As by their very nature they cannot vote in Israel, Diaspora Jews are rarely a topic of intensive debate in Israeli elections, which instead focus primarily on security, economic and religious issues.
But on Wednesday, the Reut Group think tank, the Ruderman Family Foundation and a number of other groups made them the central topic of debate, bringing together representatives from seven major political parties to discuss Israel’s frayed relationship with Jews abroad and how their parties intend to improve it.
The often heated debate was held at the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv.
Though the participants came from a variety of parties, from Meretz on the left to the Religious Zionism party on the far right, no representative was sent from the Likud party, which is projected to be the largest party in the next Knesset, nor were there any representatives from ultra-Orthodox parties or from any of the Arab-majority parties.
Though they differed on the extent to which Diaspora Jews should have a say in Israeli politics, all agreed on the importance of listening to and engaging with Jews outside of Israel, particularly the American Jewish community as it is the second-largest in the world and holds strategic value for the State of Israel and its relationship with the United States.
All of the candidates also called for the Israeli education system to better teach students about Diaspora Jewry and for Israel to support Jewish education programs abroad.
Quickly, however, the panel discussion shifted focus to the well-worn areas of conflict between the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewry, specifically American Jewry, namely over the Western Wall and more generally Israel’s pointed lack of official recognition for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
The lack of official recognition for non-Orthodox Judaism and egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall has long been seen as a major source of friction between progressive Jews and the Israeli government.
An agreement that would give non-Orthodox Jewry a role in the management of the Western Wall and officially recognize mixed-gender prayer at the site has been frozen for the past six years due to Orthodox opposition to the plan.
On this matter, Labor’s Gilad Kariv — an ordained Reform rabbi and number three on the party’s list — lamented the lack of progress on this issue under the current government and said his party would make the advancement of the Western Wall compromise and religious pluralism one of its key issues in any future coalition agreements.
“We won’t accept being second-class Jews in the national home of the Jewish people,” Kariv said.
“In the next coalition negotiations the issue of the status of the other streams [of Judaism] and the implementation of the Western Wall compromise will be one of our core demands as a lesson from what happened in the previous government,” he said.
“The State of Israel is the national home of the entire Jewish people and therefore it must give a place and equal and respectful standing to all Jews, to all Jewish communities and to all ways of life both within its borders and in the way that it manages its ties with Diaspora Jewry,” Kariv said.
Kariv’s primary foil in this discussion was the far-right Religious Zionism party’s Ohad Tal, who up until the start of the election campaigns served as the head of the religious Bnei Akiva youth movement.
Tal presented a far friendlier face toward Diaspora Jewry than much of the rest of his party, including the top two candidates Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, both of whom have repeatedly dismissed and reviled Reform Judaism, with the former once referring to it as a “fake religion.”
Last year, Smotrich faced near unprecedented public criticism from the British Board of Deputies umbrella group when he visited the United Kingdom for his attitudes toward Arabs and the LGBT community.
Smotrich and Ben-Gvir were also the focus of a front-page story in the popular British Jewish News tabloid, accusing them of hating “Arabs, LGBT people and even some Jews.”
Tal stressed Israel’s responsibility toward Jewish communities in the Diaspora, particularly small and shrinking ones.
Though Tal preferred not to discuss the Western Wall issue — seeing it as a comparatively minor issue in the larger picture of Israel-Diaspora relations — he recognized that non-Orthodox Jews do feel alienated by the current situation in which they do not feel they are represented. However, he offered no concrete solutions to the issue.
“Every Jew needs to feel at home at the Western Wall. How to do that? I don’t know. We need to talk about it,” he said.
Kariv, a previous head of Israel’s Reform movement who has long been at the forefront of these discussions, countered that the principal figures in the religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox communities refuse, on principle, to meet Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel.
Each candidate brought their own diagnoses for the current strained ties between Israel and the Diaspora and recommendations for improving them.
Blue and White’s Alon Tal, the sole US-born parliamentarian currently in the Knesset, described the strained ties as being born of ignorance and advocated sending more Israelis to the US on “reverse Birthright” trips, referring to the free 10-day trips to Israel offered to Jews in the US and other countries.
