Opinion |

Israel Needs Diaspora Jewry, Not Their Money

The crisis over the Western Wall and conversions should worry Israelis, not because of the financial impact but because of Zionism’s raison d’etre

David Rosenberg
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 American and Israeli flags are seen during a dress rehearsal of the arrival ceremony which will be held to welcome U.S. President Donald Trump upon his arrival, at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, Israel May 21, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
U.S. and Israeli flagsCredit: Amir Cohen, Reuters
David Rosenberg

In the heat of this week’s dispute over conversion, and Israel's withdrawal from plans to create an egalitarian prayer site at the Western Wall, this was said about American Jews: “They sit in the U.S., and they interfere with what is going on here. They don’t have enough votes for even one Knesset seat and they tell us what to do by going to the High Court.”

Since United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni was brutal and direct about the Israel-Diaspora relationship, let’s be equally brutal and direct about the Israel-Haredi relationship.

To paraphrase Gafni, “They sit in Bnai Brak and Geula and they interfere with what is going on in the rest of Israel. They have enough votes in the Knesset to blackmail the government and tell us what to do, but they aren’t a part of Israel – they don’t serve in the army, don’t work and pay taxes, and they want to have as little as possible to do with other Israelis.”

And, I might add, that they have little love of the democratic system, except when it serves their purposes. They also have little love for the Jewish State, except as a big sponge to be squeezed without so much as saying thank you.

But since we’re being so frank about the Haredim, why not be equally frank about Diaspora Jews and the State of Israel?

Who needs them?

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing this week about the irreparable damage to the relationship, for good reason. Even before the latest crisis, Israel’s crackdown on civil society, the wars every few years and the occupation itself alienated a lot of American Jews, at least the non-Orthodox ones.

Israeli is a democratic and egalitarian by every reasonable standard, more so than decades ago. But American Jews prefer Israel to be beleaguered and struggling and need of their support, and the fact is, that’s no longer  the case, certainly not in terms of money.

Michael Oren, the former U.S. ambassador and member of the Kulanu party, this week cited a study by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, which showed that Jews living abroad contributed 58 billion shekels ($16.6 billion) to the Israeli economy annually in recent years.

That amounts to more than 6% of GDP. Only a fraction of that is charitable giving. The rest of the 58 billion is investments, spending by tourists, buying homes and the like.

Oren warned about jobs that could be at stake, if the flow is stanched. And indeed, the money involved sounds like a lot. But the estimate is not very relevant. Only 8 billion of that are charitable contributions by American Jews, of which a lot of that comes from Orthodox Jews and that money isn’t threatened by the Kotel controversy. 

Much of the tourism to Israel is also Orthodox Jews. For Israel’s overheated housing market, it would be better if Diaspora Jews stayed in hotels while their visiting rather than buying second homes. In other words, nothing close to 58 billion shekels is at risk.

As for business investment, there was certainly a time when Diaspora Jews were critical. Pinhas Sapir, the legendary 1960s-era finance minister, built the textile industry with help from overseas Jews. Twenty years later, American Jewish investment bankers and investors were critical in getting the Israel tech sector going. And, of course, there is Israel Bonds.

Not because they should, because they can

But Israeli business doesn't need "Jewish generosity" any more. Tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment flow into Israel each year  from multinational corporations. The government can tap the global bond market on favorable terms.

As for the Jews that invest in Israel, they may be influenced by sentiment, but they are mainly doing it for same reason Chinese do it: Because they see a lucrative opportunity.

There are a lot of institutions that rely on the Diaspora largesse – the universities, Hadassah Medical Center and (by the way, Moshe) a lot of yeshivot and Haredi charities. But except for the Haredi charities, which wouldn’t be able to muster the financial resources from inside their own communities, Israel could be footing the bill. By global standards Israel is a wealthy country, and our defense burden is big, but nothing like it was in the past.

Certainly the loss of American charity could be made up by, for instance, cutting stipends for adult Haredim in full-time study and pushing them into the workforce, where they could be contributing to the economy rather than taking from it. But I’m sure that when Gafni meant American Jews should butt out, he was referring to their opinions, not their checkbooks.

That still leaves two good reasons to be worried about this week’s developments. The first is that Israel still needs American Jews’ political support in Washington and the second is that distancing Israel from Diaspora Jewry would strike at the heart of the Zionist enterprise.

We aren’t the Israeli state but the Jewish state, which doesn’t simply mean a place mostly populated by Jews or a place of refuge for our most desperate coreligionists. Israel is and should be at the center of the Jewish world – the heart of Jewish religious and cultural life and (ideally) a source of inspiration for those who live elsewhere.

Even if we don’t need Diaspora Jews to buy a vacation apartment here, we want it to be their second home. That means making Israel a welcoming place for all Jews. By turning Judaism’s most important center of worship into a monopoly of one extremist faction, we have failed.

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