Diaspora Jews to Israel: We Need to Talk

Many are familiar with Theodor Herzl’s famous line: “If you will it, it is no dream.” However, few remember the continuation: “and if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay.” Turning dreams into reality is difficult. We must persevere, face our obstacles and not give in to despondency.

Recently, I returned from Israel disappointed. The new "nation-state" law is a step back for Israeli Arabs and Israel’s advances in religious pluralism. It includes patronizing language regarding Jews in the Diaspora and reflects decisions dominated by Israeli politics while disregarding the best interests for Israel and Jews everywhere. Political energy was spent on preparing for future elections with no regard for potential consequences.
I met with Israeli leaders to urge a change the bill in a way that would ameliorate its impact on Diaspora Jewry. While many were open to the suggested changes, others were not. I did, however, find MKs and officials from the Prime Minister’s office who listened to my perspective. They cared about what I had to say, which helped me remain hopeful about the future.

Then came the news that a Conservative rabbi in Haifa was questioned on grounds that he officiated at non-Orthodox weddings. Despite a swift response from Israel’s attorney general to halt the proceedings, many in North America found the event troubling. Then came the Israeli government’s decision not to extend surrogacy rights to same-sex couples. Our concerns deepened. 

Jewish Federations are currently planning our annual conference, which this year takes place in Israel with a “We Need to Talk” theme. With these recent events at the forefront of our minds, it’s clear that there’s a lot to talk about.

I returned to my office wondering how it was possible that Israel – a great democracy – could allow a law to be passed that would negatively impact its relationship with Diaspora Jewry. How could Israeli leaders backtrack on establishing an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, hold back support for marriage freedom and surrogacy rights to same-sex couples, and detain a Conservative rabbi for performing a Jewish marriage? How can they continue not to recognize various streams of Judaism?

I was reminded that while Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora are one people, we aren’t the same. And maybe we’re disappointed because we’re asking the wrong questions.

According to a report by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), Zionist leaders have always disagreed on what type of Jewish state Israel should be. For example, Herzl favored the idea of a sovereign Israel as a sanctuary from antisemitism, while Ahad Ha’am saw Israel as a refuge from spiritual assimilation. Ultimately, Ben-Gurion’s idea – that Israel become the place where a true Jewish life is lived – became dominant. 

“The prevailing view now embedded in the Israeli psyche,” JPPI explains, “is that the Israeli community is ‘essential’ while the Diaspora community is ‘incidental.’” And so it has evolved. Alongside a shared desire to work together on a national endeavor, some disappointment may be embedded in the relationship.

Today, defining the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry is complicated. Although three-quarters of Israelis believe in their common destiny with Diaspora Jews and 95% of all Jews are proud to be Jewish, opposing opinions exist.

  • Over 40% and 60% of Israeli and American Jews, respectively, believe Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist.
  • 66% of American Jews, but only 38% of Israelis, see security as Israel’s most important long-term problem. To Israelis, economic issues matter more.
  • 50% of American Jews label ourselves as liberals. Only 8% of Israelis do.
  • More than half of Israelis believe that the views of Diaspora Jews shouldn’t play a role in government decisions about prayer at the Western Wall or conversion. Two-thirds of American Jews see us as irrelevant to peace discussions.

Despite this, our history is full of examples of Jewish resilience and accomplishment when we come together as one people. These include the need to care for Holocaust survivors, the shared imperative to establish the State of Israel, and the absorption of Jewish communities throughout the world. As one people, there is little we can’t do, and our commitment to Jewish peoplehood – regardless of our differences – must always remain in our minds and propel us.

During and after this most recent trip, colleagues and reporters repeatedly asked: “Is the passage of the ‘nation state’ law a tipping point in the relationship? Has the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora finally frayed beyond the point of repair?”

My answer is “No, of course not.” As Israel celebrates its 70th year, it’s a good time to reflect back, look forward, and will our dreams into reality.

JPPI reminds us that trends in Israel-Diaspora relations over the past seven decades haven’t really changed. In the 1950s, prime minister David Ben-Gurion affirmed that 1) Israel would not demand political loyalty from Jewish citizens of other countries, and 2) Aliya would not be an obligation. In return, the Diaspora Jewish leadership had committed to a thriving Jewish state. This seemingly contradictory commitment led to a complex relationship where Diaspora Jews were identified with a state that wasn’t their own, and Israeli Jews focused on nationalism, often conflicting with the needs of Jews worldwide.

With that in mind, Jews around the world must remain steadfast. We must make our voices heard and ask the right questions, working together to achieve the right answers. The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly this October in Israel is the place to make this happen.

This year, the General Assembly will focus on the Israeli-Diaspora conversation. We will develop new ways to build our peoplehood and invest in our greatest assets: our people. We are going to ensure that, when there are 15 million Jews in a world of almost eight billion people, there isn’t a single “incidental” Jew anywhere. Each one is precious, and it is in celebrating our differences that we will advance our growth, distinction, and ultimately, our peoplehood.

Jerry Silverman is President & CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America. This piece originally ran in The Jerusalem Post.