Israel’s Relations With Diaspora Jewry: Can the Rift Be Healed? A Practical Start

by November 2021
A demonstrator carrying an Israeli flag at a Capitol Hill rally in 2015. Photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Challenge

A widening rift between the Jews of Israel and those living in the diaspora now looms over the future of the Jewish people. Israel’s problematic engagement with diaspora communities in recent years has brought into focus the failure of the homeland of the Jewish people to realize the goals of its genesis. This was not always the case, and it need not be. Stipulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence as a critical force for the redemption of Israel, diaspora Jewry today remains an essential component of the nation’s soul. The Israeli government must consider the deterioration of the Israeli–diaspora Jewish relationship as an existential and strategic threat to the future of Israel’s national identity.

The public and the political establishment in Israel has consistently taken a demanding and often unilateral approach towards diaspora Jewry, expecting it to serve as a vital resource to generate pro-Israel support, a cash machine for unconditional funding, and a potential pool of future immigrants. By failing to seriously consider the views, values, and aspirations of diaspora Jews, the political representatives of the Jews of Israel have taken this important community’s support for granted.

The Jewish nation has become more of a divisive element for Jews than a unifying force.

Moreover, while diaspora Jews bolstered Israel’s success from abroad, the attitude of the Israeli religious establishment toward the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism has left a large majority of the Jewish people—specifically, in the other great wing of the Jewish people, in North America—out in the cold. Israeli legislators seemed to have no political incentive to deal with this issue, since there are many more Orthodox Jews in Israel than there are Conservative or Reform Jews, and most secular Israelis are apathetic about religious discrimination against liberal denominations of Judaism. 

The rift became dramatically more severe when successive Israeli governments came to be seen as distancing themselves from the liberal values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The sense of abandoning the values shared with a large majority of American Jews has further exacerbated the divide between Israel and diaspora Jews. 

Most glaringly in the US, but also in Europe, the situation has further deteriorated as practitioners of Israeli diplomacy have veered away from the historical guiding principle that support for Israel should not become a divisive political issue in countries with large Jewish communities. 

In recent years, Israel has become an ally of many right-wing populist regimes around the world. Many Jews in the diaspora are shocked by Israel’s alliances with racist regimes that have replaced antisemitism with a hatred of Muslims and have thus found in Israel a like-minded state. This development has led to a situation where the Jewish nation has become more of a divisive element for Jews than a unifying force, leading many congregations to avoid any discussion about Israel altogether. 

My Journey to Jewish Peoplehood

Like many secular Israelis, I found myself unattached to my Jewish brothers and sisters in the diaspora; growing up as a member of a kibbutz, it was easier to fully embrace my national identity as an Israeli than to navigate the complexities of my role in the global Jewish community. I was influenced by the founders of the kibbutz movement who attempted to distinguish us from the diaspora Jews. They portrayed diaspora Jews as weak and fearful, while we were strong Israelis, capable of defending ourselves and working the land. 

The socialist ideology of the kibbutz movement also pushed us away from Jewish identity, which we viewed as a religion, and not a nationality. We perceived Judaism as a religion as unattractive not only because we were secular but also due to the frustrating monopoly of the orthodox religious establishment in Israel and the coercive policies of the religious parties. Back then, I conceptualized Judaism only as a faith and not as the common culture of the international Jewish community as I understand it today. 

When I first engaged with American Jewish communities while serving as a diplomat at the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, I initially saw them as an instrument to be utilized for political influence. I had failed to understand that we belong to the same extended family.

The first time I understood the meaning of Jewish peoplehood was in my year as a Wexner fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The Wexner Foundation was established to develop Jewish leadership in the US and Israel, as well as to connect future leaders from these two communities in a Jewish context. I had applied to the fellowship for a Harvard education, but it was the Jewish experience I had in Boston that changed my life. 

When I first engaged with American Jewish communities, I saw them as an instrument to be utilized for political influence. I had failed to understand that we belong to the same extended family.

The Jewish community of Boston embraced us, the Wexner fellows, with amazing hospitality. It was in Boston where I first lived as a member of our extended family. There, I realized that Israel is a joint venture between Israelis (Jews and non-Jews alike) and the Jews of the diaspora. My immersion into diaspora Jewry helped me understand that my preconceptions about Jews in the diaspora were tremendously counterproductive for the future of Israel. 

I learned that the center of Jewish life in America is the power of community. In Israel, because of the centralist nature of the state in its early days, we expected the government to be the solution to every challenge. We thought that it is enough if we pay our taxes and serve in the Israel Defense Forces. For American Jews that grew up in an individualistic American culture, it was understood that many solutions can be better addressed by community and philanthropy, rather than by the state. The role of Jewish community in the US was invaluable for solidifying a sense of Jewish identity in the minds of its members, a connection to Judaism that I had lacked in Israel. 

In Boston we learned about pluralism and the ability for each person in the community to practice Judaism as they choose, allowing each congregation to define its own path. This experience led us to be more open to Jewish community life, even though we were, and still are, secular. When our son chose to have a traditional bar mitzvah, we did it in a liberal synagogue close to our home in Brookline where a female rabbi prepared him for the ceremony. In Israel, we were not aware that this option was even possible. 

