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.

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Embracing a hyphenated Jewish identity – in Israel and the Diaspora

Ha’aretz 1/12/11

Growing up as a modern orthodox Jew in London the mantra of my life was always, ‘try to integrate, never assimilate.’ This message was repeated by my friends, family and youth group (Bnei Akiva) in every facet of my life. This message led to my hyphenated identity as a British-Jew. The Jewish part is the core of my identity and my British heritage is the prefix to it.

European Jews since the Enlightenment have all shared the same contradictions and struggles of keeping both sides of one’s identity balanced. Unlike other groups, Jews have never sought for their host countries to take on their identity; we have always learnt to sing in a minor key. Our desire was for society to accept that, while we want to be an equal part of society, we are always going to be distinct from it.

When I moved to America I entered a land where everyone has a hyphenated identity. The fabric of the society is that of many hyphens, where Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, (please insert x)-Americans have all learnt to live together. To express one’s “Jewishness” is as much American as it is anything else. A nation of immigrants has no host but a national culture that any can partake in. Jews in America suffer the same challenges of integration versus assimilation yet will never be seen as outsiders in America. Though they too have a prefix to their identity, so does everyone else.

In Israel there should not be a hyphen, if Zionism is correct. There, the national identity and that of the Jewish people should fuse into one. This creation of the ‘new Jew’ is at the heart of Zionist literature. Being an Israeli, with its own monikers and shibboleths, is somewhat distinct from being Jewish – despite the linguistic and causal roots that the two identities have in common.

This can best be seen in the latest ad put out by the Ministry of Absorption aimed at Israeli’s living abroad. Here, an Israeli girl living in the States comes back with her American boyfriend having left a party early as it is Yom Hazikaron but he cannot read Hebrew and does not know the significance of the day. The message is clear: you will always remain Israeli and your partner might not be able to understand what is important to you. The ad ends encouraging expats to move back to Israel.

The advertisement provides a fascinating insight. Firstly, it focuses exclusively on a secular Israeli festival, this ad is not about Jews, it’s about Israelis. It mixes some of the guilt messages normally associated with intermarriage with a nationalistic identity and a call for those abroad to come back home. I am unaware of any other nation that appeals to expats in this way.

Yet with thousands of Israeli’s living abroad, it is extremely rare to see any interaction with the Jewish community that resides there. The unhyphenated Israeli often sees little or no point joining a community that they feel no affinity to.

With the persistently vibrant and deep Jewish experience of the Diaspora, the unhyphenated Israeli needs to find an equal place in the global Jewish people. All too often Israeli’s living abroad feel distinct and separate from the Jewish communities in the countries that they settle in.

A dual recognition needs to happen. The Israelis need to feel that by choosing to settle in Britain they are now fully part of the British-Jewish or American-Jewish community. They should explore the thousands of opportunities to plumb the depths of their Jewish identity that the Diaspora offers. The British-Jewish or American-Jewish community in turn also needs to recognize that these Israeli’s have a national rather than just a communal identity and should use that national achievement to bolster they own identities against assimilation.

Both the hyphenated and unhyphenated Jews in this world have something to bring to the table. In a global world we can learn a tremendous amount from each other.

The Israel-Diaspora paradigm misses out on what it means to be a Jew

Ha’aretz 14/11/11

As a religious Jew I live in amazingly good times. Unlike those who came before me I have true freedom of worship in every country that I would wish to live in. There are thousands of Yeshivot I could study at and hundreds of different communities that I could live in.

Were I a non-religious Jew this would also be an amazingly good time to live in. Every part of my cultural Jewish identity can find nourishment as Jewish communities fund programs and events to appeal to every aspect of Jewish culture and ideology.

As a people we have been focusing on celebrating our diversity finding and funding a Judaism for every Jew. Though the outside world has attempted to define us as merely a religion, we have not allowed that to affect how we see ourselves. For every person who defines himself or herself as a Jew, some part of the global community welcomes them with open arms.

Yet this diffuse identity while celebrated now needs to be intergraded together in a Jewish narrative that can look forward as well as back. As a people we have always been bound together by the story of us as a people, a narrative is what created us and a narrative is needed to sustain us through the challenges we now face.

Though it has never been an easier time to be a Jew, it has never been harder to define ourselves as part of a cohesive Jewish people.

The most fervent Zionist amongst us will define our story located in the modern State of Israel, a Jewish identity supplemented or even replaced with that of an Israeli one. In this story those outside the land have a supporting role to play in the current chapter of the Jewish people, they will never be an equal player and their lives must be lived with the knowledge that their Jewish identity is never truly complete.

To the die-hard anti-Zionists amongst us the modern state of Israel imperils us as a people and constitutes a greater threat to the Jewish people then the homeland it claims to be. Ironically they also define their Jewish identities visa vie Israel, only this time as a place that cannot and must not represent them.

The conversation on the crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations often focuses somewhere between these polls. At times the support that those outside Israel must give is defined as that of a sagely older cousin, saving Israel from itself. Others see a fundamental drift between those who choose to be governed by Jews and those who not, the dividing of the Jewish people into two fundamentally different parts.

