Israel should not pay for American Jewish College Students

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post 08/27/16

According to the latest data from the OECD, Israel gives 0.07 percent of its gross national income away in international aid. This is just under $200 million dollars. Israel ranks just above Russia (at 0.06%) and Thailand (0.02%) at third from bottom. In case you were wondering, the Slovak Republic is just above at 0.1%.

With so little taxpayer money going overseas to support needy causes, it is interesting to note that earlier this month, the government unveiled the recipients of what represents 11% of its total largesse – North American Jewish college students. $22m. will be given to Hillel International, Chabad and Olami to strengthen Jewish identity and deepen Jewish engagement on campus.

Mosaic United is the final incarnation of the “Government of Israel World Jewry Initiative” that became the “Israel-Diaspora Initiative,” three years in the making.

Is it that having the support of the government of Israel will help in campus outreach from a strategic level? If anything the reverse is true; any student will tell you that getting Israeli government support for your activities makes you a target for accusations of acting as a foreign government agent. It’s the same accusation that the government of Israel has made of the NGO community in Israel, namely that by receiving foreign government donations the non-profits are foreign agents.

If it’s not a funding gap and there is no strategic value to having the government of Israel stamp on your program, is it that the government does not trust that the US Jewish community is capable of providing the correct Jewish content to their community?

Israel as a country, and certainly as a coalition government has enough of its own problems in working out what being Jewish means to preach it to its biggest Diaspora. The egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, usage of mikvaot for non-orthodox streams of Judaism, and the issue of conversion are at the forefront of a never-ending laundry list of issues that create tension between the different segments of Jewish practice.

Looking at who the grantees are of this first round of funding, the concern of the Reform and Conservative community in the US is that Israel is trying to create a more Orthodox America. Chabad and Olami are Orthodox outreach movements. It is very easy to paint Mosaic United as Israel’s way to create a more Orthodox Jewish Diaspora who, on average, are more likely to support the policies of the current government of Israel.

Given the tensions that will exist in every Knesset about the issues of Judaism, the government is perhaps the least capable entity to fund a real conversation about Jewish identity today.

If one of the dozen Israeli billionaires or thousand or so millionaires want to fund alongside the North American Jewish philanthropic community programs for American 13-35-year-olds, that would be wonderful.

Until then, Israeli taxpayers’ international aid should support the poor, needy and sick, doubling down on the remarkable programs that help victims of the Syrian civil war, support victims of natural disasters and gift Israeli water technology to help deal with climate change around the world.

Israelis Paying For My Child’s Education Will Get Us Nowhere

First Published in Haaretz 2/19/14

Last week, Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett made an announcement that foreshadows a fundamental change in the way Israel works with her Diaspora. Israel, Bennett said, is embarking on a project that would commit the state to spending $1.4 billion over five years to deepen the Jewish identity of Jews living the Diaspora, and strengthen Israeli-Diaspora relations.

This announcement marked a sea-change moment. To understand why, one must first understand how the Israeli-Diaspora funding relationship has always worked.

Ashkenazi Jews living in Eastern Europe in the 19th century received stipends from their communities to help them survive. When Jews began moving to Israel in the First Aliyah, which began in 1882, some of them continued getting support from those who remained abroad. This set up a system whereby Jews situated outside of the Land of Israel paid for Jewish activities within the Land of Israel.

Israel was built from the sweat of the pioneers, funded by the riches of global Jewry. Figures such as Sir Moses Montefiore, Lord Jacob Rothschild and Nathan Straus funded the cities that became part of modern-day Israel.

This paradigm continued throughout the history of the State of Israel, and was not without its critics. In his book, “With Friends Like You” (1992, Free Press), Matti Golan describes what Israeli Jews really thought of their cousins in America. He says the Israelis saw the donations as immoral: Jews abroad paying cash while Israelis paid in blood.

There were also political and religious differences between Israeli and American Jews, as chronicled by Yossi Beilin in “The Death of the American Uncle”(1999, Yedioth Ahronot and Chemed Books), where he writes of his fear that the traditional model of rich American Jews supporting Israel is doomed to break down unless something radically changes.

The State of Israel has always encouraged Jewish immigration and has helped facilitate it through the Jewish Agency, yet it was not until the year 1999, when Taglit-Birthright Israel was founded (inspired by Beilin’s sentiments in the aforementioned book), that the Israeli government became a major sponsor of creating Jewish experiences for Diaspora Jews. The Government of Israel funding a program that did not directly serve its citizens marked the beginning of a reversing flow of cash: from the Diaspora funding Israel, to Israel funding the Diaspora.

Birthright’s funding model is tripartite, consisting of donations from Jewish philanthropists, the Government of Israel, and Jewish organizations and communities. Supporters of Birthright (and I am one) can point to the documented economic benefits that these tours have brought Israel: $825 million dollars in the past 13 years. Yet there is a conversation to be had about Israeli public money going to programs that Israelis cannot participate in (except for the soldiers who join the tours.) This conversation becomes imperative in light of Bennett’s announcement.

The Israeli government, says Bennett, wants to commit 1 billion shekels each year on programming for Jews outside of Israel for the purpose of deepening their Jewish identity. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermanagrees that the Israeli government should work to curb the “demographic catastrophe” facing Jewish Americans today, and says that only through a combined Israeli-Diaspora effort to improve Jewish education “can we ensure our endurance as a people.” Thus, he said he is going to act to ensure the government approves the allocation of $365 million for Jewish education outside Israel.

