‘And thou shalt command the children of Israel, that they bring thee pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always. In the tabernacle of the congregation without the vail which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the Lord: it shall be a statute forever unto their generations on the behalf of the children of Israel.’
The ner tamid – the eternal flame in our lives, the solitary light illuminated in the Temple in Jerusalem – symbolizes the spiritual journey of the children of Israel, kept alive through the long, twisted road of Jewish history.
I fear the flame is in danger of being extinguished. Today, at the height of Jewish stability and strength, when half our people are living in Israel, and the other half living in accepting environments, the ner tamid is in serious danger. Look below the surface, and cracks are threatening our Jewish world.
The brightness of the ner tamid is inextricably tied to Jewish unity, but the partnership between Israel and the Jewish world is in danger. The State of Israel was built on the assumption it was to be a collective home for the Jewish People, not just in Israel but also for those in the Diaspora. But Israel and the Jewish world have undergone significant changes challenging that partnership (most recently, the Gaza war in summer).
Over the last few months, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has tried to decrease the gap, repeatedly declaring that Israel is the national home of the Jewish People. But do Jewish people in the Diaspora identify Israel’s polices?
The Jewish People’s greatest startup success story is in danger of losing its way (some might argue it already has). Israel is facing enormous challenges across the board, challenges that are testing Jewish heritage and values.
Every third Israeli baby is born into poverty. Every fifth pensioner in Israel dies in poverty. Religious life is monopolized by the Orthodox, affecting marriage, divorce and conversion, and hindering the recognition of Reform and Conservative streams in Israel.
As hope for peace fades, so too does the possibility of a two-state solution, and that presents a massive challenge. Israel is facing an eruption of violence between Jewish and Arab citizens, underlined in part by an acute sense of inequality between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority. For thousands of years, the Jews have been strangers in other nations’ lands. Now that the tables are turned, how will we react?
The task we now face is how to keep Israel safe, thriving and free in a way that the vast majority of Jews in the Diaspora can identify with. It is time to put the issue of an ongoing Jewish–Israeli partnership firmly on the agenda. This partnership – symbolized by the ner tamid – is essential to Israel’s future as the nation state of the Jewish people, and requires the combined efforts of the government of Israel, relevant decision-makers in the Diaspora and every single Jew in between.
Time is of the essence. The issue must be broached wherever and whenever the Jewish family meets – around the Shabbat dinner table, at the JCCs, in temple, the federations, Jewish organizations, Hillel, youth movements, NGOs, the public arena, the media, blogs. In Canada and around the Jewish world.
We have to raise the temperature of debate. And with that in mind, the Reut Institute intends to appoint a special team to analyze the complexity of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and examine how Israel might best represent central Jewish values. Our goal is to generate a series of recommendations to strengthen the link between Israel and the Jewish world. Our findings will be presented to the government of Israel and decision makers in the Diaspora.
In the meantime, the latest surveys of North American Jewry depict a general disengagement from organized Judaism as well as a lack of interest and identification with the State of Israel for many young Jews. We are faced head on with the question: Is our 3,000-year-old ner tamid withering?
Martin Ben Moreh is director of Judaism, renewed Zionism and Israeli society at the non-profit, non-partisan Reut Institute. Reut’s mission and expertise is to identify new critical gaps that affect the well-being of Israel and the Jewish People.