According to Tal, the US Jewish community is currently facing two crises: the first is the increasing number of Jews abandoning Reform and Conservative Judaism, which were once the bedrock of Jewish communal life and Zionism, and the second is rising antisemitism.
“It’s something that Donald Trump brought with him. He let the genie out of the bottle,” Alon Tal said of the latter.
To address the growing disaffiliation of American Jews, Tal recommended that Israel invest its energies more wisely by ending programs that sent Israelis to act as advisers to Americans looking to immigrate and instead sending them to work in formal and informal education.
Though he has been an active voice on Diaspora issues in the current Knesset, Tal is unlikely to return to the parliament, receiving a relatively low position on his faction’s list. He has also made it clear that his primary focus is on environmental, not Diaspora, issues.
Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll of the Yesh Atid party similarly noted that there is a growing view in Israel that “you don’t need to make aliyah to be a good Zionist,” using the Hebrew term for Jewish immigration to Israel.
Though somewhat less vociferously than Kariv, Roll too called for greater Jewish pluralism in Israel, describing it as a no-brainer.
“It strikes me as patently obvious that this is an issue that needs to be resolved. In my view, this is a highly significant issue for Diaspora Jewry,” he said.
Roll also recommended sending more Israelis to the US to interact with both American Jews and with Americans in general.
Michal Rozin, of the liberal Meretz party, caused a stir among the other candidates when she claimed that the primary strain on the Israel-Diaspora relationship is that Israel no longer makes them “proud.”
“Birthright brings these young people here and it shows them how beautiful Israel is. It shows them the Sea of Galilee and camels and the Carmel Market and everything’s wonderful. Then they go back home and go to college and suddenly they’re confronted with a 13-year-old [Palestinian] who’s been killed and the journalist Shireen [Abu Akleh] who’s been killed, and they don’t have answers,” Rozin said.
“They don’t know how to talk about the conflict and explain how the State of Israel, the ethical homeland of the Jewish people acts discriminatorily, unjustly and unfairly. It can be in terms of women and how we haven’t signed the (anti-violence against women) Istanbul Convention or in terms of LGBT rights,” she said.
“Ultimately, these young people look at the State of Israel and unlike in the past, they’re no longer proud of us.”
Asked how she proposed addressing this issue, Rozin responded: “Short answer — end the occupation.”
The only candidate who didn’t disagree with or denounce Rozin’s remarks was Labor’s Kariv who agreed that for Israel to truly serve as a homeland for the Jewish people it must strive to separate from the Palestinians under the two-state model.
“A Zionist and a person who believes in the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state needs to put as the final destination in our national Waze: separation from the Palestinians,” he said, referring to the popular navigation application.
Kariv recognized that such a resolution may not be feasible in the short term, however.
“We must put it in our Waze. Even if the path is long, even if there are traffic jams and speed bumps and even accidents. Our destination must be separation from the Palestinians in order to ensure the future of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said.
The other foreign-born candidate, Jewish Home’s Yomtob Kalfon, who is originally from France, noted the negative effect that Israel’s closed-door policies during the pandemic had on foreign Jews.
Kalfon advocated a special sort of visa for Jewish non-citizen visitors to Israel, something different than a tourist visa, which would always allow Jews into the country.
“It wouldn’t be citizenship. It would be a visa. But it would say that even if we close the border, this visa sets you apart from that closure. It’s a ticket, like a membership card, for the Jewish people and their connection to Israel,” he said.
The right-leaning, secular Yisrael Beytenu party’s representative, Sharon Roffe-Ofir, said the ultra-Orthodox parties and Religious Zionism party represented a significant threat to Israel-Diaspora ties.
She warned that they would turn Israel into a “dark place” that would alienate Diaspora Jewry.
Roffe-Ofir said Israel should consider allowing Jews abroad to vote in Israeli elections but quickly backed down when asked to support this view. “It’s something that should be on the table and that we should talk about,” she said.