Yet I would argue that the Israel-Diaspora paradigm misses out fundamentally on what it means to be a Jew today. The challenges for each part of us as a people fundamentally changes depending on which part of the world we live in, yet as a people together we are far larger than the sum of the whole.

For many secular Israelis it is very hard to understand what a modern day appreciation of Jewish peoplehood is. This part of their identity is submerged under the weight of the challenges of what it means to be an Israeli today. Yet when they have the opportunity to be with a Jewish community outside of Israel it can often lead to a rebirth and an appreciation of their home in a global community.

For the Jew who chooses not to live in Israel the ability to see themselves as more than just a religious minority in their own country is established by seeing their connection to the Jewish state.

We, as a people, face real challenges ahead. The creative nature of Jewish life in the Diaspora needs to help heal Israel’s internal divisions, which have occurred due to the stress in its society generated from the tremendous existential threats the state faces on a regular basis. Israel needs to galvanize its support outside its borders and needs the Jewish people to be the vanguard of this effort. This support to be clear is not to any government policy of Israel, but to the permanent place of the Jewish state on the world stage.

Yet neither of these things can happen so long as the Jewish people sees itself as two separate parts that owe each other something due to geography. If we are to unite as a people we need to do so based on our mutual respect and value of each other. The Jewish people’s story of this generation is truly a global story if it is to be a story at all.

The pay-to-play of Jewish leadership

Ha’aretz 17/10/11

In a democracy we pay our elected representatives because we recognize that everyone should be given the equal opportunity to run for election and pursue public office. If public representatives did not receive a salary, the positions would be reserved for the independently wealthy and a privileged few.

Although the majority of Diaspora Jews live in democratic countries, this is not a practice that the Jewish world has taken on board. We are a society that is governed and represented by those who can afford to lead.

Although it would be unfair to generalize, and each community has customs and practices of their own, the ubiquitous feature of Jewish Diaspora communities the world over is those who give get to lead. It is an understandable trend; philanthropy is the life blood of the Jewish community.

From schools and shuls to welfare and Israel lobbying, each part of the Jewish communal ecosystem functions thanks to the kindness of its donors. The mega-donor class in the Jewish world is a select club, and they deserve recognition for the significant portion of their wealth that they give to their communities.

And even more credence must be given to those who contribute not only their their money but their time and passion to various organs of the Jewish community. It is relatively easy to sway a community with a checkbook, and those who go beyond monetary influence, chairing trustee boards and involving themselves in the causes they contribute to,  truly give of themselves and must be celebrated.

However, a distinction must be made between leading a charity, which you support, versus taking control of an organization that purports to represent the Jewish community in any formal way.

Philanthropists will often take on positions of formal representation within their communities, simply due to the financial buoy they provide. This is unhealthy for both the donor and their communities, which in many instances in both Europe and the United States – champions of democracy – are solely represented by the donating class.

It is hypocritical for a community to hold democratic values dear at a national level, while forgoing them at a communal level. As such, Jewish community leaders should be provided a stipend in the same way that leaders of a democracy are given a salary to ensure just, impartial and equal representation.

The current system prevents those who wish to lead but do not have the resource to do so from being able to positively impact their communities. And it perpetuates a leadership that is increasingly detached from the dynamic Jewish community it is meant to represent.

As Jewish community identities become more varied and the new generation forms its own denominations and institutions, the old, pay-to-play model of representation becomes increasingly obsolete.

Although there undeniably needs to be a paradigm shift in the mode of leadership in the Jewish world, this does not mean that philanthropic titans must abdicate their leadership entirely. The Jewish Diaspora leadership does not need to be destroyed entirely, but rather rebirthed, making way for governance that is earned – not purchased.

Can Birthright bridge the Israel-Diaspora divide?

Ha’aretz 19/09/11

Over the past decade there has been a paradigm shift in the Jewish world as Diaspora communities have changed in concern with international developments and challenges. With intermarriage on the rise and Jewish communities’ connection to Israel waning, private philanthropy, the Israeli government and the established Jewish community came together to found Birthright-Taglit, a free 10 day trip to Israel for any young member of the Jewish people who had never been to the country before.

The program, radical at its founding, was deemed “the most successful project in the Jewish world,” by the chair of its steering committee, Minister Yuli Edelstein, a proclamation that is upheld by impressive statistics both in Israel and the Diaspora.

It is overwhelmingly popular, with over 40,000 applicants this year alone. It has, in many cases, staved off intermarriage, with 72% of participants marrying Jewish, and 23% of its participants saying they felt significantly more connected to Israel after participating in Birthright.

Everyone seems to be winning; for the Diaspora, this means more Jewish children, and for Israel there is a greater connection to Jews abroad – the ultimate in the brand Israel approach.

However, Birthright has not increased participation in Diaspora communal involvement, and despite the commendable accomplishments of the program, there is a very real danger that Taglit unintentionally encourages an unhealthy relationship between Israel and its Jewish family abroad.

The Birthright model is consumer-based. It rests on the idea that we need to get our young people to buy Israel and Jewish peoplehood. A ten-day trip serves as an experiential product – a gateway drug of sorts – in which customers consume the environment and programming around them.

