A month ago we lost Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks at a time when he was bridging the Israel – Diaspora divide: one leader, one reader, and one disciple at a time. He was making headway, and it is our duty to help fulfill the mission on his memory. We should use the opportunity to look again at the critical nature of Israel Diaspora relations, and looking through the lens that Rabbi Sacks has left us, we can change the paradigm empowering us to develop the relationship based on a new set of founding principles.
Over the years, the focus of relations between Israel and the Diaspora has focused on the political and cultural divergence between them. As Israel has shifted to the right and become more conservative, so American Jews (representing 80% of non-Israeli Jewry) has shifted more to the progressive left. Although many have expressed concern about this trend, few have successfully closed the gaps. Additionally, there is a wide apathy and often ignorance in Israel about the fate of Diaspora Jewry. We remember them when there is a terror or antisemitic attack or an important vote on Israel in Congress, Parliament, or the UN.
Rabbi Sacks was a key and active supporter of Unity Day, founded by the families of murdered Israeli teenagers, Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach. He saw Jewish unity as a critical tenet of his Judaism. Unity not as uniformity, but as diversity, the diversity within family. Even when we fiercely disagree, we remain together. “The only power capable of defeating the Jewish people – is the Jewish people itself” – Sacks commented at the first Unity Day prize giving. Defeat always because of internal disunity.
What should that mean for Israeli society seeking a new engagement with Diaspora Jewry?
First it is imperative to disconnect between the political requirements of the government of Israel and its relationship with the Jews of the world. Jews should care about other Jews. Full stop. It was in 1968 when the late Lubavitche Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson inspired the young Jonathan Sacks to take up the Rabbinate. Speaking at the first Unity Day in 2015 Rabbi Sacks reflected on the Chabad outreach mission in his special insightful way. At a deep level the Chabad mission, started by the Rebbe in the 1950’s, was in Sacks‘ view, an answer of love to the hate of the Holocaust. They sought to destroy, “we will search out every Jew in love”, wherever they are, whatever their religious or political view. This is a core tenet of Jewish unity and reflects the rabbinic dictum – “All Jews are responsible for one another.”
Secondly, Israelis must broaden their sense of Jewish history and geography. We cannot be defined by the borders of Israel, nor be limited by 150 years of Zionist history. We are part of a global Jewish community, and part of timeline of 3,000 years of Jewish history.
Israel has become the center of gravity for the Jewish people and will have a dramatic influence over the Jewish future. However, the more we realize that we are part of something more expansive, in time and space, the more our collective imagination and ambition will aspire to higher levels, in the spirit of and enlightened by our common Jewish heritage. We will remain secular, religious, Haredi, left and right, but the potential for out Israeli and Jewish identity will expand exponentially. I have witnessed this first hand with the Gesher leadership groups as they have immersed themselves in Diaspora Jewish communities, and especially when they met with Rabbi Sacks personally.
We must learn from the rich communal life that has kept Judaism alive over the centuries. At its basic level the mutual responsibility Jews have for one another in the absence of Jewish sovereignty is an idea that we should promote here, in spite of the Jewish power created by having one’s own state. But at a deeper level (and Rabbi Sacks dedicated the 2013 Erasmus lecture to this theme), being an inherent minority in exile has been a driver of innovation, both within the Jewish community as it seeks to survive a changing external environment, but also towards the wider community with respect to the ability of a small minority to advance ideas, the majority and ruling classes cannot see.
How do we maintain that spark of Jewish innovation once we are the majority and in control? In reality, although we live in a majority Jewish country, we are surrounded by minorities. Haredim, the national religious camp, of course the Arabs and other non-Jews, and often times I have experienced the secular community with minority characteristics, nervous at their diminishing role and influence within Israeli society. Sacks quotes the prophet Jeremiah who calls the Jews in Babylon, not to cry by the river, but to use the reality of exile to build and innovate. There is no reason that we cannot aspire to a similar ethos. Diversity as a source of social growth and innovation, and not as social tension.
The only way for this to happen is to break our stereotypes and apathy (even antipathy) towards Diaspora Jewry and internalize the rich tapestry that it offers as inspiration. The only way to do this is to meet, be immersed and experience the myriad of Jewish experiences, the successes, failures, challenges and the beauty. We need to integrate this into the values we teach our children, in the textbooks and youth movement programing, and we need to consider how as a society and government we can reset the relationship with the Jews of the world. Way more than understanding that they need us, and that we indeed need them, we must feel that we are all parts of a larger and highly diverse organism.
If we shift the focus of the relationship in this way, the identity of the Israeli prime minister or the President of the USA will no longer be the defining factor. Quoting from Rabbi Sacks’ Seven Principles of Peoplehood – “I don’t need you to agree with me, I just need you to care about me.”