As originally appeared in Hebrew on April 2, 2022 in advance of Diaspora Week in Israel.
Diaspora Jewry – not just a list of donors
As Israel and international Jewish communities drift apart, now is the time for us to get to know each other and learn from each other.
Every day, students, faculty members, and workers at universities and colleges in Israel benefit from smart classrooms, fully equipped labs, wide lawns, and lots of other resources thanks to the generosity of Jews all over the world. Every day, they pass signs noting the names of those same generous individuals without even noticing. But do any of them ever stop to think about the person whose name is displayed on the sign? Who they are/were? What their Jewish story is? Why did they donate? And what their ties to Israel are?
Each year, Israeli and Diaspora Jews donate hundreds of millions of shekels to institutions of higher education in Israel. Past data from the Council for Higher Education of Israel indicates that donations totalled 800 million shekels ($250 million), approximately 8% of the budget for institutes of higher education.
The support of Jewish donors is extensive and important, but Israel's relations with Diaspora Jews go much deeper than a check in exchange for a plaque. Diaspora Jewry is one of Israel's largest strategic assets. Their contribution to academia, culture, art, science, media, and other fields is critical far beyond its monetary value.
Nevertheless, the latest index published by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry indicated that only about half of Israeli Jews feel that they share a common destiny with Diaspora Jews. The numbers also show that solidarity between Israelis and Diaspora Jews has been steadily declining. The chasm between Israel and Jews of the world – especially US Jewry, the second-biggest community in the world – is widening. Israeli youth’s familiarity with and interest in the other half of our people abroad is near zero.
Diaspora Jews are very rarely part of the public discourse, unless it's about an antisemitic attack at a synagogue , the endless dispute about the Western Wall, or the Law of Return for Ukrainian refugees– even though Israel was founded for the entire Jewish people and not just those actually living in the Land of Israel. Israel's official obligation to the Jews of the world begins with the Declaration of Independence and continues through the Nation State Law, which declares that "The state shall strive to ensure the safety of members of the Jewish People and of its citizens … [and] shall act, in the Diaspora, to preserve the ties between the State and the members of the Jewish People." But currently, this commitment is barely acted upon. The Israeli public, Israeli campuses, and the Israeli ethos are demonstrating apathy and ignorance toward our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world. Decision makers do not take their opinions into account, nor do they consider the ramifications of their decisions on Jewish life in the Diaspora.
Isn't it time for a Tikkun? Isn't it time for us to begin acting like a true national home for the Jewish people? Isn't it time to invest more in our ties with Jews in the Diaspora? To expose our youngsters to the diverse Jewish communities throughout the world? To these communities' deep commitment to Israel, both now and over the years? To the inspiring Jewish pluralism that exists abroad? Like Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told representatives of Jewish Federations in North America, "Israel must learn from US Jewry's acceptance of everyone … We won't agree with everything, but we'll talk with each other and listen to each other … In America, even if you're Haredi, Reform, Orthodox, you accept every Jew. That's something we need to import, the fact that we accept everyone. That's the dialogue we're starting."
If the only contact an Israeli student has with Jews abroad is brushing up against a sign on a wall, we have wronged that generous Jew, world Jewry, and also the student. We need to foster a deeper sense of caring about Diaspora Jews and focus on Jewish peoplehood as part of our public education, and as part of young Israelis' student experience. We need to work on strengthening ties among Jews around the world by getting to know one another, learning from one another, and increasing awareness of Jewish life both here and there.
This week, the first week of April, marks the Diaspora Affairs Ministry's Diaspora Week, which is designed to raise awareness of the importance of this relationship. This is a good start to a process of mutual learning and awareness. We need to prioritize, fund, and promote educational activities that stress our responsibility for each other and our shared fate, and sooner rather than later, before the writing comes off the sign on the wall.