Israel-Diaspora Relations: A View from the Field

Since last June, a series of events in Israel have rocked the relationship between Israel and Jewish communities outside of Israel, to its core. I’ll admit, I am taking this personally. I’ve spent my career building bridges between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. These events burn bridges.

A landmark agreement that would have expanded the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall collapsed just prior to implementation, after years of negotiation. A bill, still pending final legislation, giving the Chief Rabbinate direct supervision over all conversions, raised concern about the validity of non-Orthodox conversions inside and outside of Israel. More recently, police detained a conservative rabbi in Israel and questioned him about a wedding he performed, prompting outrage from conservative and reform religious bodies inside and outside of Israel. And most recently, the Knesset passed the Nation State Basic Law, legislation that has been widely criticized both in and out of Israel for failing to include democratic values, and promoting what some see as exclusionary language and the demotion of the Arabic language.

When things like this happen inside Israel, even as a Jewish professional who considers herself an ardent Zionist and loves Israel, it is getting harder and harder to share and promote that. I understand that these outcomes may be the unfortunate victims of Israeli politics, but let’s be real; politics aside and regardless of where one might stand on these issues, optics matter, so promoting Israel and connections to Israel becomes more difficult. In addition, personally, these events are eroding my confidence in our Jewish state to prioritize relationships with Diaspora Jewish communities, and to see that we as Diaspora Jewish communities are bringing something of great value to the Jewish people.

These events in Israel not only widen the gap between Israel and the Diaspora but also underscore broad cultural rifts. Some see the answer as more travel to Israel. Others see the answer as more investment in Israelis who come to the U.S. to bring Israeli culture to American Jewish communities. Those approaches are both important, but we are already doing them and have been doing them for a long time. I would argue that we need to do them differently, with a new set of intentions that recognize the validity, contributions, and history of Diaspora Jewish communities in the shared story of the Jewish people; intentions that recognize Diaspora Jewry as equal and important to that of the role of Israel in modern Jewish life.

Before there was a land of Israel or a State of Israel, we had to become the people Israel, am yisrael, first. Before we were a people connected globally by a State of Israel, we were a people connected by our traditions and history, made all the more richer by the traditions and history that Jews built and experienced in the places they lived around the world. Israel is the physical embodiment of our vision as a people, but we are just that—a people, including Jews from Israel and throughout the world.

So where do go from here? Changes to the Nation State law were due in part to negotiations and pressure from the organized Jewish community in the United States, including the Jewish Federations of North America, and its main overseas partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel. However, I would posit that dialogue at that level is not enough. Many Jews outside of Israel are reacting to these enormous changes without an opportunity to talk with each other or with Israelis about it. Our Jewish communal organizations that work on Israel-Diaspora relations need to provide forums for everyday Israelis and American (and other Diaspora) Jews to talk about these issues.

And, this dialogue must be a two-way street: joint planning, shared objectives and goals, and joint outcomes—in a framework that recognizes the uniqueness we each bring to the story of the Jewish people.

I’m a Zionist motivated by a bigger vision: what I would call a 21st century Zionism that gives primacy both to Israel and to her Diaspora partners and communities. I envision a Zionism that delights in the diversity of the Jewish people inside Israel and outside of Israel—a Zionism that understands both the imperative for Jewish sovereignty and the imperative for Jewish peoplehood. The sovereignty provides security for Jews around the world, and peoplehood provides avenues for Israelis to understand their Israeli identity as a Jewish identity. Hopefully, Israelis will expand identity to an outlook that connects them to the larger global Jewish family.

Israelis and Diaspora Jews need each other. The Jewish people needs Israel to have a voice among the nations, to protect us at challenging times, to connect us with our Jewish identities, and to give us a literal place where we feel the pride of being Jewish. But Israel needs the Jewish people too, to see themselves as part of something bigger than just their nation, to understand who they are as Jews, and to share in the diversity and pluralism that the global Jewish community offers. While Israel’s diversity should make us all proud, let’s recognize that diversity in Jewish life does not begin and end at Ben Gurion airport. Israelis have much to learn about being Jewish from the many diverse expressions of it in communities small and large across the globe.

A recent survey in Israel by the organization Hiddush revealed that two-thirds of respondents support strengthening religious pluralism and freedom in Israel. The survey showed that Israelis are more concerned about issues like civil marriage and transportation on shabbat than they are about egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. This comes as no surprise, but does point to a significant difference in how Israelis and Diaspora Jews view the impetus for pluralism in Israel, and therefore what direction we should take to advance it. We have different lenses, but we also have an important opportunity to share and understand each other’s perspectives.

Like members of any family, we do not always see eye to eye, and we don’t always have to like each other, but we know that at the end of the day we have to come back to the kitchen table and talk things through. That’s what families do. Here are some things I think we should be talking about, among Israelis and Jews outside of Israel at as many kitchen tables that we can find:

  • These tectonic shifts, our reactions to them, what they mean, and what we can do to further bridge the gap;
  • The complexities of life in Israel and the American Jewish community’s impact in Israel;
  • Goals for Israel-Diaspora relations that include education for Israelis inside Israel on Diaspora Jewish communities;
  • More frameworks inside Israel to enable American Jews to translate American Judaism for Israelis of all ages in fun and creative ways;

These discussions need to happen on several levels, including specifically for and among Jewish professionals. In addition, education about the positive impact that American Jews have on Judaism and Jewish life should be a goal, not a byproduct, of all forms of Israeli shlichut experiences. Furthermore, more Federations should be providing funding to send American shlichim, or emissaries, to Israel. This is something our Partnership2Gether program is considering.

This kind of meaningful discussion requires investment in staff, educators and institutions who can bring people together to create these dialogues. Communities must make these discussions and the funding for them a priority.

I’ve heard Israeli Jews say many times that in Israel being Jewish is in the air; they don’t have to think about it. I’m asking you to think about it, and to think about how making connections with Diaspora Jews and Jewish communities can benefit you as Jews and as part of the Jewish people. Programs like Partnership2Gether force Israeli Jews to think about what their Jewish identity means to them, inside Israel. This education, this realization, this continual unfolding of what Jewish identity can mean inside Israel is critical to build greater understanding for people living inside Israel of the great big Jewish world that exists outside of Israel. For decades, Israel needed the Diaspora’s money. Now, Israel could use the Diaspora’s expertise in building Jewish community and Jewish identity—as much or more than Diaspora Jews need it ourselves. Diaspora Jewish communities are not in decline; they are adapting, as we always have, and we have something to offer to our brethren in Israel. By educating Jews inside Israel about Diaspora Jewry, we are taking responsibility for the advancement of global Jewish peoplehood.

Debbie Swartz is the Overseas Planning Associate at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. The views she expresses here are her own.



About the Author
Debbie Swartz is a proud Jewish communal professional living and working in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as an Overseas Planning Associate at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Her journey as a Jewish professional began when she spent ten months living and volunteering in Israel with Project OTZMA. Debbie is married to Rabbi Howie Stein and has a six-year-old daughter, Yona. The views she expresses here are her own.
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