Why Don’t Israeli Jews Care About Their Counterparts in the Diaspora?
There is nothing that Jews like to do more than take part in conventions and conferences; some even find particular expression to their Judaism in them. In addition, the amount of fund-raising events for Israeli causes can easily fill up the calendar of every Jew involved in community life.
But what, exactly, do many of these conventions discuss? The panels usually debate inner communal issues and the connection — or lack thereof — of the younger generation with Israel. The most popular and controversial panels in recent years have dealt with “the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora,” or explaining Israeli politics and matters of religion and state in Israel.
As an Israeli journalist, I can tell you that a news item debating the establishment of an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall plaza will barely be covered in the Hebrew press, while it is the main headline on American-Jewish sites. The same goes for synagogues. Diaspora synagogues, especially liberal ones, argue for an egalitarian Kotel, while Israeli synagogues have other, more pressing matters to talk about.
I recently attended a panel on this exact topic during the Global Forum of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which has just celebrated its 110th anniversary. Its was titled: “What Divides Us? What Unites Us? Israeli and American Jews.” I was asked to represent the Israeli side, and Adena Philips, chair of AJC’s young generation global project, ACCESS, together with Avi Mayer, a Jewish Agency spokesman.
We were joined by Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at the Pew Research Center, who briefed the audience on the results of the 2015 survey on Israeli Jews and 2013 study on US Jewry.
The Pew surveys show that four out of 10 American Jews visit Israel, and a similar proportion of Israelis visit the US. However, this does not mean there is a connection between the sides.
“There is a simple explanation to these findings,” I explained during the panel. “Most Israelis who visit New York don’t visit synagogues of different denominations, the Jewish Museum or the JCCs, but rather two very specific outlet malls and, of course, Times Square.”
In Israel, I argued, “The synagogue where you pray or don’t pray is Orthodox; the words ‘Reform’ or ‘Conservative’ may be considered as a curse — and at the best it’s simply an unknown Diaspora word.”
My message was very clear, and members of the audience didn’t all enjoy to hear what I had to say. Although the America-Jewish media covers what is happening in Israel on a daily basis, the Israeli media is just not that interested in Diaspora Jewry, except in two cases: when there is a rise in antisemitism or a big wave of aliyah. When I told them that Makor Rishon is the only Hebrew media outlet that employs a full-time, in-house, Jewish-world correspondent, they thought it was a joke.
To me, I explained, the Israeli approach is very egocentric. For years, we Israelis have been used to receiving billions of dollars from American-Jewish organizations, such the Joint Distribution Committee or the Jewish federations. Since the establishment of the state of Israel (and even before that) and to this day, American-Jewish organizations have devoted a significant percentage of their budget to Israel. From an Israeli perspective, those who “chose” to live in the Diaspora send money to “relieve their guilt,” and those of us living in the Holy Land feel “deserving” of the money from our brethren in exile.
Don’t get me wrong, the Israel-Diaspora relationship indeed exists. But is unidirectional. Unfortunately, very few Israelis live and breathe this connection, while there is no shortage of American Jews who follow daily events in Israel. Of course, there are American Jews are who criticize Israel, but at least they have an interest in what is happening on the other side. I wish it were the same in Israel towards the Jewish world, but it’s not.
“If it were possible to send every Israeli on a reverse Birthright trip to the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, the reality would be different,” an Israeli friend living in New York recently told me. Unfortunately, her idea is not practical; I have not yet found a wealthy businessman who finds importance in spending hundreds of millions of dollars on an initiative that consists of free trips for Israelis to Jewish communities for 10 days. There is no doubt that such an initiative could change Israeli public opinion on issues regarding religion and state, and certainly reconnect Jews overseas to Zionism and their roots.
According to the PEW survey, 41 percent of Israelis define themselves as secular. I’m sad to note that many of those secular Israelis are much less involved in Jewish life than liberal Jews abroad who are called “Reform” and “Conservative” in a derogatory way – even though the Israelis calling them that have no idea what those terms actually mean.
Any Israeli who has lived abroad can testify how his or her Jewish identity was strengthened as soon as they came in contact with a Jewish community in the Diaspora. Suddenly, a secular Israeli will permit himself to visit a synagogue, and maybe even marry according to Jewish law — by choice.
Jewish Agency emissaries who come from secular backgrounds usually depart Israel for the Diaspora feeling that they know what Judaism is, and act as though they are on a mission to “save” Diaspora Jews. But ironically, in most cases, it is in the Diaspora that, for the first time, they realize what being Jewish actually means.
There are currently several leadership programs dealing with an attempt to build bridges between Diaspora Jews and Israel, but so far they haven’t been successful at affecting the mainstream. Israel will be more Jewish if we renew the ties with world Jewry, and as a result, the Jewish communities will more Zionist and deeply rooted.
Zvika Klein is an award-winning Journalist. This op-ed was originally written in Hebrew on the news site nrg and newspaper and Makor Rishon newspaper.