Ben Frank

Nachman Shai is Mistaken about the Israel-Diaspora Relationship

In his address at the gala event Sunday night marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai spoke about the Israel-Diaspora relationship. Shai stressed two points, both of which are recurring themes in his role as Diaspora Minister.

In light of Israel’s many successes, the minister said, it is time for Israel to look to the Diaspora and ask, “what Israel can do to secure the destiny of the Jewish people and Jewish resilience around the world.” This point is uncontroversial. As the nation-state of the Jewish people, if Israel can be of assistance to Jews around the world, then it should certainly do so.

Shai’s second point, however, is problematic. “It is our duty, as a state and as a government, to find ways to integrate the voices of world Jewry into the decision-making process within the State of Israel,” Shai said. “Many of the decisions we make in Jerusalem affect not only the citizens of Israel, but Jewish communities around the world alike.”

The most obvious problem with this thesis is that Diaspora Jewry has opted out of Israel. Non-residents of Israel, even those who hold Israeli citizenship, are ineligible to vote in elections – or as Shai would have it, “the decision making process.” The reason only local Israelis can vote is straightforward. Every Israeli election involves life-altering decisions for those who live there. Only those who have a direct stake in Israel’s future have the right to determine that future. Allowing Jews who are neither citizens nor residents of the State of Israel to determine its future harms the integrity of Israel as a sovereign political entity.

True, what happens in Israel can affect Jews around the world. But while that speaks to Israel’s centrality in Jewish consciousness, it does not imply the right for Jews who have no intention of ever visiting Israel to influence its destiny.

Minister Shai’s address calls attention to a number of ironies. Shai mentioned the Kotel controversy as a situation where input from Diaspora Jews would be helpful, especially when non-Orthodox Jews are harassed by Orthodox extremists for their mode of worship. Because the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jews are not Orthodox, they can influence Israeli policy to be more inclusive and subdue the traditionalist opposition. Now, the violence at the Western Wall is ugly. The sight of Jews getting harassed for praying at Judaism’s most venerated location is sickening. But in fact, the Ezrat Yisrael, the plaza dedicated to pluralistic service, is almost always deserted. If pluralistic Jews chose to visit the Ezrat Yisrael with some frequency they would gain more respect and sympathy in Israel. As Woody Allen, a pluralistic Jew if there ever was one, said, “90% of success is just showing up.”

Furthermore, what if the consensus of world Jewry backed annexation of the Occupied Territories? Or BDS? Or Orthodox hegemony over personal status? Would Nachman Shai still be eager to include the Diaspora in Israeli policy making?

A second irony of Minister Shai’s speech relates more to the celebrated event itself. He spoke at the festivities in Basel, Switzerland, held to mark the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress. This lavish and very expensive event, meant to “recreate the congress in Basel,” has come under fire not only for its big-budget extravagance – costing up to $10 million — but also because it is almost completely inaccessible to the vast majority of the Jewish people. And who is funding the gala event? The Jewish National Fund (KKL), which owns 12% of Israeli land. The JNF, in turn, is financed by the World Zionist Organization — the one quasi-governmental Israeli institution which integrates the voices of world Jewry into the decision-making process within the State of Israel.

As it turns out, the very event which occasioned Nachman Shai’s call for greater involvement in Israel’s affairs by Diaspora Jewry is funded and spearheaded by an Israeli organization which incorporates Diasporic influences.

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Defending Jews, Israel, and basic freedoms everywhere.
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