Identity, not immigration, takes center stage in online initiative

Joint Jewish Agency-Israeli government website calls for grassroots brainstorming to unify the Jewish people, with mixed results

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett (left) and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky (right) join an 'online jam session' in Jerusalem, February 2014. (Sasson Tiram)
Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett (left) and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky (right) join an 'online jam session' in Jerusalem, February 2014. (Sasson Tiram)

Natan Sharansky is a contrary sort. In Soviet Russia where only civil marriages were allowed, he wed his wife Avital illegally through a religious ceremony in a Moscow synagogue. And in 2009 when he was named the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (which, among other duties, acts as the historical instrument for immigration of Jews worldwide), in a highly criticized decision Sharansky closed the aliya department.

In both cases, the reasoning is the same: demonstrating the importance of Jewish identity. For Sharansky, this is achieved through respect and knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history, including Israel, and serves to create a unified Jewish people.

“What was once unimaginable is that the Israeli government would [also] see strengthening Jewish identity as a priority,” Sharansky told The Times of Israel in a brief interview to discuss JAFI’s newest joint governmental initiative, a 96-hour online brainstorming session called “Securing the Jewish Future.”

Originally scheduled for three days starting Sunday February 16, the website’s life has been extended until 9 a.m. Thursday (Israel time) as individuals and institutions in the Diaspora are increasingly logging on, with some 2,100 users at last count. The online event is organized by the Jewish Agency, the Israeli government and the World Jewry Joint Initiative, which kicked off with a meeting of 120 top global Jewish professionals in November 2013.

The goal? To create a broad-based discussion including as many voices as possible on topics ranging from Jewish education to Tikkun Olam to Israel experiences.

Already last August, there were murmurings of a new initiative coming out of the Prime Minister’s Office with reports of a massive $300 million budget ($100 million from the government and the rest from donors) to tackle issues including Israel education in Jewish institutions and Israel advocacy on campuses. According to a recent JTA report, Israel’s government will earmark $1.4 billion for the World Jewry initiative over the next five years.

The World Jewry Initiative’s basic idea is to bring world Jewry to Israel and Israel to world Jewry, metaphorically and physically.

The basic idea is to bring world Jewry to Israel and Israel to world Jewry, metaphorically and physically

Sharansky would date this new focus on the importance of a reciprocally beneficial Israel-Diaspora relationship to much earlier.

In the early years of the state there was a mutual “paternalism” between Israel and the Diaspora, Sharansky said this week. Israeli leaders viewed the Diaspora as a source for aliya and funds and the Diaspora saw Israel as “this poor cousin that needs to be saved.” Recently there is an increased awareness that each Jewish community needs the other.

“What started happening in the last 10-15 years is the Diaspora discovered they need to send their children for an Israel experience [to stave off assimilation] and Israel found out that to combat anti-Israel sentiment, we need advocacy,” said Sharansky, pointing to “our strongest allies,” the Diaspora Jews.

So in 1998-99 the Israeli government decided to invest money in strengthening the Jewish identity of American Jewry in the form of the fledgling Taglit-Birthright program.

“I remember the debates in the government — ‘should we put money from taxpayers to pay for trips for rich American Jews?'” said Sharansky.

‘I remember the debates in the government — “should we put money from tax payers to pay for trips for rich American Jews?”‘

In his first term as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu understood the strategic advantages for Israel for Birthright and initiated governmental funding. Now it is again a government headed by Netanyahu that is ready to heavily invest in Diaspora Jews.

Sharansky said this week that back in 1998 there were voices in the government asking why the Jewish Agency is “getting involved with tourism.” Likewise, Jews around the world asked why Israel should involve itself with Jewish identity.

Today the Birthright program is considered a success and such funding is a given. A 2012 B’nai B’rith poll shows that 80% of Israelis support funding an Israel experience program for Diaspora youth.

Also in this poll, 56% of Israelis would support a “Jewish parliament” to be chosen by Diaspora Jews, but those polled objected to the Diaspora Jews having representation in the Knesset.

‘It’s our state, but I want Jews abroad to have some sort of say’

Last week, however, Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett told JTA that Jews outside Israel should have a “say” in the Israeli government’s affairs, and suggested offering “semi-citizenship” to Diaspora Jews, saying, “It’s our state, but I want Jews abroad to have some sort of say.”

What worked once for Israel-Jewish Diaspora relations doesn’t anymore, said Bennett, echoing Sharansky’s sentiments. “Instead of viewing the Diaspora as a wallet, the new objective is keeping Jews Jewish and connected to Israel even if they don’t make aliya... It’s a big change. Israel has never stepped up to that,” Bennett told JTA.

Aliya by choice versus emigration by necessity

In analyzing the workings of the Jewish Agency upon assuming the post in 2009, Sharansky found an overlap of multiple emissaries — one each for Jewish education, Israel advocacy, aliya, etc. — competing for the same audiences in Diaspora communities. Realizing that the key to a successful Jewish community, in Israel or abroad, is proud, self-identifying Jews, Sharansky “broke down the wall” and tasked his emissaries with creating opportunities to strengthen identity.

“We have brought down the wall between the struggle for aliya and the struggle for Jewish education,” said Sharansky.

‘We have brought down the wall between the struggle for aliya and the struggle for Jewish education’

Interestingly, anti-Semitism, long thought to be the impetus of aliya, is actually a deterrent. As JAFI spokesperson Avi Mayer explained in a conversation this week, “We hear these claims that anti-Semitism is ‘good for aliya,’ so Jews will go to Israel, which is good for the Jewish Agency. It’s quite the opposite: for every Jew who comes to Israel, another eight are turned off and leave their Jewish communities.”

The Jewish Agency is looking for Jews to make aliya from a position of strength, said Mayer. In an era of aliya by choice, versus previous large-scale migration due to negative outside influences, the Jew who decides to live in Israel is one who proudly self-identifies and aligns himself with the narrative of the Jewish people.

From the perspective of Sharansky’s Jewish Agency, youth who have experienced Israel programs and strengthened their Jewish identities can equally either make aliya or go back to their home Jewish communities as active and engaged young Jewish leaders aligned with the unified Jewish people’s narrative.

To gather more grassroots out-of-the box thoughts on this and other topics this week, the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government turned to the Jewish people for ideas on shaping this narrative in a new online “jam session” experiment.

Experiencing the website

This reporter signed up for the website upon its announcement last week and eagerly searched for more concrete information. Access denied.

Apparently in a strategic decision to create a buzz, the powers that be withheld all specifics of the website outside of its much-celebrated existence until the commencement of the “jam sessions” Sunday. In the meantime, I began receiving a slew of build-up emails, which continued over the course of the event.

Upon logging on after the Sunday morning launch, this user was overwhelmed with the amounts of pure text on the site and turned to the “First Timers” tab. There one is requested to watch two short “videos” — essentially PowerPoint presentations set to (annoying) trance-style music — while slow scrolling text did little to illuminate and much to irritate.

The second “video” concludes by asking the user to watch one or two of the seven additional short videos on the various conversation topics before joining in. In an act of pure will, I was largely able to keep my eyes on the screen for the 1.5 minute Israel and Peoplehood Education in Formal Settings presentation (despite the nauseating soundtrack). Done, now time to join in.

Unfortunately, though it seemed there was a lively discussion here during the first couple of days ranging from detailed prepared responses to off-the-cuff individuals’ remarks, this section of the discussion is now inactive. Looking further, it seems by this point, the “jam” on education has moved to a different subsection of the site, “3 Patterns.” Off I go.

The illustration depicting trends one finds on the '3 Patterns' section of the Securing the Jewish Future website. (screenshot)
The illustration depicting trends one finds on the ‘3 Patterns’ section of the Securing the Jewish Future website. (screenshot)

Eureka. Here I find an “active” session where there were two responses several hours ago. After reading previous comments, I offer a discussion point. While awaiting comments, I meander back to the site’s home page and take part in a short flash poll — “Which one is most crucial for you: Digital Infrastructure, Life Journey, Human Infrastructure, and Existing Programs and Projects.” Not being sure what “Life Journey” meant and always glad to support employment opportunities, I vote for “Human Infrastructure,” along with the other 87 majority voters.

Also on the home page are “4 Questions” — “How do we link multiple Jewish experiences”; “What was the ‘aha’ moment that got you involved in Jewish life?”; “Imagining your own Jewish journey forward, what can best help you navigate that journey”; and “What is the role of communal subsidy in changing behavior.”

In spite of its circus-esque color scheme with partial sentences in various palettes, the questions are sincere and receive serious responses. While perusing, I notice someone has responded to my post. I click over from the home page and continue the conversation.

Overall the site is perhaps not to my aesthetic or musical tastes, and while somewhat bewildering in its catchphrases and jargon, it is functional and does allow for a back-and-forth of ideas.

What will become of these suggestions?

Next Sunday a concentrated set of proposals from professionals, and ostensibly the general public, will be presented by Jewish Agency director general Allan Hoffman at the opening plenary of the board of governors meeting in Tel Aviv.

In the coming months the ideas will be formalized into project proposals by a team of Jewish professions and subsequently presented to the Knesset for funding in the 2015 budget.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed
Register for free
and continue reading
Registering also lets you comment on articles and helps us improve your experience. It takes just a few seconds.
Already registered? Enter your email to sign in.
Please use the following structure:
Or Continue with
By registering you agree to the terms and conditions. Once registered, you’ll receive our Daily Edition email for free.
Register to continue
Or Continue with
Log in to continue
Sign in or Register
Or Continue with
check your email
Check your email
We sent an email to you at .
It has a link that will sign you in.