A message to the Minister of Diaspora Affairs

Contrary to the common wisdom among most Israelis, the Minister of the Diaspora (and the fight against anti-Semitism and delegitimization of Israel) is one of the most important positions in the government. This is due to the mission of the State of Israel according to the Zionist vision and as formulated in the Declaration of Independence to be a national home for the entire Jewish people.

Your decision, the new Diaspora Minister Amichai Shikli, to travel to the US immediately upon taking office, indicates an understanding that the relations between the two most significant concentrations of the Jewish people, the one in Israel and the one in the US, are strategic to your mission. On the other hand, the decision you made, which you also made sure to announce with pride, that you have no intention of meeting with the representatives of the J Street organization indicates a serious lack of understanding of the field in which you operate.

You rightly chose to state in your recent interview with “Kol Hai” radio, when referring to the liberal denominations in organized Judaism, that you are not ready to eliminate 3 million Jews who do not think like you. However, this declaration does not stand up to the test of reality if, at the same time, you prefer to cancel the political positions of the great majority of American Jews represented by J Street, who also do not think like you, to say the least.

The rift between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry is not new, but it is getting worse and is accelerating. The problematic conduct, which has been going on for many years, of the government of Israel in its relations with the Jewish communities in the world, has brought to the brink of failure the realization of the goals of its establishment as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

While the Jews of the Diaspora strengthened Israel and supported it from abroad in all periods, the attitude of the Israeli religious establishment towards the non-orthodox currents of Judaism left a large majority of the Jewish people – especially in the second largest concentration of the Jewish people, in North America – “out in the cold”, as second-class Jews. The Israeli politicians have no political incentive to deal with this issue, since there are many more Orthodox voters in Israel than Conservative or Reform, and most secular Israelis are indifferent to religious discrimination against liberal denominations in Judaism.

The rift dramatically worsened when Israeli governments moved away from the liberal values anchored in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, with which most American Jews identify. The situation deteriorated further, most notably in the United States, when the political level in Israel deviated from the principle that historically guided our diplomacy to not favor one party or another so that support for Israel is cross-party and must not become a controversial political issue.

Moreover, during the years of the Netanyahu government, Israel became an ally of many populist and anti-democratic right-wing regimes around the world. Many Jews in the Diaspora are shocked by Israel’s alliances with racist regimes that have replaced old anti-Semitism with the current hatred of Muslims. This development led to a situation where the Jewish state turned from a unifying factor into a divisive factor for the Jews in the Diaspora, which led many communities to avoid any involvement in Israel. This is a cry for generations and the government must do everything to “turn the wheel back” in relations with most of the world’s Jewry.

Furthermore, the use of the term anti-Semitism against anyone who criticizes the policies of the Israeli government has brought with it severe damage, since in the opinion of many in the Jewish communities it has become a tool for political manipulation and has led to the trivialization of the significant anti-Semitism that the Jewish communities face. For the most part, the Jewish communities see anti-Semitism as a phenomenon based on racism and xenophobia, which the most effective way to deal with is by joining hands with other minorities who suffer from a similar phenomenon. In this sense, the traditional position of the State of Israel, which accuses the world of racism against Jews, but does not take any position against racism towards others, weakens the ability of the Jewish communities in their struggle, not to mention the fact that in the new Israel, a government of which you are a part avowed racists are in office.

The “alliance” that the right-wing Israeli governments made with the right-wing evangelical community cannot and must not be a substitute for strengthening ties with American Jewry. The short-sighted preference of the right-wing governments, to receive evangelical religious support sterilized from criticism over the support of our people that criticize out of love, hurts and will hurt Israel and its ties with the majority of American Jewry. American Jewry was and still is the firm source of support for the State of Israel and vice versa. The State of Israel must continue to be the defender of the Jewish people around the world, including its many parts that oppose a significant part of the policies of the Israeli government, towards the Palestinians, and recently also towards the mechanisms of liberal democracy inside.

The J Street organization, which I represent in Israel, was established because the great majority of American Jews no longer agree to continue blindly supporting the positions of the Israeli government and because some of the Jewish organizations established in the USA ignore the values and opinions of the majority of American Jews. Those American Jews see J Street as an organization that can express their Zionist positions and their deep connection to Israel without abandoning the liberal values in which they believe.

Out of their awareness that the Jews are a small minority in the USA, they do not understand why the nation-state of the Jewish people treats the Arab minority in the country so unequally. As those who understand that the separation of religion and state is what enables them to live a Jewish life in a country where the large majority is Christian, they are unable to understand the monopoly of the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel over the lives of non-Jewish citizens and also over large parts of secular life. They also do not understand how Israel can continue to be a democracy in a binational situation in which the governments of Israel, especially the current government, no longer hides that the occupation is not temporary and it intends to annex the great majority, if not all of the West Bank territories.

Your blatant and demonstrable disregard for this public is no less than an injury to the Zionist vision and Jewish continuity, the preservation of which is so central to the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. You don’t have to agree with us to have a constructive dialogue out of mutual concern. This is essential for the State of Israel no less than for the Jews of the United States.

The deterioration of relations between us and the Diaspora Jews is an existential and strategic threat to the future of our national identity and I appeal to you to come to your senses before it is too late.

About the Author
Nadav Tamir is the executive director of J Street Israel, a member of the board of the Mitvim think-tank, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and member of the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. He was an adviser of President Shimon Peres and served in the Israel embassy in Washington and as consul general to New England.