Earlier this month, for the first time in three years, the Knesset held a "Diaspora Day," under the direction of Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevitch (Kahol Lavan).
It was a joke, of course. A sad joke.
There’s nothing personal here. I don’t know Minister Yankelevitch, and it may be that she is a sincere person with the best of intentions.
According to press reports, her agenda was to give world Jewry a voice in the deliberations of Israel’s government. To accomplish this, discussions were held, in person and virtually, with representatives of Jewish communities across the globe. All of this sounds admirable. Who could possibly oppose it?
But the problem is that no one was paying attention – not Israelis, not American Jews, and not Jewish communities anywhere else. With a minuscule number of exceptions, the Jewish world was unaware that "Diaspora Day" was even happening, and had they known, they would not have cared.
The grim reality is that relations between world Jewry and Israel are, at the moment, in a state of disorder and disrepair, and this is especially true with American Jewry. And symbolic gestures, even well-intentioned, are not going to help.
Does this mean that American Jews are indifferent to Israel? Fortunately, it does not.
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The great majority of Jews in the world identify with Israel’s destiny, and wish to advance its welfare. Most are applauding the diplomatic normalization between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors. And most worry about the threat Iran poses to Israel and the region even if there’s little consensus about what must be done.
But it does mean that when American Jews look at Israel’s government, they see very little of the care and concern for world Jewry of which Minister Yankelevitch speaks, and that "Diaspora Day" was intended to reflect. To know what shapes American Jewish thinking on Israel today, consider the following:
• Bibi Netanyahu cares not a whit about the opinions or sensitivities of Diaspora Jews. Whatever the issue – conversion, prayer at the Western Wall, recognition of non-Orthodox streams, maintaining Israel’s democracy – he and Likud have remained resolutely indifferent to what Jews of the world think about his government’s policies.
Bibi was once admired by American Jews, and even by adversaries in the center and on the left. After all, he could be both suave statesman and practiced politician. But they grew weary of him.
American Jews have fond recollections of Golda, Peres and Rabin – and yes, of Begin and Sharon. They all cared about the Jewish people and cultivated broad Diaspora support. But Bibi prefers to cultivate billionaires and evangelicals. He could have been, like some of his predecessors, the father-figure of the Jewish nation-state and the leader of the Jewish people. Instead, corrupt and cunning, he has divided Jews rather than united them.
• Israeli leaders, and Israelis in general, almost always know nothing about American Jewry.
They do not know the community’s history, demography or organizational structure. They do not understand the complicated nature of American Jewish religious life. Not surprisingly, while they sometimes offend American Jews out of indifference, often they do it out of pure ignorance. American Jews have an imperfect system of Jewish education, to say the least.
Nonetheless, American Jews have learned more about Israel than Israelis have learned about them; committed and involved American Jews are aware of this and are deeply troubled by it.
• Israel’s government seems to go out of its way to trample on treasured principles that unite the Jewish people and define Jewish civilization.
The best example is the nomination of Effi Eitam to be chairman of Yad Vashem.
For those unaware of the controversy, Eitam is a retired Israel Defense Forces general and government minister. During the first intifada, soldiers under his command beat to death a bound Palestinian prisoner and testified at their trial that they were following orders. Eitam was severely reprimanded by the army chief of staff. As a minister, he gave speeches calling for the expulsion of West Bank Arabs and for excluding Arab citizens of Israel from the country’s political system.
Protests against Eitam’s appointment have poured in from Holocaust survivors and their descendants, and from researchers and scholars who study the Shoah. And it is appropriate that they should be the first to have their say.
But in fact, proposing Eitam to run Yad Vashem is not simply an issue for survivors and scholars, but for Jews everywhere. After all, 73 percent of American Jews say remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. And as they have become aware of what Bibi and his cohorts intend to do with Eitam, they have responded with cries of shock and revulsion.
The questions pour out: How can a hatemonger be in charge of memorializing the six million? How can a racist be given the sacred task of guiding Yad Vashem? How can a perpetrator of unlawful violence against Palestinians be made responsible for study and research on the Holocaust? How can this nomination be seen as anything other than a profound affront to the memories of the victims?
And finally: What kind of a people do Netanyahu and his government think that we are? Do they really believe that the Jews of the world will sit in silence as they trifle with the searing, unique evil of the Holocaust? Do they think that we will say nothing as they deal a grievous blow to Jewish decency and Jewish ethics, not to mention Zionist principles?
• The heartland of American Jewry is the synagogue, and the key to the synagogue is in the hands of the rabbi. And for three-quarters of affiliated American Jews, the synagogue they belong to is Reform or Conservative.
What that means is that if Minister Yankelevitch is serious about an "ongoing conversation" with the Diaspora and giving world Jewry a "space to be heard and celebrated," she will need to deal openly with America’s Reform and Conservative rabbis.
No more games, please. If Yankelevitch wants a "Diaspora Day" that will make a difference, let her do the things that would be necessary to make it meaningful.
Let her propose the creation of a curriculum on American Jewry and world Jewry to be taught in Israeli schools. Historian Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University has recently proposed such a curriculum. Let Prof. Sarna and a diverse group of other Diaspora authorities, including religious scholars from across the religious spectrum, be the primary authors of the curriculum. And then make the use of this mandatory in all of Israel’s schools, including the state-religious system.
Let the next "Diaspora Day" include presentations to the entire Knesset by rabbis from all Jewish religious streams. Let these rabbis describe Diaspora realities as they see them, and let them discuss the critical questions about Israel and Zionism that concern them and the Jews that they serve: How does the Jewish world bring Jews to Torah? Does Israel have a Jewish soul, or is everything defined by coalition politics?
Does Israel belong only to the Orthodox establishment? How should Israel support and recognize all Jews, including Reform and Conservative Jews? Will Israel have a constitution one day that will separate synagogue from state? How does Israel start down the path to peace with the Palestinians?
If these questions cannot be asked, then "Diaspora Days" are a waste of time; these are the questions that Diaspora Jews and their rabbis care about every day.
Let Yankelevitch inform the prime minister that, contrary to his inclinations, he must take the lead in connecting Israel to world Jewry; withdraw the nomination of Eitam, and think also in terms of the spiritual impact of his appointments; and recognize that he has a constituency that votes, and a Diaspora constituency that does not vote but that needs Israel nonetheless, and that his task is to nurture the Jewish people, whether he wants to or not.
Are these things likely to happen? They are not, given the makeup of Israel’s government. Still, at the least, let us make these issues the agenda, and let us wait for a premier and a government that will understand the urgency of these matters.
In the meantime, let us put an end to illusions. Meaningless ceremonies will get us nowhere. But Israeli Jews, take note: Jews of the world still need the mystery of peoplehood and a Jewish ideology that lives in their soul. And Israel, embracing all Jews, must do its share to provide them.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie