This past year heralded substantial diplomatic gains for Israel and its Arab neighbors. However, there is one relationship even more important that the Jewish state must continually nurture—its relationship with the Jewish Diaspora. Our polling suggests that a little more than 55 percent of Israeli Jews, regardless of religious affiliation, see the Diaspora as a first line of defense. In other words, they regard Diaspora Jews as a distant family of unofficial representatives. Yet, at the same time, when asked what degree of influence the Diaspora should have in Israeli decision-making, 66 percent of Israelis tend to think external influence should be minimal. Clearly, there is a contradiction in how Israelis view their brethren, which must be addressed.
Half a century ago, Golda Meir traveled to New York to emphasize to American Jews the need to continue their financial support and to help to convince the Nixon administration to adopt policies advantageous to the Jewish state’s national interests. Since then, Israel has enjoyed continuous bipartisan U.S. support, while most of its military adversaries have either made peace or no longer pose a significant threat. With a greatly diminished need for financial support from the Jewish Diaspora, it begs the question as to what will define the next era of Israeli-Diaspora relations?
Roughly 74 percent of Israelis believe that Israel to be the safest place for Jews. This sense of sanctuary has been reinforced by a string of worldwide anti-Jewish attacks over the past two years and the fact that Jewish ritual practices, such as circumcision and kosher slaughter, are under legislative threat from the European Union. The time has come for the Jewish state to more actively advocate on behalf of those that it had once relied on.
With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, worldwide communal Jewish religious practice and communal life came to a halt. However, even before the outbreak of COVID-19, some Jewish communities were struggling to preserve their unique customs. Take, for example, the Jewish community in Kyrgyzstan—a Muslim-majority country in central Asia. Prior to the pandemic, they struggled to maintain their lone synagogue and the local ORT Jewish day school. Now, thanks to COVID, their meager financial provisions are further stretched by medicine and food shortages making it even harder for them to maintain Jewish life. As citizens of the first fully independent Jewish national entity in 2,000 years, are we not obligated to assist them in their time of need? An annual sum of $100,000 to $500,000 would be all it takes to foster remote Jewish life in such countries as Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Cuba, Georgia, Kenya or India. A relatively small contribution could safeguard the traditions of remote Jewish communities that might otherwise fade away.
However, advocacy on their behalf will amount to nothing if Diaspora Jews—and all those who identify as Jews—are not fully welcomed among their brothers and sisters in the Jewish state. Until now, too many Jews arriving in Israel were considered Jewish enough to sacrifice their lives through military service, but not Jewish enough to marry under a chuppah or to be buried alongside their fellow tribesman. Today, a majority of Diaspora Jews are either secular or actively belong to Reform, Conservative or liberal congregations, and as such, a concerted effort needs to be made to ensure that the “Law of Return” will continue to accommodate them as the founders of Israel intended.
It is time for Israeli decision-makers to acknowledge Diaspora Jewry as a strategic, invaluable national security asset and act accordingly. When crafting policy, lawmakers must take into consideration possible implications for global Jewry. An immediate step would be for Israel’s National Security Council to incorporate Diaspora Jews within its mandate, thus ensuring that their welfare will be a focal point in all Israeli governmental decisions.
Israel’s National Security Council is an apolitical governmental body that assesses national security concerns and submits policy recommendations directly to the Prime Minister’s Office. Its key role in assessing foreign and security affairs puts the NSC in an ideal position to act as a liaison between Israel and the Diaspora.
The NSC would not replace the crucial work of any one governmental agency but would facilitate dialogue between all agencies involved, including the foreign, Diaspora and absorption ministries, as well as communal Diaspora leaders. As an apolitical governmental organization tasked with safeguarding Israel’s national security, it makes sense that we would entrust the NSC with our most sacred foreign relationship. As Israel’s political establishment remains deadlocked, it is imperative that we take active steps to preserve Jewish continuity abroad and strengthen our ties with the Diaspora in order to ensure the prosperity of the Jewish people before it’s too late.
The writer is the chairman of the Center for Jewish Impact and Chair of the Board of Trustees of World ORT, and was a former senior Israeli government official and former CEO of the World Jewish Congress.