September 18, 2019

Israel gave up on the negation of the Diaspora

Yuli Edelstein,53, was born in the Soviet Union. In 1987 he immigrated to Israel. After arriving, he entered political life. Together with fellow Soviet dissident and current Jewish Agency chairman Nathan Sharansky he founded the Yisrael BaAliyah party. After the party folded into Likud, he was elected to the Knesset in 1996. In the first Binyamin Netanyahu-led government, he served as Minister of Immigrant Absorption. He served as Deputy Immigrant Absorption in Ariel Sharon’s Likud government. He was appointed by Netanyahu to his current position in 2009.

Why do Israel keep having these misunderstandings with Jewish Americans, like the one we just had with the Absorption Ministry’s add campaign aimed at emigrating Israelis? Was this campaign insensitive, or was Diaspora reaction too sensitive?

We believe that the misunderstandings result from a lack of familiarity of both sides with each other.  Over the last few decades, relations between Israeli Jews and Jews in the Diaspora have experienced a number of changes.  These changes included the negation of the Diaspora, a one-way relationship, and Dialogue .  Our Ministry identified the problem and has been working tirelessly to find solutions so that not only will Diaspora Jewry recognize and identify with Israel, but Israeli Jews will get to know and understand the importance of Diaspora Jewry.

What should Israel do with all these bright and eloquent young Jews that keep writing about what they perceive as Israel’s problematic policies – and keep telling their fellow young Jews that such an Israel does not deserve their support and affinity?

The spectrum of opinions of Diaspora Jewry includes a wide range and variety of opinions. These include those that disagree with the policies of the Israeli Government – both the current one and/or previous ones. This is totally legitimate and part of democracy, freedom of speech and other principles that we jointly value and protect. What I find objectionable is that most of the writers mentioned have no understanding or even willingness to try and understand the Israeli reality. They have never visited Israel and they are exposed to and influenced by anti-Israel rhetoric and propaganda that is not based upon factual evidence. Their opinions are formulated after exposure to anti-Israel activists on campus and elsewhere. As a result, they do not criticize the policies of the Israeli Government, rather they disseminate libelous rumors. I call on everyone who is involved in issues pertaining to Israel and the Middle East to first learn the facts and opinions, of both sides, then express a well-informed opinion.

Can and should Israel do more to accommodate the religious sensitivities of the majority of US Jews – for example, should Israel allow mixed prayer at the Kotel, should it allow progressive rabbis to marry couples, should it recognize progressive conversions?

Israel in fact recognizes the various streams that exist in Judaism. For example, conversions performed by Reform and Conservative Rabbis are recognized for the purpose of the Law of Return. During the last few years, there have also been changes in a number of areas which demonstrate this including marital registration, easing burial restrictions, etc. We must also remember that there are a number of streams of Judaism in Israel and as a result no change should offend another significant segment of the population. If we can successfully find a way for real dialogue between the various factions, and neutralize the extremists in all camps, we can surely build a model of inclusiveness for the observance of tradition in the State of Israel. 

What expectations should Israel have from American Jews – do we still need their financial contribution, or maybe more than that their political support? Should travel to Israel be the priority?

We very much appreciate the financial contribution from American Jews. It is both thoughtful and helpful and has been instrumental in building our relationship over the years. But it is no longer a one-way street. Over the past few years, the Israeli government has budgeted considerable resources to reach out and help Diaspora Jewry. In particular, programs like Birthright-Taglit Israel and Masa are heavily funded by the Israeli tax-payer in order to bring Diaspora youth to Israel. These programs and others help build a lasting relationship between Israelis and their Diaspora counterparts. They are also instrumental in strengthening their Jewish identity and fighting intermarriage and assimilation .

For those who contribute financially it is best to focus on specific projects that target specific areas of the population or regions, for instance a particular institution or community. Many of these projects and organizations receive considerable assistance from the government but we are grateful for every private contribution.

Political support is important especially now when there is a coordinated effort of de-legitimization against Israel. Our very existence is being challenged and all political support is effective in countering this kind of propaganda .

Every Jew should travel to Israel and visit their homeland. It might not be realistic today but it should be in a long-term, 5-year plan. Visiting Israel should be a top priority for every Jew. Those that have already visited should plan to visit again.

Does Israel still need to say that it wants all American Jews to make aliya? Should it still be Israel’s position that Israel is the only place for a Jew to be living in?

Israel has not given up on Zionism because it gave up on the negation of the Diaspora.  I believe that the day will come when the majority of the Jewish people will live in Israel. In order for that to take place we have to help in providing Jewish education and developing Jewish identity, as well as building a society that attracts Diaspora Jewry.