Wisdom, it’s been said, is the ability to distinguish between what we may be able to change and what we cannot change. When it comes to understanding Israel-Diaspora relations, this approach may be useful.
Diaspora and Israeli Jews are struggling with what they can and cannot change in each other. The dissimilarities are indeed considerable: Israeli and Diaspora Jews have different ways of life and different Jewish experiences. And of course, their immediate existential interests are strikingly different. When Israeli Jews talk about “religious freedom,” they mostly think about public transit on Saturdays, government funding of yeshivas and instituting civil marriage, whereas for Diaspora Jews, it can refer to issues like equal access to the Western Wall and
recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.
The different perspectives of Israeli and Diaspora Jews are not limited to religious issues. Many North American Jews, for example, have serious concerns about the Israeli government’s perceived support of U.S. President Donald Trump and its inability to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
With such significant differences on fundamental issues, it is not surprising that the two communities fail to understand each other. But despite acknowledging that the differences are significant, I believe there are potential benefits to an honest dialogue that is respectful of the sovereignty and unique challenges of each community. To succeed in such dialogue, however, both communities first need to recognize the realities – what they can and can’t change in each other.
Consider that the biggest challenge facing Diaspora Jewry at present, as evidenced by the growing rate of intermarriage, is how to sustain Jewish identity. Indeed, close to a third of millennial Jews state that they have no religion. Israel could very well act as a beacon of hope for Diaspora Jews by transforming into a truly diverse religious and cultural centre. The current Israeli government may make common cause with extreme Orthodox political parties, but surveys show that Israeli society is becoming more open to Jewish pluralism.
On the flip side, while Israelis may be generally agreeable to include Diaspora Jews in the discourse around Jewish affairs in Israel (as long as it is done in a manner that respects their right to chart their own course), they do not appreciate pressure from Diaspora Jews intended to change government policy. World Jewry needs to come to terms with what is realistic and morally acceptable to demand from Israel. This might mean that getting involved in Israeli geopolitical affairs should be avoided.
In order to sustain Jewish life in the Diaspora, Jewish leaders and organizations need to prioritize the revival of Jewish identity, pride, engagement and commitment among millennial Jews. This can be achieved by focussing on Israel, and its unique Jewish-Israeli culture, as a much-needed source of inspiration. Instead of simply sending money to Israel, Diaspora Jews need to invest in Jewish education at home and participate in the Israeli discourse through respectful engagement, to promote mutual understanding and empathy. This can be achieved through volunteering, working, studying and teaching in Israel, as well as through the multitude of joint projects between Israel and the Diaspora.
The development of a stronger Jewish identity among Diaspora Jews will make Israelis more willing to listen. It may even help Diaspora communities be more effective in nudging Israelis to learn and understand more about the pluralistic, diverse Jewish life outside of Israel. That, after all, is the key to the long-term health of Jewish Diaspora communities.
In the words of Isaac Herzog, the current chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel: “These are two different communities, but we must honour our brotherhood as Jews by understanding that there’s a dialogue amid differences.”