September 15, 2019

Building Bridges Between Israel and the Diaspora

Naama Klar is the good-girl-next-door from a religious settlement who married a secular man. Today, at the age of 34, she is at a crossroads in her life. She has just returned to work as managing director of the policy and strategy nonprofit — the Reut Institute — after being on maternity leave for the past seven months. 

A first-time mother, Klar admits the guilt of leaving her son in the hands of a nanny has yet to abate, but after a week back at work she is fueled by the projects she is leading and their ramifications for the Jewish people.

One of those projects is the Peoplehood Coalition, launched a year ago as an informal gathering of a couple of dozen friends and colleagues who, like Klar, were concerned about the fraying relations between Israeli Jews and the Diaspora. Today, the coalition has ballooned to more than 200 activists, including former U.N. envoy Ron Prosor, who are devoted to changing the Israeli mindset that Israel is the be all and end all of what it means to be a Jew; and that the Diaspora had no relevance.

Klar was steeped in that mindset for most of her life. She received a religious Zionist education in her hometown of Kedumim, a northern West Bank settlement. She was taught to believe that every issue connected to world Jewry had the same answer: The State of Israel and its army.

“I was brought up Israeli, hence blind to the identity of other Jews,” she said.

“ ‘Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people’ is nothing more than an empty headline, an idea that will dissolve itself if we continue to negate the Diaspora.”

The first time her attitude changed was as an exchange student in Brussels studying international relations and political economy. Her roommate, a Jewish student from Belgium, asked her to explain how, as a Jew, she could comfortably continue violating the rights of Palestinians. 

Klar said she realized that for Diaspora Jewry, the answer to every single issue facing the Jewish people and their legacy might have nothing to do with having a nation state and a strong army and everything do with human rights. 

“Certain components of the Zionist vision that were necessary in establishing the state are now too heavy and too irrelevant and are taking the relationship with the Diaspora down,” she said. “Israel is part of a bigger story: the story of the Jewish people.” 

In the existing paradigm, Klar said world Jewry is easily dismissible, even replaceable by say, evangelical Christians. “ ‘Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people’ is nothing more than an empty headline, an idea that will dissolve itself if we continue to negate the Diaspora,” she said. “The Jewish people can and should exist — even without a state.” 

Yet she bristles at the suggestion that she is turning her back on everything she once stood for. “I just thought [then] that Jewishness was something much narrower. But the values I believe in today are aligned with those I was brought up with. It’s all about peoplehood. Today, I am no longer Israeli,” she said. “I am part of world Jewry.”