Disappointed With the Diaspora, Israel Is Now Looking to Replace It

After abusing and dismissing Jewish communities abroad again and again, a new government report recommends finding new Jews that Israel can take for granted too

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A Jewish Igbo boy reads from a siddur.
A Jewish Igbo boy reads from a siddur.Credit: Chika Oduah
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

No Israeli government has betrayed the Jews of the Diaspora with such wild abandon as Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth government.

In the space of a year, in the interests of its narrow-minded nationalist policy, it has betrayed American Jews by staying silent as Donald Trump all but endorsed the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanting “the Jews will not replace us.”

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It publicly rejected the requests by Hungary’s Jewish leadership to condemn the anti-Semitic campaign by Viktor Orban’s government against Jewish financier George Soros. Despite the misgivings of Austrian Jews, it rushed to embrace newly elected Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who formed a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, and made do with the empty promises of the Polish government when it passed its Holocaust-revision law.

And then of course there was the betrayal of progressive Jews around the world when the government dropped the Western Wall prayer-areas agreement.

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What’s a government that has steadfastly pissed off most of the world’s Jews to do? Invent new Jewish communities of course!

That’s the essence of the report that was revealed in Haaretz on Tuesday by Noa Landau and Chaim Levinson. Commissioned by Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, the report’s authors identify different categories of populations across the world and estimate that as many as 60 million people have some form of “affinity” to the Jewish people and Israel, while the government should be seeing them as “a strategic asset.”

As members of the tiny Jewish people decimated by the Holocaust and centuries of massacres, by most estimates less than 15 million strong, not even 0.2 percent of the world’s population, we’ve always dreamed of more of us being out there – like the descendants of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula forced to convert by the Spanish Inquisition. Or even the remnants of the Lost Ten Tribes lighting Shabbat candles on the banks of a river in Africa, just waiting for the clarion call to return to Zion.

From Ethiopia to India

These are romantic myths that in the cases of the Beta Israel in Ethiopia and the Bnei Menashe in India have become a reality. Not that these emigrations to Israel have been unqualified successes. While the multiple failures in the absorption of Ethiopian Jews have been well documented, the story of the Bnei Menashe was overlooked for years.

The exception was a report by Haaretz’s Judy Maltz three years ago on how members of the community, brought over from the Manipur and Mizoram provinces in northeastern India, were neglected amid impoverished conditions in West Bank settlements. The Bnei Menashe arrived after strenuous lobbying by an organization headed by a former adviser of Netanyahu, who also appeared before the authors of the latest report as well.

The government report recommends building on these success stories and creating a “permanent process allowing arrival in Israel for giyur [conversion to Judaism] of individuals, groups and communities who will be found fitting.” That’s the long-term objective, but in the short term, as Dvir Kahane, the director general of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, writes in his introduction to the report, these communities will “promote support for Israel and aid in the struggle against anti-Semitism.” Or as Zvi Hauser, one of the report’s authors and Netanyahu’s former spokesman and cabinet secretary, put it, “they are a strategic asset.”

In other words, the recommendations aren’t aimed at extending assistance to these far-flung communities so they can embrace their own specific Jewish identities, in their native cultures and on their own terms, should they choose to do so. This isn’t about learning and preserving their unique heritage – it’s about indoctrination and recruitment of “those interested to receive information on subjects like Israeli culture, music and food, Hebrew language and literature, and those interested in helping, individually or in the framework of organizations to battle BDS boycotts and help hasbara for Israel.” Don’t ask as what we can do for you – here’s what we want you to do for Netanyahu’s Israel.

Shameless cynicism

I debated Hauser Tuesday night on television over the report. He argued that there is no connection between the government’s failings in its dealings with the Diaspora and the “strategic asset” that Israel must exploit over the coming decades with these communities. It’s so symptomatic of how this government treats Jews around the world, even those who love Israel and are willing to support it. In all fairness, every Israeli government has to some degree taken the Diaspora for granted, but the current one has broken all records of shameless cynicism.

It's a government that hasn’t missed a chance to screw over Diaspora communities and has done so little to alleviate the hardships of immigrants to Israel, such as the 300,000 Israeli citizens who arrived from the former Soviet Union and can’t even get married in Israel because the Chief Rabbinate doesn’t consider them Jews, and only the Rabbinate is allowed to perform marriages. The government is now trying to manufacture more Jews it can take advantage of.

Not to mention that while the report recommends locating groups with “affinity” to Israel in parts of Africa, this government is still trying to push through its cruel plan to deport 30,000 African refugees – who speak Hebrew and have developed a connection to Israel over a matter of years – to uncertain futures in Rwanda and Uganda.

But that’s the problem with Diaspora Jews. They still have high expectations of Israel, such as not deporting refugees. They still expect Israel to treat them with respect, not just to be viewed as strategic assets to be used, abused and dismissed at will. This government is duly disappointed with the Diaspora for having limits to its unquestioning support.

Bennett, who as Diaspora minister likes to describe himself as “the minister of the Jews,” only last week said in a speech that the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement has targeted U.S. Jews because they’re “the weakest link.” If the minister of the Jews thinks this of the largest and most successful Jewish community in the history of the Diaspora, small wonder he’s looking for new Jews to replace it.

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