Two of the three organizations that will lead a Diaspora Affairs Ministry project to strengthen “Jewish identity and the connection to Israel” among Jewish university students abroad are Orthodox. This decision by the ministry is unacceptable. It suggests that such groups receive preference in leading generously funded government projects, particularly ones involving education and Jewish identity. This practice is now being exported, and at a time when Orthodox Jews are far from the majority in Israel or abroad. The connection between Israel and the Diaspora is too important and too complex to give priority in this area to Orthodox groups.
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The project, which the Diaspora Affairs Ministry announced this week, is to be launched in the coming academic year at hundreds of universities around the world, as reported by Or Kashti and Barak Ravid in Haaretz yesterday. It is planned as the first phase in a broader program of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, headed by Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, aimed at reinforcing the relationship between Israel and Jews abroad.
The program’s budget is estimated at 250 million shekels ($66.1 million); one-third of this amount, approximately 80 million shekels, is to come from the state.
The organizations, which were selected by a company that was established by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, are Hillel, Chabad and Olami. The latter two groups are identified with an Orthodox approach. In the past, Orthodox groups have refrained from cooperating with other branches of Judaism in Diaspora-related activities. Olami, the least-familiar of the three, is an umbrella organization for a network of groups that work to strengthen Jewish identity. In the United States, Olami works with Aish HaTorah, which is similar to Chabad in its goals and methods.
According to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s statement, the program includes meetings on “Jewish values.” Such activities must be pluralistic and express the variety of Judaism’s branches and worldviews. It is also to be hoped that these activities will not be restricted to students who are deemed Jewish according to Jewish law, but rather that they reach as broad as possible an audience. The ministry does not need to “educate” Diaspora Jews and direct the activity toward a certain religious stream. There is no need to export the Israeli distortion.
Another aspect of the project is “activity for Israel.” This is quite a broad definition over which there is sometimes debate, but to Bennett this is “the real answer to growing anti-Semitism and delegitimization of Israel on campuses.” But what Bennett, like the rest of his colleagues in the government, refuses to understand is that opposition to Israel does not usually stem from anti-Semitism or public relations problems. It comes from Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians — the occupation and building in settlements. That is damage that no campaign or public diplomacy initiative can repair.