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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U.S. Jews need to decide if they are tourists in Israel, or extended family

Ha’aretz 5/23/13

Israelis, understandably, are being consumed by the budget negotiations that are currently taking place. The global economic slowdown has finally hit and like every other country Israel is facing thought decisions about what to cut from the budget to handle the deficit.

Israel has a pretty complex relationship with her Diaspora at the best of times. Some groups, such as Women of the Wall, use Diaspora support in order to turbo-charge their campaigns. Others clearly tell Jews living abroad that their opinions should stay abroad as well.

When it comes to laws around religious pluralism and immigration, many Israelis feel that Diaspora Jews have ‘skin in the game’ and therefore have a right to comment on what Israel chooses to do or not to do. When it comes to the budget, the vast majority of Israelis would maintain that if you don’t pay tax you should not get a say.

So it was interesting last week that the conference of Jewish Presidents called on Yair Lapid not to charge VAT on tourists as it “would add significantly to the cost for tourists and will, we fear, cause many to reconsider, postpone, or even cancel trips to Israel.”

While I understand that the costs may go up, if people’s affiliations to Israel are merely linked to how cheap it is to travel there, the U.S. Jewish connection to Israel is in a far bigger crisis then we previously thought.

The U.S. Jewish community undoubtedly has contributed millions of dollars to the Israeli tourism industry and, through Birthright, it has created a new generation of returning tourists. But giving tourists a vote on how Israel makes up its budget gap seems counterintuitive.

It makes sense for Israel’s Tourism Ministry to object to this budget shift. Tourists themselves don’t seem to mind the impending increase in costs. What I find odd is that the U.S. Jewish community is using its clout as the Diaspora to try and have a voice as tourists.

Lapid does not have any easy choices but charging those who have the resources to travel abroad to visit the country seems to be a better way of plugging the hole then cutting welfare to the neediest. While tourism is a massive sector within the Israeli economy the majority of travelers are going not due to the cheapness of the country (already the eighth most expensive in the world according to World Eonomic Forum) but due to it being the Holy Land.

Why should Israelis who earn far less than the American Jews who visit have to subsidize hotels and souvenirs for tourists. Giving directly to the Israeli taxation system is a better way to help and support Israel, in this regard, than U.S. Jews giving indirect taxation to Israel through the myriad of different Israeli welfare charities that are dependent on them.

It’s unclear whether the Conference of Presidents hoped their letter would sway Lapid’s mind more than the government ministers who sit around him, all of which are looking to protect their slice of the pie. I’m happy that they failed though. As Israel goes through this difficult period of austerity the rest of the Jewish people who choose to visit can contribute their part to try and ease the suffering of the worst of within Israel. That’s what being a family is all about.