Stop Trying to Tell Diaspora Jews How to Feel About Judaism and Israel

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A screenshot from a video by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.
A screenshot from a video by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.Credit: Diaspora Affairs Ministry video.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett harshly criticized on Wednesday a recent Haaretz column by Rogel Alpher. 

In his piece, Alpher disparages a new campaign by Bennett’s ministry to “strengthen the ties between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, and between Israelis and their brothers in the Diaspora.”

He aims his barbs at Renee, an enthusiastic hip young blonde Zionist Brazilian Jew featured in the ministry’s ad, chiding and dismissing her: “Renee, don’t take this hard, but my shared future is with Israelis of Muslim and Jewish origin. And your shared destiny is with Brazilian Catholics, just as the shared future of French Catholics is with French Muslims, not Brazilian Catholics. It was nice meeting you, Renee. Bye.”

Bennett’s outraged reaction to Alpher’s ridicule of poor Renee doesn’t exactly come as a shock. No one would expect the Habayit Hayehudi party leader to embrace Alpher’s point of view when he scoffs at synagogue-going, mezuzah-kissing, and Israeli flag-waving.

But you don’t have to be right-wing or religious like Bennett to reject such a condescending dismissal of a Diaspora Jew’s attachment to her Jewish religion, identity or to Israel. The fact that the video she stars in is indeed rather irritating doesn’t give Alpher a right to lecture Renee that she should view her “shared destiny” as being linked to fellow Brazilians and not fellow Jews, any more than Renee has a right to order Alpher to start waving flags or attending synagogue.

Whether Alpher likes it or not, Renee, along with many, if not most, Diaspora Jews feel Jewish and connected to Israel. 

This connection causes them both to disproportionately lobby on behalf of Israeli government policies and to disproportionately criticize Israel’s leaders when the Jewish state behaves in a way that does not express their values and reflects badly on them. 

Efforts to nurture these ties and bring the Diaspora closer to Israel as well as “familiarize the Israeli public with the everyday life of Jews in the Diaspora and their ties to Israel” do, in fact, hold value for both sides. And if Bennett’s ministry’s proud boasting in its new campaign that “The Diaspora Ministry is acting to strengthen the relationship with the Jewish community around the world through dozens of projects,” were, indeed, true - it would be praiseworthy. 

Unfortunately, the problem is that there is little evidence to back up that assertion. On the contrary, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry has, instead, alienated large segments of Diaspora Jewish leaders by sabotaging an initiative that might have strengthened their connection to Israel.

In 2014, it was this ministry that destroyed all momentum towards what was meant to be the biggest Israel-Diaspora cooperative project since Birthright. The World Jewry Initiative, conceived by the Jewish Agency, and developed in partnership with the Prime Minister’s Office, was supposed to be a plan through which the State of Israel would invest in projects aimed at strengthening Jewish identity abroad, with a special focus on teens and college-age students. 

It was approved by the cabinet, and government funding was put in place, to be matched by overseas philanthropists. Before it could be implemented, however, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry objected to key elements of the plan, stalling it, and subjecting it to a turf war that led to it being subsumed into the ministry and causing the Jewish Agency to formally withdraw from its own initiative. 

The bad blood between Bennett’s ministry and organized US Diaspora Jewry included charges of politicization and cronyism

A total freeze in relations between the Jewish Agency and the ministry continues to this day, said an official with knowledge of the dispute. Bennett’s ministry, in the official’s view, essentially “removed the Diaspora from the equation, changing the initiative beyond recognition. There was no longer anything ‘joint’ about it.” This killed what he said had been a “vision of Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, and secular Jews from around the world sitting together with Israelis from across the political spectrum ... to create a relationship predicated on full and equal partnership between the government of Israel and Diaspora Jewry.”

What replaced it? Evidence of the “dozens of projects” the Diaspora Affairs Ministry boasts of in its new campaign is elusive. A new ministry website mentions only five. The single existing organization receiving significant funding and attention from the ministry is the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, an American organization with an Orthodox orientation which has been criticized as using missionary methods and whose founder and director is affiliated with the outreach Orthodox organization Aish Hatorah.

The narrow ideological and politically influenced policies of Bennett’s ministry are ultimately as condescending and limiting to Diaspora Jews as Alpher’s views - and doomed to failure. 

The initiative might have been a valuable tool to bring all sides together. Anger and frustration have grown among Reform, Conservative and modern Orthodox Diaspora Jewry over a range of disputes including the battle over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall -  with the accompanying “hate speech” from ultra-Orthodox members of the government coalition -  the use of government ritual baths and the lack of Israeli recognition of conversions performed by some U.S. rabbis. The festering wounds between Israel and the Diaspora must be addressed and healed. Neither Israelis on the secular left like Alpher nor the religious right like Bennett help do so when they dictate to Diaspora Jews what their relationship to their religion or to Israel should be.

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