Israel received a blow last June. The government’s unfortunate decision to cancel the Kotel layout plans and conversion agreements placed the country’s Jewish image, and the connection to Diaspora communities, in the center of an ongoing political storm. These cancellations brought about a genuine crisis between Israel and the Jewish communities of North America.
Our overseas partners were deeply affronted, and understandably so. They were shocked, and wanted to see the next moves their Israeli counterparts would make.
The crisis went from bad to worse over last year: the first shot was fired on the even of Rosh Hashanah by the leaders of the American Conservative congregations, in a fiery letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanding he reverse the cancellations. The pro-Israel actress Nathalie Portman’s refusal of the Genesis Prize soon followed and echoed around the world.
This year, Israeli liberal Jewish organizations have been experiencing a drop in donations from philanthropists and associations dedicated to supporting Israel. I personally saw the affront and disappointment of American Jews as they understood that Israel had given up on them. For their part, they have chosen to give up on Israel. Their Jewish identity continues to flourish, but they no longer see their connection with Israel as a priority.
As the daughter of a traditional Sephardic father and a mother from a liberal Jewish-American background, I’ve been aware of the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora – its structure, intricacies and challenges, almost from birth. When I was a child, my mother, a relatively new olah, would show me far-away America on the globe, and have me “wave” to Grandpa Harry and Grandma Libby, who lived there. I remember wondering why they didn’t come to live in Israel. How could they live in a foreign country when there’s Israel, I’d ask my mother? I really expected to hear that my grandparents would come. My mother would tell me, as a parent tells a child about the tooth fairy, “Someday they’ll come!”
When I grew up, I realized that my Jewish-American family, like many others, would never come; not only because they had a full and comfortable life in the US but because their liberal principles clashed with the way Israel works. There’s an obvious affinity between Israeli and Diaspora ideas and values, especially with North America. The connection is based on philanthropic donations supporting pluralistic activities in Israel, with a real concern for Israel’s image abroad. Yet it’s not entirely based on philanthropy; there’s much more.
Many Israelis have had a new Jewish experience while living outside of Israel’s borders. We’ve experienced this effect in Diaspora synagogues, as mission leaders or summer camp counselors across North America. The Jewish agency even coined a phrase: “I left as an Israeli and returned as a Jew.” The first time they saw that Judaism can be vibrant and relevant was when they went abroad. In addition, the acquaintance between Israeli professional pioneers and leaders of the Jewish-American communities has frequently evolved into personal friendships and professional partnerships.
The crisis with North American Jewry was imposed on us by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties, supported by the government in June of last year. It has forced us to begin a process of reflection, examination of all aspects of the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora and planning its restoration. This process reached its peak at the 5th Panim Conference, which took place last week at the The Museum of the Jewish People with the support of the Ruderman Family Foundation.
If for 70 years we’ve relied on our brothers across the sea, then in this relationship crisis we should “go to therapy,” as it were. The other side hasn’t broken away entirely; they are simply waiting for us on the therapeutic couch. It’s clear to both sides that this process must be mutual, one that supports both sides, and commits each to continuing the relationship. Both must be willing to accept the other, with all the good and bad contained in each.
Last year’s work showed valuable activity on the topic, with organizations working toward preserving the delicate relationship between Israel and the Diaspora communities. The Diaspora Ministry is also making efforts to introduce Israel to the Diaspora. In recent years, a “reverse Birthright” has been under consideration, where we not only bring Diaspora Jews here, but send Israelis to them.
One of the conclusions we reached by the end of this year was that all of world Jewry wishes to repair the connection. But many suspect that like a couple in crisis, each side will go back to his or her old position and soon return to his or her old ways, frustrating everyone.
Israel-Diaspora relations are at a critical point. We Jewish Israeli organizations bear a great responsibility for the next chapter. We’re the connecting link. We can and should act to make the Jewish State a home for all the Jews of the world; to make all Jews, regardless of origin, ethnic stream, community or tradition, feel at home in the State of Israel. With sensitivity and thoughtfulness, without imposing an agenda on the various sectors, and with full acceptance.
Michal Berman is the CEO of Panim – The Judaism-Israeli Network, an umbrella organization to 60 Jewish Israeli organizations.