The aim is to create a loyalty to the brand, Jewish peoplehood, with the hope that some will indeed join the company and make aliyah.

For the token few Israelis who join each trip, it is a chance for them to take a break from normal army service and join in on the fun and games those from abroad get to have for free. It is also a great boost to the Israeli economy, as the young participants buy a plethora of snacks, drinks and memorabilia, stay in hotels across the country and keep the tourism money flowing at record highs.

Israelis see these Birthright buses as a chance for them to break from their day-to-day lives and to make some money. Diaspora Jewish life is seen as the never-ending holiday, which they can never partake in. The participants from abroad have a good time and feel like they have done their Zionist part.

This dynamic, with Israelis seeing Jews from abroad as cash cows and a respite from their hard reality and Diaspora Jews seeing Israel as a good time for a holiday is a model that does not do either side justice.

With the Israeli-Diaspora relationship at stake, this consumerist approach is more problematic than ever. Jews abroad crave the respect and ear of Israelis in a bid to coproduce the Jewish people’s future, while Israelis want those outside to understand the hardships they undergo, withholding judgment on issues they do not understand.

We are never going to advance a value-based Israel-Diaspora relationship with a consumer model of interaction. We must find a way to facilitate shared experiences in which Israelis see the value of the Diaspora and Jews abroad understand the challenges faced by Israelis.

We have to transform what has become a remarkably successful program into one that can also serve as a tool in building the Jewish people’s future both in Israel and beyond.

Both sides must come together and create an experience that has a reciprocal, lasting impact. A new model must synthesize tourism and mega events with dedicated volunteering and discussion groups with local residents.

For example, a group from Chicago could spend two days volunteering in Lod, sharing huge communal meals and discussions with its residents. The Chicagoans would foster an understanding of the people – not only the problems – of Lod, while the residents could connect with their fellow Jews from abroad at a communal level. A link would be maintained between the Jewish community of Chicago and the city of Lod.

By creating community-based volunteer programs in Israel for Birthright participants, a true connection could be built between Israelis and Jews from across the globe. This would be a value-based relationship in which locals and Diaspora Jews could move forward in cooperation with a newfound mutual respect.

As one of the most successful programs of the Jewish people to date looks forward to its next ten years, it has the tremendous opportunity to redefine the relationship between the younger generation of Israelis and Diaspora Jews, creating a sustainable, healthy and reciprocal connection that will last for generations to come.

With more than 10,000 millionaires, why is Israel still a charity case?

Ha’aretz 24/8/11

The past few years have seen a whole new generation of wealth being created within Israel. The collective worth of Israeli’s 16 billionaires stands at just over 45 billion dollars and Israel now hosts 10,153 millionaires, a 20-percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

With all this money sloshing around at the top of the system, it’s more than a little disappointing that Israeli soup kitchens still feel the need to come around to the global Jewish diaspora, cap in hand, looking for vital donations to help those on the bread line in Israel.

Jewish communities worldwide are happy to put their hands in their pockets to help out in crisis scenarios. For example, when the Galilee needed rebuilding after the second Lebanon war,living bridges were developed to link communities abroad to communities in Israel.

Every Jewish community wants to see their name on the side of a Magen David Adom ambulance and there is an intrinsic Zionist value in giving to essential Israeli services. However, there is a difference between giving to feel bonded to the country and society, and giving out of necessity because funds could not be secured at home.

A renewed focus on Israel-Diaspora relations is examining the connection of young Jews to Israel across the world. This relationship has, for far too long, been defined by wire transfers. As a British Jew I would be embarrassed if Jewish Care, one of the major welfare charities in the U.K., needed to go abroad to ensure its survival. Yet it seems this shame is not felt by the Israeli wealthy elite who have no issue with their own society’s poor looking elsewhere for desperately needed charity.

Israeli philanthropy is its nascent phase, standing at only 0.7% of GDP compared to 0.73% in the U.K. and 2.1% in the US. Foreign donations account for a whopping 62% of all given money in Israel.

The inability to raise funds locally has many culprits and comes on the back of a history of dependence. With homegrown philanthropy being a relatively new phenomenon in Israel, it is easier for charities to go abroad to raise cash than to turn to the new wealthy class.

No one wants welfare charities to go without, but there needs to be some motivation for Israelis to fund their own society. At what point should the communities in the Diaspora say to Israelis that enough is enough- we will give, but we will not allow those in your own society to shirk their responsibilities?

It is not only the newly minted wealthy in Israel who are to blame. International donors like being feted, and if the Diaspora begins giving less, it will diminish their role in Israeli society. This would not necessarily be a bad thing, with Diaspora Jews often toting different political agendas than Israeli voters.

Israel might also not be ready for the demands that big philanthropy brings – the $20 million Ofer donation to Tel Aviv Museum of the Arts being a case in point.

However, the current relationship is unhealthy for both Israel and Diaspora communities. If, as the Hartmann Institute has intimated, a new relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is to be founded beyond that of crisis, then foreign vs. local giving needs to be part of this conversation.

An Israel that is a member of the OECD should no longer be a charity case. I want to give to Israel because I need to, not because it needs me to.