Has the Diaspora Jewry Brand Become Too Toxic for Israel?

A mere two years after she introduced it, Miri Regev has already snuffed out the tradition of Diaspora torch-lighters being invited to an Independence Day ceremony in Israel. She may have saved her successor a headache

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The Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony in Jerusalem, April 2018, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the 12 flame lighters.
The Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony in Jerusalem, April 2018, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the 12 flame lighters.Credit: Emil Salman

Ending the shortest-ever Israeli national tradition, Culture Minister Miri Regev has decided that Diaspora Jewish representatives will no longer be given the honor of lighting a torch at Israel’s Independence Day ceremony.

The flame of Israel-Diaspora harmony was snuffed out only two years after it was first lit in early 2017. At the time, the Israeli government was basking in the new embrace of the Trump administration, gearing up to raise money from Diaspora Jews for the big 70th anniversary ceremony the following year, and looking to heal some of the wounds of the Obama era. So Regev, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, decided it would be a great idea to include Jews from abroad to partake in a rite that is considered one of Israel’s highest honors.

>> 9 low points in Israel-Jewish Diaspora relations in 2018

Two torch-lighters were then carefully selected by a committee to jointly light one of the ceremony’s 12 flames (commemorating Israel’s 12 tribes): Rabbi Marvin Hier, who took part in U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration; and billionaire Michael Steinhardt, one of the founders of Taglit-Birthright.

Barbra Streisand presenting an award at the Oscars, February 24, 2019.Credit: AFP

Steinhardt lit his torch declaring he was doing so “in honor of the partnership among Jews all over the world in the fulfillment of our historic mission.” Hier, meanwhile, dedicated his lighting to “the generations that, in spite of all their suffering, never stopped dreaming of Jerusalem.”

The following year, hoping to increase the level of excitement among the Israeli public for her efforts, Regev turned to social media — asking for suggestions of potential Diaspora nominees. Names considered included White House adviser Ivanka Trump, attorney Alan Dershowitz, and actress and singer Barbra Streisand.

But the 2018 choice ultimately fizzled into disappointment. Jewish-American actress Mayim Bialik, star of “The Big Bang Theory,” was given the honor — but then announced she couldn’t make it because of her shooting schedule on the show.

There were media reports that Steven Spielberg was also invited to participate, but he, like Bialik, said he had a Hollywood scheduling conflict. The committee gave up — after having two torch-lighters the previous year, now it couldn’t even come up with one.

Culture Minister Miri Regev at the Independence Day ceremony in 2018.Credit: Ilan Assayag

It isn’t precisely clear what caused Regev to extinguish the whole idea of a Diaspora torch-lighter — a move that was immediately slammed by political rivals like Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, who called the move “an insult to all Jewish people” and called on Netanyahu to override the decision.

The election-focused Regev of 2019, it seems, sees little incentive in fostering good relations with Diaspora Jewry, given that it offers little domestic political payoff and a certain amount of backlash.

After the 2017 ceremony, the guest lighters from abroad were mocked for delivering their speeches in English, not Hebrew, and the tradition spun by critics as disrespecting Zionism.

Regev’s decision, first reported on the Ynet website Monday, quoted sources in her office characterizing the move as a deliberate slap in the face to the Diaspora — the second such snub after she backtracked on support on the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall last year.

The move was also spun as being punishment for the harsh condemnation by American-Jewish groups of Netanyahu’s role in encouraging an electoral pact between the extremist Otzma Yehudit party and Habayit Hayehudi, positioning itself to be part of a future, Likud-led right-wing government.

Regardless of the motive, what is clear is that in the heat of the election campaign, Regev feels she has little time or desire for the extended headaches of finding a torch-lighter who will actually show up at the ceremony and whose presence won’t spark some kind of controversy.

There is legitimate cause for concern in that department: One of 2017’s torch-lighters, Steinhardt, has since been accused of sexual misconduct in a #MeToo scandal.

And it is surely sobering to consider the uncomfortable situation of another honor designed to bring high-achieving Diaspora Jews to Israel — the Genesis Prize, which has become something of a public relations trainwreck.

Robert Kraft celebrating the New England Patriots' Super Bowl victory, February 5, 2019.Credit: AFP

For the last two years, the Jerusalem prize ceremony was canceled by its recipient: In 2017, Indian-Jewish artist Anish Kapoor decided the Syrian refugee crisis made the lavish event inappropriate and called it off. Then, last year, actress Natalie Portman triggered an embarrassing media firestorm by pulling out of the event where she was supposed to be honored.

Finally, this year, after the Genesis Prize chose a “safe” honoree with close ties to Netanyahu and a track record of supporting Israel through thick and thin, disaster struck again. The “Jewish Nobel” honoree-to-be, New England Patriots owner and businessman Robert Kraft, was arrested in February and charged with solicitation as part of a prostitution bust in a Florida massage parlor.

Given that history, the task of identifying a scandal-free Diaspora Jewish celebrity willing to show up in Israel and be honored without any accompanying political messes or scandals has become a major challenge.

Alan Dershowitz with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2010.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Think of some of the candidates under consideration to light a torch in 2018: Streisand, like most liberal Jews of her ilk, would surely have had Portman-like problems with Israeli policies and would be all-too-likely to speak up about them. First daughter and White House aide Ivanka Trump, if she agreed to come, would bring along the black cloud of the Mueller probe and congressional investigations. And choosing to honor Dershowitz for his vocal defense of Israel (and Netanyahu) would carry with it questions about the high-profile criminals he has defended — most recently, accused pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

Navigating such a minefield is an unenviable task for any Israeli politician.

So while choosing to eliminate the task of finding a worthy torch-lighter this year is likely a self-serving move for Regev during a campaign (one in which she’s made clear she has no desire to return to her current ministerial job), her successor in the ministry should probably thank her for relieving them of that burden as well.