By Sam Sokol
Israel is interested in bolstering the Jewish identity of those living in the Diaspora. That’s not news. All of us covering the “Jewish world” beat for our respective newspapers have known that since September. What we didn’t know, at least until I reported it exclusively in the Jerusalem Post last week, was just how serious the Netanyahu administration seems to be about this initiative.
In November, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), together with the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs ministry and the prime minister’s office, held a meeting with Jewish leaders from around the world to discuss the concept of working hand-in-hand to deal with the issues of assimilation and intermarriage so recently highlighted by the Pew Research Center report on American Jewry. While the summit had been planned for some months and was not organized in response to the Pew report, the trends described had been known for years and are worrying to Jewish leaders everywhere.
At November’s meeting, Diaspora Affairs minister Naftali Bennett told participants that Israelis “typically view the world as a source of aliyah and a big fat wallet, and that’s got to change.” This was interpreted as a renunciation of the Zionist concept of “shlilat hagolah,” or negation of the Diaspora, which pronounced exilic Jewish communities as illegitimate.
What was new about this initiative was the fact that the Israelis were telling their foreign counterparts that they wanted to develop a program for action together and that they would jointly fund it. Internal documentation indicated that Israel may provide up to $1.5 billion dollars over the next 20 years for Jewish programming around the world. Working groups with representatives of Jewish organizations around the world (dominated by a strong U.S. presence) and their Israeli civil society and government counterparts have been working for the past few weeks on coming up with new programming ideas.
How much of the promised funding Israel will actually be able to dedicate to this initiative is an important question for which I do not have an answer. The money needed to support this will be available in the U.S. and will be raised, Federation officials have assured me, though I cannot attest to that either. Some pundits have expressed concern about whether the money is there and, if it is, whether it would be better spent on education and other issues of concern inside Israel.
Aside from the lack of representation from several European countries, which has been an issue of concern for MKs involved in Diaspora issues as well as the leaders of those countries (such as Hungary, Poland, and Belgium), there is also concern over the issue of follow-through.
While many participants personally told me that they are impressed by what has been done so far, such a big initiative runs the risk of running aground due to feature creep.
What Is To Be Accomplished
“At the outset, the initiative was designed to bring world Jewry to Israel and bring Israel to world Jewry,” a document distributed by the Jewish Agency explained in an internal document.
In part, this effort looks like a way of strengthening Israel’s position by building support among a Diaspora Jewry whose younger generation is not as committed to the defense of Israel as its progenitors. However, it is also true–as pundits are always fond of reminding us–that programs that bring people to Israel have a remarkable effect in minimizing exogamy among their participants.
During a series of exclusive interviews with some of the major players in the initiative, I was able to tease out a timeline for what is to come. Issues of content and governance (how this will be run on the Israeli side) are still being negotiated.
However, it is known that Yael Weiss Gadish, a JAFI official, has been chosen as the initiative’s senior professional, and that the Diaspora Affairs ministry “will have a major role in being the implementation arm of the government.” JAFI will also serve to help represent Diaspora communities to the government.
“Within a month, we will have an implementation structure, including what kind of deal or entity will actually be managing the initiative,” Alan Hoffman, the director general of JAFI, told me over a week ago.
Dvir Kahana, the director general of the Diaspora Affairs ministry, told the Jerusalem Post that recommendations regarding content and programs should be ready by the end of next month and a budget framework may be brought to the government for deliberation within months.
The target demographic for the programs is young Jews 12—35 years old, which, as several participants pointed out, was underrepresented at the November meeting and in subsequent follow-up meetings. However, despite many misgivings on the part of critics, if Israel can pull this off it will be major. It’s a “really significant paradigm shift,” one Federation executive told me. v