Because of our exposure to liberal Judaism, our oldest daughter decided to go to a Reform summer camp, while our youngest daughter eventually became a counselor in the Union for Reform Judaism youth movement. When we returned to Israel, we chose to join the Reform congregation in Zur Hadassa once we understood that Jewish life was not only about religious ceremonies (which, as a secular family, had less appeal to us) but also about being part of a community with people that shared our pluralistic values. 

In Boston I also realized the growing disconnect between the Jewish grassroots organizations and the establishment of the Jewish organizations, with whom we in Israel interacted as the only representatives of the community.

My personal experience led me to be proactive in an attempt to connect Israelis to the Jews in the diaspora. I came to understand that the worrying rift between Israel and many in the Jewish diaspora requires a proactive approach with a broad vision of “Jewish peoplehood,” which advocates for a new direction in Israeli politics. Since diaspora Jews lack voting rights in Israel, their needs and preferences do not enjoy formal representation, and we must serve as their voice in Israel.

How to Address the Challenge

We must hold Israel’s politicians accountable when they adopt myopic, harmful decisions like the reneging on promises of pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall or restrictions on non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism. 

Resolving the rift requires a change of all existing Israel–diaspora relationship paradigms, basing them on actions that connect people.

We must create a “reverse Birthright project,” which enables every Israeli high school student to join a Jewish community abroad to experience direct contact with its members. My time in America as a Wexner fellow was a transformational experience, and I can only imagine how my relationship with diaspora Jewry would have evolved if I had gone to Boston as a young man instead of as a mid-career professional. 

The annual visits by Israeli high school students to concentration camps in Poland help us understand our national trauma; but meeting living Jews is no less important. For the sake of our joint future, sustaining our relationship with the living is just as vital as preserving the legacy of the dead. 

One way to heal this relationship would be to collaborate on “tikkun olam” (loosely translated to mean “repairing the world”) projects. This ancient Jewish ideal speaks to all Jews in their relationships with each other and with the rest of the world. Projects like these would be a proactive step that could attract the interest of the Jewish world’s next generation. A self-confident, globally integrated Judaism, rather than an isolationist one, is far more of a draw for younger Jews.

Judaism has always encouraged debate and disagreements.  A ‘Detroit Jews For Justice’ event in support of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Photo credit: REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
Judaism has always encouraged debate and disagreements.
A ‘Detroit Jews For Justice’ event in support of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Photo credit: REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV) under the Foreign Ministry should be transformed into a project involving the entire Jewish people, training young Jews and sending them to confront need wherever it arises, not just where narrow interests dictate. Energetic young Israelis in organizations such as IsraAID and Israel Flying Aid have already shown the way, often working in close association with allies in the diaspora. 

The expectation that diaspora Jews will continue sending money to Israel as in the old days, when Israel was a poor society fighting for its economic survival, is anachronistic and unsustainable. With Israel having one of the most dynamic economies in the world, diaspora Jews should no longer be expected to finance Israel as they did in years past. Israel no longer needs donations, but it does desperately need a stronger connection with diaspora Jews. This connection can be developed through investments from Israeli and American Jews alike in joint projects with civil society organizations promoting humanistic Jewish values and youth exchange programs. 

As for the expectation of Jewish aliya or immigration to Israel, we should be happy with every new immigrant to Israel; but we must accept the legitimacy of life in the diaspora and avoid judgment of, or arrogance toward, Jews living abroad as if there were only one way to be a Zionist. 

We must also embrace families of mixed marriage and accept them as part of the community. The Boston Federation is doing exactly that; because of this approach, more mixed families are choosing to raise their kids as Jews and the community is growing—a pattern that Pew Research Center has now identified across the board in American Jewry. 

Because of the differences in political leanings between diaspora and Israeli Jews, we cannot allow the only acceptable political views of diaspora Jews to be those in support of our government. Israeli Jews and their elected officials need to be more accepting of criticism from diaspora Jews who feel ignored in Israel. We must embrace also those among the Jewish people who disagree with our government’s positions, while accepting the basic legitimacy of Jewish peoplehood and self-determination. Judaism has always encouraged debate and disagreements. 

Just as we should embrace liberal denominations of Judaism, we have to also embrace liberal perspectives of Zionism. This is the reason why I joined J Street as their representative in Israel. I feel that we are creating a space where American Jews can connect with Israel in a way that aligns with their progressive values. We legitimize a discourse where they don’t have to make an uncompromising choice between their values and their Jewish identity. We provide a platform for them to use their political influence as Americans to promote pro-Israel, pro-peace policies. We are trying to help Israel avoid what we believe would be a one-state outcome, which will be disastrous to the Zionist vision of our Declaration of Independence.

The crisis of Israel’s relationship with diaspora Jewry is a dire one, which threatens the essence of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Resolving the rift within world Jewry and the promotion of a wider understanding of “Jewish peoplehood” must become a priority of Israel’s public agenda if we are to stay true to the goals of Israel’s founding, no less than the future of a unified Jewish people being at stake.

Nadav Tamir
Nadav Tamir is the executive director of J Street Israel, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and board member at the Mitvim Institute. He served in multiple positions at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, including as consul general in Boston. Tamir earned his MA from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where he was a Wexner fellow. @rntamir
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