'Jewish Illiteracy' Is the Biggest Threat to Diaspora Jews, U.S. Ambassador Friedman Says

Speaking at Haaretz's Judaism Conference, Trump's ambassador to Israel says lack of 'fluency' in Judaism is the 'greatest threat of all' ■ Isaac Herzog says Jewish Agency has handed out $6M in loans to Jewish communities, says 'no doubt' coronavirus will lead to aliyah uptick ■ Watch

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U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman addresses Haaretz's Judaism, Israel and Diaspora conference held virtually on Wednesday, May 27 2020
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman addresses Haaretz's Judaism, Israel and Diaspora conference held virtually on Wednesday, May 27 2020Credit: American Embassy/Screenshot
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman believes that too many Diaspora Jews are “illiterate" about Judaism, which he says is the “greatest threat of all” to the continuity of Jewish life outside of Israel. The ambassador made the comment during Haaretz’s Judaism, Israel and Diaspora conference held virtually on Wednesday.

“The Jewish state, while not without issues, is growing: both religious and secular institutions are thriving, basic Jewish education is available to all and there is little risk of assimilation,” he said. “The same cannot be said for the Diaspora,” Friedman said at the conference, which took place in partnership with the Jewish Agency, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Ruderman Family Foundation 

Jewish life and lessons during Covid-19: David M. Friedman, United States Ambassador to Israel

The state of the Jewish community outside of Israel, the ambassador said, was "not good."

WATCH: Haaretz’s Judaism, Israel and Diaspora Conference

Friedman voiced demographic concerns, saying that “the world population is growing eight to ten times faster than the world's Jewish community.” He noted that, “as we have now all become experts from the coronavirus in the concepts of exponential growth and exponential reduction, I don't need to tell you where this trend is leading.”

Jewish continuity, he said, depends primarily not on unity of agreements, but on being “fluent in Judaism," which is achieved through a deep understanding of “our past, our heritage and our legacy.”  

Click here for the full Judaism conference schedule

Friedman praised the diversity of the Jewish community, which he said grows through "conflicting views." The problem, he said, was that "we lose ground through one primary factor: Jewish illiteracy… How many of us are fluent in Judaism?" he asked.

“How many Jews especially in the diaspora are studying these fascinating and critical issues? Clearly not enough,” Friedman said. “It is an imperative for the future of the Jewish people, especially outside the state of Israel.”

“Regardless of how we believe or worship or observe our Judaism, what makes that practice uniquely Jewish and likely to continue and grow is our ability to place ourselves on an unbroken chain beginning in ancient times, that remains not just relevant – but even more critical today than ever before, as we struggle to find meaning in a complicated world,” the ambassador added.

According to Friedman, even living by Jewish values of “doing things that are morally just or helpful to others” adds “nothing” to one’s fluency. 

“Let’s face it: Jews do not have a monopoly on acts of kindness, charity or social justice,” he said. “We all know many non-Jews who are as fine and admirable people as one could be.”

Friedman, who said he has done a lot of reading on Jewish history during quarantine, called on Jews around the world to “dedicate ourselves to recharging around Jewish education and sharing our learning with many, many, many others.”

State of emergency 

Haaretz's second Judaism, Israel and Diaspora conference was held online Wednesday, broadcast from Haaretz’s newsroom studio in Tel Aviv. It was opened by President Reuven Rivlin and coincides with the eve of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. The conference’s theme is “from Tikkun Shavuot to Tikkun Olam.”

In his opening remarks, Rivlin said that keeping state of emergency policies in place as Israel slowly returns to the normalcy lost over the coronavirus crisis would be dangerous. 

“Israeli society excels at contending with states of emergency: It rises to the occasion, comes to grips, takes part,” he said. “But, overtime, as our routine life is restored, a policy of a state of emergency is dangerous.”

The strick regulations needed during a time of emergency, Rivlin continued, “cannot come in the stead of the laws we achieve through orderly democratic debate.” According to the president, “True social strength cannot rely on a constant sense of transience, of doubt, of threat. When the day comes, we will have to again ask ourselves how we can live here together, how to resume, and to repair.”

Aliyah and crisis 

The Jewish Agency for Israel has distributed up to six million dollars in loans to Jewish communities across the globe that were economically impacted by the coronavirus crisis, the Jewish organization's chairman Isaac Herzog said at the conference. 

Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Jewish Agency, in conversation with Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn as part of Haaretz's Judaism, Israel and Diaspora conference on Wednesday, May 27 2020Credit: Screen capture

As the coronavirus crisis has affected many Jewish communities across the globe, and the situation being comparably better in Israel, Herzog also said “there is no doubt” that the Jewish Agency will soon see a “big wave of Aliyah”. 

The Jewish Agency, along with the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod established the COVID-19 Loan Fund for Communities in Crisis in late April as a response to calls for financial aid from cash-strapped Jewish communities in hard-hit countries like Italy and France, but also from South Africa and communities in South America.

According to Herzog, many Jewish communities have been under “terrible stress” as they struggled to make up the lost income while scrambling to cover new expenses, ranging from sustaining social programs to helping members in need, and even security. 

“In light of the lessons we learned from different communities, we came to the conclusion that we need to provide a global tool to support communities and we established a very convenient loans fund for Jewish communities,” he said. 

Regarding the expected "big wave of Aliyah", Herzog said, “We are talking about a lot of potential new olim who have academic degrees and important skills that will for sure contribute to Israeli society.”

According to Herzog, during the coronavirus crisis, some 1,200 new immigrants relocated to Israel from 15 countries from North America and Europe. All new immigrants had to go into a 14 day quarantine, per the Health Ministry’s directives. None of them were sick with COVID-19, Herzog said. 

“We believe in allowing each Jewish person to practice their faith and live their life without fear or discrimination as they see fit, wherever they are in the world,” Herzog said. “In every place you are entitled to life free from anxiety, whether you make aliyah or not, but in addition to that, of course we would be happy to see you in Israel, as part of Israeli society.”

Connecting Israelis and the Diaspora

Israel’s new Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Omer Yankelevich, made her first appearance since being appointed to the post at the conference.

She announced her ministry is launching a “Jewish solidarity campaign” to help connect between Israelis and their “brothers and sisters overseas” in the coming days.

“Polls show a positive sentiment between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, but often this is all it amounts to,” Yankelevich, who is also Israel’ first Haredi minister said. “There's no deep knowledge and understanding of Jewish life in the Diaspora and what challenges Jews not living in Israel face.”

With the Campaign, the ministry aims to “get Israelis to feel a genuine sense of caring and interest in their brothers and sisters overseas” and “convey the feeling that no Jews anywhere in the world is alone.” 

Yankelevich said she considers this one of the Ministry’s most important roles.

“This pandemic is a crisis and a challenge to connect Israelis to Jews,” she said. “It's not just a sentimental issue, it's a huge power multiplier for the Jewish people.

She added that: “when united and connected, their dispersion can become a power advantage instead of a disadvantage.”

You can find the full schedule of the conference here

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