How much should Diaspora Jews be involved in Israel’s decision-making? This perennial question has been debated for decades, often in op-eds and speeches, as well as at Jewish conferences.
There is a sense that urgent intervention is needed, in light of the recent tension between the organized Jewish organizations in the Diaspora and Israeli leadership, as well as a general sense that the two separate ecosystems are operating in two parallel universes. This would be an entity that would channel the goodwill and honest concern of Diaspora Jews when dealing with issues that affect them and the Jewish state.
As the Start-Up Nation, one would expect the greatest Jewish minds to find a solution for this complex situation of a nation-state and its Diaspora, but it seems as if all of the proposed ideas have been sent to the archives. Every few years, Jewish philanthropists get together, think of an idea, and then find Israeli politicians or leaders to promote it. But for some reason, they all start with a big hype and many headlines in the media, without delivering the expected solution.
In the past few decades, a number of fascinating models have been suggested, but there hasn’t yet been one that hit the spot.
In 2004, Maariv published that then president Moshe Katsav had “initiated the establishment of the ‘Second House [of parliament],’ a global Jewish parliament that will advise MKs and ministers on issues such as conversion, assimilation and education in the Diaspora.”
The Jerusalem Post’s Greer Fay Cashman wrote two years later that “the first meeting of the World Jewish Forum (WJF), an international consultative body,” was expected to take place at the President’s Residence “with a gathering of 200-300 leaders of world Jewry, Robert Goodkind, president of the American Jewish Committee, announced.” She explained that “the WJF initiative springs from a call by president Moshe Katsav for the establishment of a sort of ‘Second House’ as a consultative body alongside the Knesset to add its voice to discussions on issues that affected not only the citizens of a Jewish state, but Jews everywhere.” The idea was to create a body of 150 elected representatives.
Goodkind told the Post in 2006 that this meeting would “be similar in status to the annual economic conference in Davos, and would represent ‘a major breakthrough in Jewish history.’” Interestingly, a month ago, President Isaac Herzog introduced a similar suggestion: The venture, “Kol Ha’am – Voice of the People: The President’s Initiative for Worldwide Jewish Dialogue,” would include the president, the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization.
“Its vision is to launch a first-of-its-kind global council for Jewish dialogue; a Jewish ‘Davos,’” he said during the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Tel Aviv.
BACK TO the WJF. Fifty percent of the participants would be representatives of organizations, whereas the other 50% would be invited not because of any Jewish affiliations, but because they were leaders in their fields, who happened to be Jewish. They even invited Jewish movie producer Steven Spielberg.
Maariv emphasized in 2004 that “the Israeli elected representatives have nothing to fear,” since “the new parliament will have no legislative powers, which ensures that it will not be equal in status to the Knesset.”
Then Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin told Maariv that the Second House would be “difficult to implement,” since “the Israeli parliament is grappling with problems of Israeli nationality and cannot afford to make room for the establishment of another body, at this time.”
Rivlin added in 2004 that “along with the struggle with the Palestinians, we are grappling with the problems of the ingathering of the exiles and the absorption of aliyah. These are problems that do not allow us at this stage to fully consider the proposals that the president is suggesting.” Katsav’s Diaspora Affairs adviser was Akiva Tor, now Israel’s ambassador to Korea, who invested many years in trying to promote this initiative.
Colette Avital, when she was an MK and the chairwoman of the Aliyah, Integration and Diaspora Committee, also expressed doubt regarding the chances of the proposal. “I am skeptical about the realization of the idea and I told the president this as well,” she said.
“I am in favor of dialogue with the various Jewish bodies, but I do not think that a new body should be established,” she added. “It is possible to be satisfied with an annual meeting or a regular consultation forum.”
One leader who was in this sphere of building a new platform for dialogue between Diaspora Jews and Israel is French-Israeli businessman and philanthropist, Pierre Besnainou. He served, among other roles, as president of the European Jewish Congress and was appointed by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to be president of a commission that sought to define the new paradigm for Israel-Diaspora relations.
A decade ago, Besnainou wrote an op-ed about this quest. “For two years, I had the privilege of applying myself to this task, along with a remarkable team that included Alan Hoffman,” then director-general of the Jewish Agency.
“In 2009, in a detailed report, we proposed to the Israeli government that it assume its responsibility by taking steps to reinforce Jewish identity in the Diaspora. We considered that the government would not be over-investing if it devoted a mere one-tenth of a percent of its annual budget to the future of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.” He said the Benjamin Netanyahu-led government didn’t like the idea back then.
Besnainou told the Post on Wednesday that “Israel should act like the young son who can finance his old father, which is the Diaspora.” He emphasized that “the Diaspora is old and needs assistance; Israel is young and vibrant.”
