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Friday, November 30, 2007

Report on Israel-Diaspora relations sink to new low

Is Sheffer part of the problem, or part of the solution? He wants to create a super-ministry that will allow Diaspora Jews to control our lives here in Israel.
"The organization will have a charter that will define its mandate. Anything security related will not be included. But the council will have clout over education, finance, development. You name it."
We do not tell our relatives in America where and how to educate their children, and we do not want them telling us what to do either.
Ami Isseroff
Last update - 11:13 30/11/2007

 Report: Israel-Diaspora relations sink to new low 
By Cnaan Liphshiz 

Despite appearances to the contrary, Israel's relationship with Jewish communities abroad has in fact reached an all-time low, a policy paper finds.

The conclusion comes from the paper by a group of researchers from the Van Leer Institute, an advanced studies center in Jerusalem. The group proposes some urgent and unorthodox solutions before the issue becomes a major rift.

In their paper, which was published earlier this month, the researchers propose three alternatives aimed at giving Diaspora Jews more control over what's going on in Israel in an attempt to salvage the relationship.
A new approach

"The many institutions and organizations entrusted with keeping this bond alive suffer from an acute case of Israelo-centricity," said the man who assembled the team, Professor Gabriel Sheffer from the Hebrew University's political science department. Sheffer said the Jewish Agency and Minister Isaac Herzog's newly formed Ministry for Diaspora Affairs are relics of an antiquated world that need to be replaced.

"These organizations encourage immigration to Israel and advocate keeping Israel stronger. But Jews abroad are losing interest in Israel, so that's exactly the wrong strategy," Sheffer told Anglo File with regard to drumming up support overseas. "We need to appeal to the Diaspora on a common Jewish platform and give them more control to rekindle their interest."

Sheffer concedes that the leaders of many Jewish communities, especially in the U.S., are at present very committed to Israel. But it's the future that worries him. "It's the old guard's children and grandchildren that Israel needs to win over," he said.

In reaction to the policy paper, Herzog's office told Anglo File that the minister "is open to any original idea that can help bolster the bond with the Diaspora." Herzog added: "I see the Diaspora as a central and crucial element in Israel's character. We need to remain very attentive to shifts and changes in Jewish communities abroad."

But so far, Israel has failed to do that, according to a number of polls mentioned in the policy paper. A Jewish Agency poll from 2002 which surveyed Jews in the U.S., for example, shows only 31 percent of respondents as saying they feel "very connected to Israel."

The team also points to an apparent change in the charity habits of Diaspora Jews when giving to Jewish groups. "Only 25 percent of all donations reach Israel, compared with 75 percent a couple of decades ago," Sheffer said. "It's not uncommon to hear Jews saying they would simply not care if Israel suffered a major catastrophe."

The first step to reversing that, Sheffer said, is to admit that Israel is not the definitive center of the Jewish People, as it has always presumed to be. Moreover, Sheffer says that even Israel's alleged status as the only Jewish safe haven in the world has been severely undermined.

"When tens of thousands of South African Jews emigrated after the fall of apartheid, most preferred Australia or Canada to Israel," Sheffer said. "And when the Argentina economy collapsed, most of the Jews who left headed for Spain and North America."

Sharing power

Some of the nine researchers who contributed to the paper said they believe that in order to solicit more involvement from the Diaspora, the state should pass a law - possibly a basic law - to cement Israel's ties with Jewish communities abroad.

Shmuel Shenhar, one of the paper's coauthors and former deputy chief of Nativ, the semi-covert governmental organization for encouraging immigration, advocates forming a new state authority headed by six Israeli representatives and six representatives from the Diaspora. That body, which would be sponsored by the state, would completely replace the Jewish Agency and other organizations.

Funding for Shenhar's new group - which would have a council of about 200 people - would come from Israel and the Diaspora. "If the Diaspora would feel that it is let in on crucial decisions and that its voice is heard here, then it will produce massive funding. I'm thinking about a budget of $4 billion," Shenhar told Anglo File.

But despite his desire to give Diaspora Jews more power at the helm, Shenhar - who used to be the absorption ministry's deputy director - is not prepared to allow them to openly influence security matters.

The question of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, for example, would not come up for discussion in Shenhar's theoretical council. "The organization will have a charter that will define its mandate. Anything security related will not be included. But the council will have clout over education, finance, development. You name it."

The heart of the problem

The growing indifference to Israel's fate on the part of Diaspora Jews stems, according to the paper, from globalization, assimilation, slow population growth and secularization. The absence of state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the West also seems connected.

But another crucial reason for the weakening bond is indifference in Israel to the fate of Jews abroad, the paper says. As evidence, the paper points to an opinion poll from 2001 in which only 48 percent of Israeli respondents said they felt they "belong to the Jewish people at large." Less than 30 years earlier, the figure was 66 percent.

"The solution to this indifference lies in education. Also abroad, but first of all here, in Israel," Sheffer said. "We need to teach our kids about the Diaspora. Most high-school students don't care about the Diaspora. No wonder then that their Jewish contemporaries abroad have little concern for Israel."

Both Sheffer and Shenhar say they are aware that focus on Israel's identity as a Jewish state, first and foremost, would likely invite more criticism from abroad in light of the country's commitments to its Arab minority. According to Sheffer, this shouldn't rule out the tactic.

"I don't know about you, but I wouldn't care much about that," Shenhar said.

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