair the ties between Israel and American Jewry are operating under the assumption that greater knowledge about one another will make the two communities grow closer, they must also contend with the fact that these political disagreements may prevent any real, lasting reconciliation.

“The challenge here is that there is a growing gap between most American Jews and Israel. American Jewry is tilting to the left — with the younger generation, it’s even farther left — while in Israel, it’s exactly the other way around. Most of the public is centrist or right-wing,” said Shai, a member of the left-wing Labor party.

“It’s a matter of what values are still common and shared between us. Otherwise, we are just growing apart from each other, which is my major concern. I can’t tell Israelis to move back to the center or to the left. And I can’t tell Americans to move to the center or to the right,” he said.

“But as the minister of Diaspora affairs, I see American Jews and young American Jewish students and I ask myself, what can I do? How can I approach them so that I don’t lose them as Jews and in terms of their connection to Israel?”

Shai said the division is a deep-rooted one, with both sides bearing some responsibility.

Illustrative: Israelis, immigrants and international interns during a Masa Israel-sponsored Dialogue Seminar in Ein Gedi (Louis Fisher/Flash90)

“There is a lack of knowledge, even ignorance. But there is also some arrogance, on both sides of the ocean, a sense of ‘Who are you to teach me?'” he said.

Shai acknowledged, however, that Israelis tend to be more ignorant of Jewish history than their Diaspora counterparts.

“What [Israelis] learn in high school — that’s not sufficient,” he said.

Not enough, but it’s something

Of course, a single week of Diaspora-related content in a few schools and military units is not, in itself, going to turn the tide on mending the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

“We expect at least 60,000 students will be dealing with Diaspora-related content this week. That’s not enough. It’s only about 5% [of the Israeli school system], but it’s an achievement. Hopefully next year it will be more,” Shai said.

More broadly, Shai said his ministry was working with the Education Ministry to expand its Jewish studies curriculum to better focus on the Diaspora and Jewish history.

He said he has also met with Defense Minister Benny Gantz in order to bring the Israel Defense Forces and its Education Corps on board.

“It’s an endless job. But the more we do, the more it will attract people to come into this circle,” he said. “We are starting a process.”

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