The program Bennett speaks of, dubbed the Government of Israel and World Jewry Joint Initiative, seeks to create programs in seven areas of Jewish life of which aliyah is only one. It’s unclear whether Bennett and Lieberman’s plans are linked, but their intentions are the same: using Israeli taxpayers’ money to curb assimilation abroad.

Should this project go ahead, the government of Israel would become one of the largest institutional sponsors of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

This is an awful idea.

Let’s put aside for a moment the complex questions raised by the fact that that the Israeli government would take hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the purses of Israeli citizens in order to pump it into the purses of Jews in other counties, despite the economic hardship being experienced right now by Israel’s middle and lower classes. The Israeli government is uniquely bad at posing honest questions about Jewish identity. It is simply incapable of funding inclusive, open and critical discussions on this topic. Why? It’s a political entity! Its programs would have clear agendas dictated by the party line of the day.

I cannot imagine a state-funded program having an honest discussion about how settlements affect the Israeli-Diaspora relationship. I struggle to understand how publically funded programming could enable critical discourse on cultural Judaism, when the Rabbinate in Israel is still dictating – through narrow criteria – who is and is not a Jew.

For Bennett, this initiative seems to be an attempt by to replicate the“Jewish Identity Administration” that he created domestically, in which the Religious Affairs Ministry would try to instill Jewish values in the public at large. It was a poor idea at home and an even worse one abroad.

It is wonderful to see the highest levels of the Israeli government working on Israel’s relationship with her Diaspora. But, seriously, subsidizing Jewish life abroad is simply not a solution.

Kerry vs Bennett for the hearts and minds of the Diaspora

Ha’aretz 6/6/13 

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made an impassioned plea to the American Jewish community to rededicate itself to the two-state solution. Kerry has moved his ticking clocks from years to days, declaring if we don’t get the talks moving now, we never will. Yet, while Kerry is making his pitch to get the American Jewish community involved, Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs is less keen.

Let me explain. During the coalition talks, Naftali Bennett asked for the roles of public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs and religious services to be included with his industry, trade and labor portfolio.

The public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs and the religious services portfolios have the greatest potential to shape the relationship between Israel and her Diaspora. Both of these jobs were demanded by Bennett, head of the Habayit Hayehudi party, home of the national religious the settlers.

Before trying to understand why Bennett wanted these jobs, it is important to clarify what these portfolios actually do. In the case of public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs, the minister is effectively the government’s foreign minister to Jewish communities abroad. Of all the formal and informal links between Israel and communities of the Jewish DiasporaTaglit-Birthright sits as the jewel in the crown, coordinating the visits of thousands of young Jews to Israel every year.

The Religious Services Ministry controls all issues of religion within Israel in addition to cultivating religious ties to the Diaspora. Alongside getting involved in the messy business of setting budgets for the yeshivot and state employed rabbis, it is the central battleground between the progressive streams of Judaism and the Orthodox establishment.

By taking both of these portfolios, Bennett, the Modern-Orthodox former chief of the Yesha Council of settlers, has put himself at the center of the two points of friction between Israel and the Diaspora, namely the growth of settlements and the status of progressive Jewish rights within Israel.

Two weeks ago, we found out that the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry had been handed over to Bennett, but not before it was stripped of everything that made it a ministry. Even Taglit-Birthright, the flagship program, was moved back into the Prime Minister’s Office along with the Masa Israel Journey program.

Yet Bennett has managed to turn his empty ministry into a tool that he can use to sell himself and his party to the Diaspora. Having grown up as a child of olim (immigrants), Bennett understands the Jewish-American community well. He knows that they want to see more religious pluralism within Israel and those they are not particularly fond of settlements.

Through the Religious Services Ministry, Bennett has made somesurprising moves that have enabled, for the first time, non-Orthodox rabbis to receive state money. In changing the model of how rabbinical figures receive their salaries, he has opened up the system to the non-Orthodox without having to deal with the issue head on. This policy, coupled with his move to allow Israelis to get married with any rabbinical council within Israel, is changing the landscape for progressive Jews within Israel.

By ingratiating himself with the progressive community, no easy feat as the head of a religious Zionist party, Bennett is demonstrating his value to the Diaspora on the issues that matter to them. Through his empty title of public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs minister, he has the right to be able to talk directly to Jewish communities about these achievements.

He hopes, one expects, that through his fight for equality for all Jews he will become a champion for Diaspora Jewry. In doing so, he will have succeeded in his quest to become a politician for all the Jewish people, not just those who live in the West Bank.

Through normalizing himself as a change maker, he will be able to bring himself and his party into the Diaspora’s mainstream. His policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians should not stop him being accepted if he is breaking the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox on issues that directly affect Reform and Conservative Jews.

So, while John Kerry hopes to motivate Jews in America to put pressure on the Israelis to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians, Bennett is giving that same community legislative wins within the Knesset. It will be fascinating to see how dividing American Jews between two issues so keen to their heart will play out. The real question, however, remains: How much time is there before the clock runs out and there is no real choice to make? Time is certainly in Bennett’s favor, but whether he becomes a welcome figure in the established Jewish community of America waits to be seen.