Yehuda Kurtzer

Let us help you help us

The Israeli government's new Diaspora initiative is patronizing and damaging to American Jewry

With a sleight of hand, a turn of phrase, and with what appears to be a genuine expression of concern, the State of Israel has revived the notorious old ideology of shlilat ha-golah (negation of the Diaspora). The unexpected move to renew this moribund concept for a new age of Jewish history is being spearheaded jointly by the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs headed by Naftali Bennett. As it currently stands and as it has been marketed, the multimillion dollar plan uses the guise of an altruistic and philanthropic effort to essentially obliterate the self-defined and idiosyncratic identity of American Jewry, and to replace it with a version better aligned to its own self-interest.

And most surprisingly, though this effort threatens to challenge not only American Jewish self-definition but even the existing infrastructure that is already in place to support American Jewry, many American Jewish leaders and institutions appear ready to capitulate entirely to this sentiment.

How has this happened? It seems that the State of Israel recognized of late that what it perceives to be as a decline in American Jewish identity (or at least the form it recognizes), and what it perceives to be as a decline in American Jewish attachment to Israel, are major strategic problems for its own survival and thriving. If they are reading the data correctly, they may well be right. Israel benefited over its first 65 years enormously from American Jewish institutional philanthropy, from advocacy and lobbying in the American halls of power by Jewish leaders, and from the broad sensibility that Jewish survival benefited from the historically-unprecedented combination of strength under sovereignty and strength in a concentrated diaspora. And therefore if they are reading the data correctly, a strategic intervention in preserving those conditions makes a lot of sense. In this reading, however, this intervention is neither altruism nor philanthropy, but rather a self-interested instrument. And self-interested it appears to be.

This colossal initiative seeks to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into new efforts to connect American Jews to Israel through new programs sending Israelis to American college campuses and ramping up joint participation by Americans and Israelis in international development efforts (not for the purpose of actual international development, but for the cultivation of shared Jewish identity among the participants). Put differently, the initiative – which requires matching philanthropic funds from American Jews to the designated governmental funds – imagines the inflation of the Jewish Agency in Israel to become a much more central actor and operator in addressing these perceived flaws in American Jewish identity.

Some of this is perplexing on its face, such as the belief that Israeli Jewry has embodied so well and so writ large a true understanding of the confrontation between Judaism and modernity that its teenagers can self-style as the “role models” that American Jewish kids need on college campus. This is the first type of negation of American Jewishness – the belief that only if exposed to the authenticity of Israeliness will American Jewry realize its inadequacy and repent of its ways.

But it is not merely the content of this approach but the structure of the initiative itself that is problematic, and that threatens to wreak enormous havoc on the very community it is seeking to “repair.” By running the initiative itself, the Jewish Agency is ironically borrowing an American Jewish model – the Federation! – in its belief that a centrally organized approach can work more effectively than seeding its money in the open market. Meantime, this model has actually undergone massive revision here in the US, and the Jewish Agency has not caught up.

Consider this: When UJA-Federation of NY allocates millions of dollars to Israel, it outlines a number of areas that it considers its strategic priorities – be they economic empowerment, religious pluralism, minority rights, etc. It then invites and enables grantees from Israel to pursue those grants through a competitive process. Certainly an Israeli might look askance at that set of priorities and wish for different ones, but here the grant-making process is honest in its self-interested approach by a philanthropic agency. And the list of NGOs lining up to compete for these grants suggests that the open market is robust.

In contrast, all indications of this new proposed plan are that the Jewish Agency intends to direct its philanthropic intervention using its own instruments. Instead of naming its objectives, identifying actors already working in that space, and pumping its resources into the system, the Agency’s co-opting of the work itself risks undermining the very fields of Israel engagement, peoplehood education, and connectivity between American Jews and Israeli Jews that it seeks to strengthen.

After all, what could be worse for the field than making an Israeli bureaucracy the key locus for this work? What could be more paralyzing than the tying of American Jewish identity work to coalition politics and the Israeli political system, as has already materialized in the bickering between the Ministries of Diaspora Affairs and Foreign Affairs? And what could be more destabilizing than the introduction of this quasi-governmental behemoth into a fundraising market that is already cluttered with well-meaning agencies competing for dollars?

And let us not forget, this all operates under the assumption that the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency have actually interpreted the data about American Jewish life correctly. The very phrase “Pew Study” has become a meaningless litmus test for the affirmation of previously held views and biases about the current state of Jewish life. No one knows the future, but many good organizations – mine included – are working to promote deep and thick Judaism that is in dialogue with the major trends that define Jewish life in America, sometimes with and sometimes against the currents. But this paternalistic approach of the State of Israel belies its deep distrust in all that is good, working and interesting in American Jewish life, in favor of promoting a type of American Jewishness that will align with its own interests.

I wish that the key players would consider a different approach forward. It is called “appreciative inquiry.” A true sense of Jewish peoplehood would seek to understand what is different and still in common in expressions of Jewish identity as it manifests in different places, and would ask: how do we cultivate that sensibility for the betterment of our relationship, even if it requires that certain characteristics of the other community may never change? It would ask, how do we support the efforts underway that understand American Jewishness better than we can from so many miles away, not only because they will be more successful but because that approach is so much more respectful?

To Minister Bennett and your colleagues, I implore you: there is much to celebrate in the current and future state of Jewish life in America. This is not to say that the fears you have are unfounded about certain aspects of Jewish life that need to be cultivated for the long-term health of the State of Israel and the relationship between Jews here and Jews there. But if you actually have these resources at your disposal, look for what is good and what is working in line with these strategic priorities, and – as our Federation system already does in sending dollars to Israel – invest in the native efforts that already understand this climate and are already working towards the advancement of the same values. Otherwise, you will do more damage than good.

About the Author
Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and host of the Identity/Crisis podcast.