The new Israeli government lost no time in signaling that it sees a golden opportunity to reenergize the country’s alliance with Diaspora Jewry. Here is how it can turn this opportunity into a lasting achievement.
No Second-Class Jews
As one of its first decisions, Israel’s government should declare that every member of the Jewish people will always be treated equally and fairly, and that Israel will remain welcoming to all Jews. Full stop.
Israel’s new leaders understand, for example, why egalitarian prayer at the Kotel is so crucial. Newly installed Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai calls it a “crucial acknowledgement of our respect and appreciation for the full spectrum of the Jewish experience.” Also important is the recent Supreme Court decision—15 years in the making—that recognizes Reform and Conservative conversions conducted in Israel for the purpose of citizenship.
These and other issues, like civil marriage, have everyday consequences, and are also deeply symbolic. Alongside the complicated legal frameworks and complex logistics involved in supporting such inclusive policies lies a simple logic: there should be no second-class Jews.
In many respects, deepening divides between Israel and large segments of world Jewry reflect a crisis of confidence, which is why a declaration by the new government would be so important.
In addition to sending a powerful signal and providing a confidence boost across the Jewish world, a formal government decision would guide the work of other state institutions and enable them to give more weight to the Diaspora implications of relevant decision-making processes, as recommended to former President Rivlin by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
Second, the new government should integrate the notion of Jewish peoplehood more deeply into public education. Over the long-term, educating the next generation of Israelis about contemporary Jewish life and diversity will be essential for nurturing solidarity and strengthening values like mutual responsibility.
Over the long-term, educating the next generation of Israelis about contemporary Jewish life and diversity will be essential for nurturing solidarity and strengthening values like mutual responsibility.
For the first time, curricula about world Jewry are being introduced in Israeli public schools, principally in the mainline “mamlachti” non-Orthodox system, by far the country’s largest. But there is still a long way to go before the subject is thoroughly integrated and widely adopted.
Education, formal and informal, is vital for building awareness of and empathy toward the Diaspora. Although organizations like Birthright, MASA and other immersive opportunities within Israel contribute to Jewish identity outside Israel, there are far fewer opportunities for Israeli Jews to gain a deeper understanding of Jewish life outside of Israel.
For Israelis, the study of world Jewry can be integrated with practical subjects like English language skills, which strengthen the country’s competitiveness, as we have done by launching the “One2One” high school exchange created by Enter: the Jewish Peoplehood Alliance.
The government can also tap into a widening web of Israeli educators, community leaders and journalists who have joined “Reverse Birthright” exchanges, returning home with new perspectives on Jewish peoplehood for their local audiences.
The full spectrum of public education efforts would benefit immensely from a strong signal of support from the new government.
Third, Israel could expand support for cultural touchstones that reinforce a sense of solidarity and global Jewish peoplehood.
One such example is Israel’s official Yom Ha’atzmaut ceremony and the lighting of the twelve torches, a deeply revered Israeli tradition that spotlights exemplary members of society.
The new tradition of inviting a Diaspora representative—this year it was Gabriela Sztrigler Lew, a young Mexican Jewish woman engaged in humanitarian and development initiatives via the newly launched “Shalom Corps”—is an excellent first step. Such high-visibility opportunities should be amplified elsewhere in the Israeli public square.
Virtually cost-free, such “tribal fires” are high-impact and deepen a sense of common destiny. Introducing the Diaspora as a parallel Jewish society via familiar public platforms—state ceremonies, mass media, and community partnerships—can instill empathy and bolster metrics of mutual understanding.
For most Israeli Jews, the Diaspora has long been defined in instrumental terms—immigration, political advocacy and philanthropy—whereas today’s challenges of forging stronger Jewish solidarity and identity require new tools that can deepen awareness and literacy.
Alongside these efforts—policy, education and public awareness—lies a further opportunity with Isaac Herzog, now installed as Israel’s 11th president.
As Charles Bronfman and Jeff Solomon recently argued, President Rivlin set a new benchmark for promoting Jewish peoplehood. In Los Angeles, he declared world Jewry to be Israel’s “fifth tribe,” including the Diaspora in his signature “four tribes” initiative promoting social cohesion. Moreover, as a public institution outside of day-to-day politics, Beit Hanassi is well-positioned to build stronger ties with the Diaspora. President Herzog, with his life experiences at the intersection of Israel-Diaspora relations, and especially his recent tenure leading the Jewish Agency, is uniquely qualified to build on Rivlin’s legacy.
Both Israel and global Jewish communities are responsible for this alliance. There is much the Diaspora can do to promote stronger ties and strengthen this union, including working more closely with Israelis in ensuring greater mutuality and reciprocity.
Present challenges notwithstanding, world Jewry is in the strongest and freest position in which it has ever been, a stunning turn-around that also poses a long-term challenge. The vast majority of Jews are secure, healthy and protected. Jews live almost exclusively in free and open societies. Given our collective advances, now is the time to deepen this alliance. Akin to a successful sovereign wealth fund, world Jewry should invest in frameworks that make us stronger and better able to navigate future challenges.
The new government faces a daunting and crowded agenda but renewing relations with the Jewish state’s closest and most enduring ally, the Jewish people, is one area where it can score an early and big win.
Alon Friedman (Israel) is the Founding CEO of Enter: the Jewish Peoplehood Alliance, and the former head of the Israel office of Hillel International. Scott Lasensky is a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, teaching courses on Israel and Jewish politics. A former American diplomat in Israel, he is a Senior Advisor to Enter.