These are challenging times in Israel-Diaspora relations, particularly between the Jewish state and the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. The stormy ties between the Prime Minister and the US President have generated tensions between many American Jews and Israel. Fears among American Jews that the new government will roll back hard-won reforms on religious pluralism threaten to further exacerbate tensions. Many are waiting anxiously for the next crisis to hit.
This would be a good time for a new, robust Ministry of Diaspora Affairs to be in constant contact with Israel’s counterparts among Diaspora Jews. The new Israeli government should seek out a strong dialogue and creative ways to strengthen the connection between Israel and Diaspora communities.
The Ministry of the Diaspora has been an on again, off again feature of Israeli democracy since 1999, when Michael Melchior held the post of “Minister of Social and Diaspora Affairs.” Other distinguished Israelis who have held some version of the post include Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu’s primary challenger in the last election, Natan Sharansky, and Yuli Edelstein. The Ministry expresses the Israeli government’s commitment to strong relations with Jews around the world and can bring government resources to critical initiatives.
Having lived in the US, studied and worked there, and served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington in the 1980s, Prime Minister Netanyahu knows better than anyone the importance of the relationship with US Jews. He knows firsthand that Israel’s security and wellbeing hinge not only on the relationship with the White House and Congress, but on the unique bond with American Jewry, which serves as the main point of connection between the two countries. The Prime Minister knows what’s at stake.
Now would be a good time for the Prime Minister to give the Diaspora Affairs portfolio the attention and status it deserves.
First, Prime Minister Netanyahu should make the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs a stand-alone ministry in order to give it greater prominence. The Ministry is currently embedded in the Ministry on Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs. It’s hard to take a half of a ministry seriously, particularly when the other half involves the affairs of the country’s capital.
Second, Prime Minister Netanyahu should appoint a minister to head up the Diaspora Affairs Ministry who has no other portfolios. Naftali Bennett is the outgoing minister and is slated to receive the ministry again. Bennett will also serve as the Education Minister. Since the Ministry of Education is a larger, more prominent ministry, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs will not likely receive the majority of the Minister’s attention and thus will unlikely serve as an effective body. In short, under the current structure, Diaspora Affairs will be essentially one-quarter, if not less, of the Minister’s job.
Third, the director-general (the professional head) of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs should be someone who has lived in the Diaspora and knows first-hand Jewish communities outside of Israel. There are thousands of talented olim from the United States and other Diaspora communities who could assume the position of director-general and not have to take a crash course about the Diaspora. Placing a political appointee into the job with little grounding in the complex issues and few relationships on the ground, as has been done in the past, will do little to protect and advance ties.
Now is the time for the Prime Minister to protect the country’s strategic assets, which include not just tanks and planes and advanced weapons systems, but its precious relationships with the Jewish people living in countries around the world.