Is Israel exporting Orthodox bias to all Jews?

August 18, 2016

Facts first, preferably without spin: the government of Israel has decided to allocate funds for strengthening Jewish identity in world Jewish communities. The decision is not new – it was made in 2014 – but it took some time, hand wringing, and deliberations to get to the implementation of the program. Now, three organizations that work in college campuses will get about seven million dollars each in the hope that this will make them more successful in reaching out to Jews – the ambition is to triple the number of Jews on campuses (not just American, but also European, Australian, etc.) that engage with Jewish programs. The organizations that get funding from Israel – through Mosaic United, a non-profit that was established to make Israel’s investment more efficient – have to invest two dollars for every dollar Israel invests in the program.

More facts: the organizations that were selected – that is, the organizations that can prove that they have significant presence in campuses around the world, that are willing to coordinate their work with the initiative and with their competitors (that is a precondition for participating), and that can put $14 million on the table to get Israel’s $7 million – are three: Hillel international, Chabad, and Olami. The last two of the three are Orthodox groups, a point that many reports highlighted. I will get to the Orthodox question later.

But before we do that, we need to move from facts to questions and interpretation – and while we do that it’s important not to mix different questions as if they are the same. There are ideological questions, there are political questions, there are professional questions. Let us separate them first.

The most important question about this program was asked and answered two years ago, and it is ideological in nature: should Israel invest in Jewish identity abroad and why? It is not a simple question to answer – it is not obvious that Israel ought to take taxpayers’ money and, instead of using it to purchase computers for children from lower economic brackets, use it to fund programs for – generally speaking – American college kids from well-to-do families. Then again, the government of Israel, by making this decision, was also answering the question: Israel believes this to be a worthy goal and is willing to put its money where its mouth is.

Another ideological question is about this term “Jewish identity” and what it means. “Our vision,” the web site of Mosaic United claims, is “an inspired, empowered, thriving Jewish people – connected with each other and the State of Israel – illuminating the world.” That is nice, but we can still ask: what do they mean by “inspired,” and what do they mean by “empowered” and “thriving?” What connection with Israel will they promote, and how do they intend the community to illuminate the world? Obviously, the answer Chabad operators are going to give to such questions are different from the answers you will get from Hillel activists, and these will be different from answers given by other groups and organizations. Thus, the real test of the initiative cannot be measured by looking at one organization at one time, but rather by looking at the mixture of programs and organizations that will gradually define what this initiative considers to be an expression of Jewish identity. 

Professional questions are also important, and for many of these questions I do not have a clear answer: Does it make sense to begin with an investment in college campuses? Can the organizations that were chosen achieve the goal of the program? Are these the best organizations to achieve the goal of the program? How does the government (and Mosaic United) intend to monitor and asses the success of the program? Why seven million and not twenty million or three million? What are they going to do with seven additional million that they couldn’t do without them?

Of course, to the average reader most of these questions are quite boring. As an Israeli tax payer, I’d like to know that this project is handled professionally and responsibly – but this is not different from all other things that the Israeli government handles, some with impressive efficiency, other with less impressive slovenliness.

Political questions are the ones that make this story a topic of some discussion. They prompted a story in Haaretz with the headline: Orthodox Groups to Lead Israel's New Bid to 'Strengthen Jewish Identity' of Diaspora Youth. They then prompted an editorial under the headline: Israel Is Exporting pro-Orthodox Bias. I received several inquisitive messages following these stories, and these are the questions I will try to answer.

The basic idea of the supposedly factual news story and the openly ideological editorial is simple: 1. The Diaspora Affairs Ministry is controlled by an Orthodox minister, Naftali Bennet. 2. It is thus allocating funds to Orthodox organizations. 3. That makes no sense because most Diaspora Jews are not Orthodox. 4. It also raises the suspicion that Jewish identity will be interpreted in ways that are not compatible with a pluralistic approach to Judaism.

Fair enough. Let’s examine these arguments one by one.

1. Bennet is indeed the head of an Orthodox party and is an Orthodox Jew. He is Diaspora Minister because he wanted the job – in fact, he insisted on keeping it. He has gained political power, and being the Minister of Diaspora Affairs is a legitimate way to use his political power.

2. I have yet to see proof of any kind that the ministry somehow manipulated the process to ensure that allocations go to Orthodox organizations. The ministry claims that these organizations were the ones meeting the criteria, and that other organizations – non-Orthodox – can get the same deal if they meet the criteria. Of course, criteria can be tailored for the purpose of allocating funds to certain organizations, but I have also yet to see any proof of that. Thus far, all we have is guilt by association – Bennet is Orthodox, two of three organizations are Orthodox, so the process must have been skewed. Would Haaretz insinuate that the process was skewed had the minister been a non-Orthodox Jew and all three organizations would be non-Orthodox? I think you know the answer to that.

3. This is a thorny point. But it goes back to professionalism: are these organizations the best situated to accomplish something? Only time will tell. But we know that for many years Chabad has been the envy of the Jewish world because of its ability to connect with Jews of all worldviews. And we also know – I know – that the people of the ministry want to succeed. They want to make a lasting impact. So they probably think that these organizations can provide them with success.

4. This is the thorniest issue: how these organizations interpret Jewish identity, and do you feel comfortable with their interpretation. The short answer to this question is no. I don’t always feel comfortable with the interpretation of Chabad. So what? I also don’t always feel comfortable with other interpretations. But there are certain things that we ought to keep in mind as we examine the program and the organizations that were chosen to activate it:

A. The ministry was put in charge of a lot of money and is entitled to use it in ways compatible with the worldview of its managers – as long as this is done within reason and is professionally defensible. That is why we have a political process, and that is what it means to have a government that makes policy. In other words: preferring an Orthodox interpretation is well within the rights of the ministry.

B. Only a fool (and Haaretz) would think that Bennet, the ultra-nationalist, fairly relaxed-Orthodox, interprets “Jewish identity” and “connection to Israel” the way Chabad and Olami do. Bundling all Orthodox Jews together to make a point might work with some readers whose distaste of Israeli Orthodox Judaism (in many cases for good reasons) blinds them in ways that disable their ability to see nuances.

C. As I already said: The ministry wants success. The wish to succeed is a powerful human motivator to do the right thing. It is not impossible that the right thing, in this case, was to allocate funds to two Orthodox-tilting organizations.

D. Having said all that, the ministry and Mosaic United ought to be careful and take the public’s view into account: it is easy to lose the confidence of Diaspora Jewry. It is especially easy for a ministry whose head is the ultra-nationalist-Orthodox Bennet.

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