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Israel’s Paradigm Shift On The Diaspora
Mon, 02/17/2014 - 19:00

It may turn out to be more flash than substance, but the World Jewry Joint Initiative, or what Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett describes as “a Jewish crowd-source brainstorming jam session,” taking place over three days this week, signals a major and much-needed shift in the Israel-diaspora relationship. Namely, the strategic initiative, sponsored by Bennett’s ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency, reflects “a sea change” in the way that Israel views the diaspora, Bennett told us in a phone interview this week.

“Until now the diaspora was as a wallet,” he said bluntly, and a source for aliyah. “Now we’re ready to spend rather than take.”

The Israeli government is prepared to sink $1.4 billion into the project over the next five years. That is serious money to spend, and the key question now, as Bennett acknowledged, is “how to do it” effectively.

To garner suggestions, this week’s “jam session” invites Jews around the world to sign up and share with Israeli officials creative ideas online geared toward innovation. The entries will be studied, evaluated and the best will be acted upon by Israeli officials in collaboration with diaspora leaders.

“It’s our responsibility to help Jews stay Jewish,” Bennett said.

The move could be a sign of self-preservation for Israel, recognizing its dependency on diaspora Jewry for support — political and emotional as well as financial. It could also be viewed as an act of Jewish responsibility, one for the other, in strengthening Jewish peoplehood. In truth, it’s a combination of both.

Given the disturbing trends indicating a weakening of Jewish identity, education and Israel affiliation among many young diaspora Jews, it is wise for the Israeli government to commit to investing large sums of money in an effort to reverse that drift. Among the ideas floated publicly this week were Bennett’s notion of “semi-citizenship” in Israel for diaspora Jews, and Foreign Minister Avi Lieberman, in addressing a delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, reflected the mood of Israel as donor rather than recipient. In noting that Israel’s annual budget is $100 billion, he suggested contributing $365 million a year — a million dollars a day — to counter assimilation in the diaspora.

Large sums of money are welcome, of course, but they need to be spent creatively and thoughtfully. Overall, the initiative speaks to who represents Israel, the diaspora and particularly the unaffiliated and uninterested.

Bennett told us that based on his own experience, he believes “the existing political institutions are falling apart,” and what’s needed is a more direct relationship between Israeli and diaspora Jews, primarily through social media.

He said criticism of Israel is natural, but many young diaspora Jews “don’t know enough or even care enough to oppose us. Our big threat is apathy,” he concluded.

He’s right, and the fact that the Israel government sees itself as responsible to sustain and strengthen Jewish identity around the world is of enormous significance, and should be applauded. Now is the time for all of us to focus on this new level of partnership and turn our big dreams into action.

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Kol HaKavod! I would like to see investment in day school education. In the United States, there is no government support of Jewish day school education. Were the Israeli government to help, we could bring more children into Jewish day schools (of all streams), create more Jewish day schools, raise the quality of the overall educational experience and give the students a long-term (semester? year?) in Israel as part of their program. This investment would pay off for decades.

From what I hear from Israeli family members I think perhaps that money could be better spent on early childhood education, primary education and secondary education in Israel for people living there.

The small public university in the small midwestern city where I live is now providing a scholarship (supported largely by members of our small synagogue) for a second Israeli who found the four year college system in the U.S. more amenable to the kind of education he wanted. The first is an MD (in Israel) today who earned many academic scholarships in his junior and senior years; the second, only a sophomore, plans to become a nurse. He will be a good one.