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Friday, August 29, 2014

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Israel, Diaspora: ties that bind

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Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky

Israel is known as the home of the Jewish People, but to what extent do Israelis concern themselves about Jews living outside their country?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

A recent poll of 500 Israelis commissioned by the Jewish Agency found high levels of concern for Diaspora Jewry, with 76 reporting that they believe Israelis and Diaspora Jews are mutually responsible for each other.

The poll, conducted by the Dahaf Institute, also found that 91 per cent of Israelis believe the country should assist Jewish communities during crises, and 81 per cent believe Jews in Israel and abroad feel they are all part of a single people. Eighty-nine per cent agree that the relationship between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora contributes to the Jewish People’s continued existence.

The findings vindicate the view that “Israelis are part of the Jewish world and that Israel is the state of the Jewish People,” said Shoel Silver, a member of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s executive and chair of its budget and finance committee. “It endorses the view we had that the Jewish Agency tries to be the bridge between the Diaspora and Israel that goes in both directions.”

In Israel, politicians and Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky pointed to last week’s terrorist attack in France as reinforcing the view that Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are connected.

“Jewish children were attacked in Toulouse solely because they and their parents sought to maintain their connection with Jewish tradition and the Jewish state,” Sharansky said. “The enemies of the State of Israel and of the Jewish People are one and the same.”

According to the Jewish Agency, the poll was conducted to ascertain the ties between Israeli and global Jewish communities and to determine the significance of those ties to Jewish unity. Its release coincided with the launch of the Jewish World Caucus, a group of 40 members of the Israeli Knesset.

The caucus “will strive to strengthen ties between the Jewish Diaspora and Israel through legislation and the increased dialogue on the subject of Diaspora-Israeli relations,” the Jewish Agency said in a news release.

“A particular emphasis will be placed on deepening the bonds between young Jews abroad and in Israel, such as the connections engendered by programs including Birthright Israel and the Jewish Agency’s Masa initiative” in which Diaspora Jews volunteer in Israel, study at Israeli institutions or experience professional internships. Some 10,000 Jews from around the world take part in Masa each year.

Silver suggested creation of the caucus should sensitize Israeli parliamentarians to the impact Israeli legislation has outside the country.

“Some of the policies… have to be looked at not just as Israeli issues, but issues that Jews care about,” Silver said.

The poll supports the Jewish Agency view that ties between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews benefits both, Silver said.

“The programs we are trying to carry out, with the support of local federations, [such as] sending camp or campus mentors from Israel, or teachers as shlichim, or other programs that bring Jews to Israel, are intended to cement the relations between Jews here and Jews there. If anything, the poll substantiates that,” Silver stated.

Aviva Zeltzer-Zubida, director of research, evaluation and measurement for the Jewish Agency, said the poll shows that Israelis “deeply value the Jewish family.”

“There is a strong bond, a connection and commitment,” between Israelis and other Jews, she said.

Zeltzer-Zubida said the Jewish Agency is running a pilot program aimed at building on the success of trips such as Birthright, which brings young Jews to Israel for 10 days for free.

Called Onward Israel, it will see young people spend four to eight weeks in the country, leading to a more “in-depth” experience, said Zeltzer-Zubida.

Onward Israel includes academic programs, internships or volunteer service, she added.

Joshua Berkman, associate director of communications for the Jewish Agency, said the organization is expecting 100 participants from Toronto in the inaugural cohort. They will participate in internships or community service projects in Bat Yam, while those taking the academic track will study at Ben-Gurion University’s Eilat campus, he stated.

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