In 2020, then-MK Tehilla Friedman worked on introducing a legislative motion in the Knesset that would establish a consultation body of Diaspora Jews on issues relevant to them, that would compel the committees to listen to them before voting.
Then-Diaspora Affairs minister Omer Yankelevitch adopted the idea and suggested establishing a similar body for the government. She introduced “a government bill that requires both the government of Israel and the Knesset to consult with world Jewry on matters of direct relevance to the eight million Jews living outside of the State of Israel,” she wrote in a Post op-ed.
This initiative has also received lots of criticism from political figures from all sides of the political map and ended up not happening, even though lots of energy and time were invested in round tables and discussions.
In 1994, then-president Ezer Weizman hosted a two-day dialogue aimed at “breaking new ground in Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry,” according to a JTA article. Two-hundred Jews from around the world participated in the conference. They, too, were tapped to represent “intellectual, academic, political and artistic circles and not just ‘official’ Jewish leadership,” JTA reported.
One-third were Israeli, while two-thirds were from the Diaspora. “New developments require new ideas and new formulas for maintaining Israel-Diaspora links,” Weizman’s adviser said at the time.
It seems as if every few years a new president, minister or prime minister seeks a relevant solution to the fissures between Diaspora and Israeli Jews. The problem is that most of the time, these are the same ideas, with new and sparkled wrapping paper.
This was the same situation when president Rivlin joined forces with the Diaspora Ministry and the Genesis Philanthropy Group to create “Our Common Destiny” – yet another venture that saw itself as the one that would get all Jews to speak with one another. They also invited intellectuals and rabbis from the different streams of Judaism, but they weren’t able to break through and make the dramatic move that many have been expecting.
How can Israel and the Diaspora have a dialogue?
SO WHAT is the solution?
First of all, we need a prime minister or president with enough courage to promote an initiative that will probably not be popular among Israelis in its first few years. Many Israelis still see Diaspora Jewry as the strong and rich uncle who shouldn’t be allowed to interfere, and who should just send donations. For many years, Birthright Israel received lots of negative feedback, but they were able to stand tall and ignore it.
Secondly, there needs to be an outlet for Diaspora Jews to at least be heard, if not influence, directly. There have been suggestions that a number of Knesset seats be occupied by Jews from outside of Israel. Supporters of this initiative say that they shouldn’t be able to vote on internal Israeli issues, but possibly on issues that affect their communities. They would even be influential if they were allowed to speak at the Knesset plenum and at its committees. If you are physically present, you cannot be ignored.
An idea that I have developed over the years is establishing a Jewish World Embassy in Jerusalem. This embassy, and possibly consulates across Israel, would do everything that an embassy does: Cocktail parties with their local foods, film festivals promoting their culture, meetings with Israeli officials, promoting investments in their countries, and maintaining a relationship between both sides.
There would be an ambassador and consul generals who would be elected in an established way. These ambassadors would need to be of high profile and status, who could speak up when needed, and who would be able to form a relevant relationship with senior Israelis.
As mentioned, it won’t be easy to gain support from Israelis. Last week, I moderated a panel during a conference organized by the Gesher organization about this topic. Matan Peleg, chairman of the Im Tirtzu organization, compared Israel’s relations with its Jewish Diaspora to those of a parent and a child.
“This child called the State of Israel is growing up,” Peleg said. “Many times the Jewish community in the US and around the world also needs to understand how much it wants to interfere in the [child’s] internal issues. Even if I give my child pocket money, that does not give me the right to tell him what to do all the time.
“Therefore, world Jewry needs to give us more credit and not interfere in an excessively active manner, and certainly not in classic internal issues,” said Peleg, a promising young leader whose political affiliation is conservative.
“I am in favor of every Jew in the world contributing to hospitals and welfare organizations, but for a Jew from outside [the Diaspora] to interfere in internal issues, such as immigration policy, settlements, the judicial reforms – this is excessive patronage,” he added.
Shlomit Mali, CEO of AMI, the National Directorate for Israel and Diaspora Relations responded by saying, “Our goal for the past two years has been to connect the Israeli audience to Diaspora Judaism. We also invest a lot of time and energy in connecting Diaspora Judaism to what is happening in Israel.”
She concluded by asking the panel’s participants to be open to hearing different opinions. “This is a nation for the Jewish people. We have a nation. Let’s trust it. We need to talk to the Jews of the Diaspora.”
Currently, many initiatives are being promoted, and certain sectors of the Israeli public are becoming more aware of Jewish life outside of Israel. Yet, without an official mechanism of dialogue and possible influence between both sides, we are going to continue to hear about tensions, gaps and divides.
The time has come to step up to the next level of the relationship. We can only hope that there are courageous leaders out there who will steer us in that direction. •