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Strengthening identity: Noble goals, poor execution

MK Bennett's costly plan to strengthen the Diaspora's Jewish identity ignores the needs of the Diaspora Jews

Amidst this emotional struggle for the presidency in the United States, one thing can be said for certain: whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins, Jewish grandchildren will be living in the White House. A more complicated question arises when we consider what would happen if these grandchildren chose to make aliyah one day. Will they be received with open arms as Jews, or will they face the barriers of bureaucracy, suspicion, and arrogance, which have become symbols of the religious establishment in Israel today?

In recent weeks, Minister Naftali Bennett announced that the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs will begin investing tens of millions of dollars to lead programs aimed at strengthening the Jewish identity and relationship with Israel among Jewish youth and students in the US. The preexisting rift in the relationship between World Jewry and the State of Israel and its implications , necessitate this call for action. A strong and healthy relationship between Jews around the world is in everyone’s best interest. Whether this is done out of a sense of responsibility for every Jew, or for strategic, political, economic, or other reasons, this idea is praiseworthy, since ignoring the situation will only exacerbate the problem.

As we all know, any project, by nature, should first define the problems and characterize the needs, and only then derive the means for a solution. The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs is so backwards that not only do they not derive solutions from the problem, they overtly ignore the problem, and may even exacerbate it. The rationale behind the plan is that if we just pour a little more money overseas, the tension between Israel and American Jewry will just fade away. But where does the money go? By default, mostly to Orthodox institutions (surprise, surprise), ignoring the fact that most American Jews are non-Orthodox.

Among many Israeli politician, there is a deep-seated notion that Judaism and Orthodoxy are synonymous, and anyone who questions that notion simply “does not belong.” This issue is known and recognized, and is a controversy in and of itself. However, the inability to separate between the legitimate religious differences, from the achievable consensus regarding all around Jewish identity is the true root of the problem.

Thus, in one fell swoop, insult was added to injury when the money fueled the exact places that caused the uproar in the first place: those who try to define who is a Jew, how to be a Jew, and under what terms and conditions.

Today, it’s fair to say that the generational gap that has emerged among American Jews has significantly changed perceptions regarding Israel. While their parents’ generation saw Israel as an important and active part of Judaism, the younger generation today generally doesn’t see a connection between their Judaism and the Jewish state. Some, like many of their peers, are busy cultivating personal careers and are satisfied with their contribution to the community. Even among those who feel a desire to contribute and be a part of something greater, there is a feeling that actually advocating on behalf of Israel is irrelevant, since there is a lack of feeling of personal connection to the country.

Still, the story is not as one-dimensional as it is often portrayed. American Jewry has been experiencing profound changes for years. Not only is Jewish identity important to Americans, but also many community members take an active role to preserve that identity. One example is the recent renaissance in Jewish education — and not just in the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform communities, but also among those who define themselves as “simply Jewish,” who even invest their time, money, and effort in such education. Why? Because many people share the fear that Jewish identity is fading, yet there are still things that connect them and give them a sense of belonging.

I call them the “Guardians of Judaism,” and it is somewhat irrelevant how they define themselves or how they are defined by others. They feel, rightfully so, that the goal today is to make Judaism accessible, and not to surround it with fortified walls. They are working to extract insights and ideas from ancient texts and traditions and to transmit them to the current generation. Thus, young people often find a Jewish framework in which they feel comfortable.

For some, non-Orthodox religious practices raise judgement and resistance (particularly among those who are convinced that they are all knowing), but the important thing is that their commitment to preserving their Jewish identity as the fundamental connector of all Jews.

However, when these young people turn their eyes to what is happening in Israel, they get the impression that Israel is not necessarily the home of all the Jewish people. They feel that they don’t have a place at the Western Wall, their conversions are not recognized, and they are not welcome in the public mikva’ot (ritual baths). These all intensify the feeling that the Israeli administration does not really take them into account when it comes to religious policy. The red tape that the Rabbinate in Israel has placed before non-Orthodox Jews has always been discussed in the domestic Israeli context, but the connection between that and Israel’s relationship with world Jewry is unrecognized by many, either because they are intentionally turning a blind eye, or simply due to a lack of understanding of the communities’ defining characteristics.

I remember a sentence that a young woman said to me during my trip to New York a few months ago: “In Manhattan, I feel more Jewish, because there are more possible recognized ways to be Jewish.” Is this a reality that we are willing to live with?

We cannot ignore what is happening with the Jewry in the Diaspora and certainly not what is happening in the United States. These are our brothers and sisters, geographic, conceptual, political, and religious distance aside. Despite everything, the wise thing to do is to emphasize the similarities instead of the differences. This is the meaning of mutual responsibility.

Israel, as a Jewish state that is committed to the Jewish people’s heritage and future, should certainly be perceived as able and willing to solve the biggest challenge of our time. For this to happen, both sides need to understand that the challenge is mutual, the responsibility to find a solution is mutual, and the interest is mutual.

Minister Bennett and his office did well in allocating funds in order to strengthen Jewish identity and the relationship with Israel among college students in the USA. They did less well in doing so in the old-fashioned way — alone, and not taking into account the specific views, opinions, and needs of the Jewish communities. The success or failure of this project depends on if its leaders continue to stick to a language that no one is willing to listen to, or if they are attentive to the voices and needs of the Jewish community’s members. By working together, we will be able to create genuine communication channels and stronger ties between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

The author is a Member of Knesset in the Yesh Atid party.

About the Author
Dr. Aliza Lavie served as a member of the Knesset for Yesh Atid between 2013 and 2019, serving as chair of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. She is a senior lecturer at the School of Communication at Bar-Ilan University.
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