Israel's Turn to Ask: Do All Jews Need to Live in Israel?

A strong Diaspora is a Zionist imperative. It's time Israel caught up with the rest of the world and recognized this.

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Alissa Breiman

Last week a veritable media storm erupted surrounding an issue that at first glance may seem rather peripheral, but is perhaps one of the most significant public conversations to surface in recent times. Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s recent statements, accusing Israeli emigrants to Berlin of abandoning the Jewish state, have sparked an outbreak of media attention around the moral liability of “yerida” (emigration from Israel) and have cracked the surface of a more potent storm brewing in Israeli society – the real issue is the evolution of the Zionist ethos.

It's a conversation Jewish communities around the world have been having passionately over recent years. And Jewish life has been changed accordingly.

But now the opportunity has arrived for Israeli society to begin its discussion, however painful it may be. This conversation calls for a new understanding of Israel’s place in the Jewish world, and a more relevant view of Zionism in the 21st century.

While in the past the Jewish world was organized around classical Zionism, with state-building serving as the main project of the Jewish people, powerful trends have been changing the Jewish world. If in the past Israel was seen both internally and externally as the solution to the ills of Diaspora Jewish life, today Jews around the world are largely focused on building and strengthening their local Jewish communities.

In parallel, Jewish communities around the world have strengthened politically, socially, culturally, religiously and economically, and are even beginning to operate as a global network of communities. The resilience and strength of these Jewish Diaspora communities have proven critical to supporting the State of Israel and its security. So, if historically Israeli society viewed the Diaspora as a ticking time bomb whose sole role was to provide financial and political support to Israel, perhaps we are beginning to see the early signs of a shift in mindset: a vibrant Diaspora as a Zionist imperative.

So, if in the past, the term “diaspora” referred to non-Israeli Jewish life outside of Israel, today the Israeli Diaspora is an undeniable part of the Jewish Diaspora. With more than 500,000 (estimates are up to 1 million) Israelis living abroad, their place in this changing Jewish world landscape has created a new conversation and a new approach throughout the Jewish Diaspora. Israeli communities outside of Israel have begun to self-organize throughout the world and, similarly, local Jewish communities have been tackling the challenge of engagement and integration of their Israeli community members.

Yair Lapid’s recent statements are more reminiscent of Yitzhak Rabin’s (1976!) description of “yordim” as “nefolet shel nemushot” (a debris of weaklings) than of contemporary Jewish discourse. Lapid’s sentiments are a bold indication of the disconnect between Israeli government mindset and the emerging trends in the relationship between Israel and the Jewish world. This rhetoric continues a similar line of messaging released in a series of advertisements by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption in 2011. This campaign was met with great resistance from both Israelis and members of the wider Jewish community abroad and was largely seen as lacking relevance and denying legitimacy to Jewish and Israeli life outside of Israel. Both Lapid’s recent comments and last year’s media campaign serve as worrying signs of the growing gap between the Israeli government and the changing Jewish world.

But it is this new public discussion within Israeli society, which Lapid’s comments sparked, that represents the greatest and most unique opportunity for a shift in mindset and policy vis-à-vis the Israeli Diaspora? Israeli talkbacks, morning television programs and Facebook pages have been overflowing with the big questions – Does every Jew need to live in Israel? What does Jewish and Israeli life outside Israel look like? How can Israel keep its emigrants close, and leverage them for the good of the State of Israel and the changing Jewish world? These discussions can serve as the beginnings of a new chapter in Israel’s relations with both the Israeli and wider Jewish Diaspora.

Engaging and integrating Israelis abroad into Jewish communal life, while encouraging them to maintain an inextricable bond with the state of Israel, is critical to Israel and critical to the Jewish world at large. Within this changing Jewish world the Israeli Diaspora can no longer be treated as a moral liability, or a peripheral issue to the Diaspora or the state of Israel. The current eruption within Israeli society presents an unparalleled opportunity to shape the Israeli discourse and bring about a new era of Israel-Diaspora relations.

Alissa Breiman, an olah hadasha from Australia, led the Reut Institute's taskforce on engaging the Israeli Diaspora, with a case study in Toronto, as well as the changing relationship between Israel and the Jewish world.

Today Jews around the world are largely focused on building and strengthening their local Jewish communitiesCredit: Yuval Tebol
Immigration and Absorption Ministry campaign to return expatriate Israelis.

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