VSharansky, Natan
VSharansky, Natan

Do diaspora and Israeli Jews need each other

Several years ago, when I served as minister of industry and trade, I often led delegations of businesspeople on trips abroad.

We would typically land in a foreign country — say, Brazil — spend a day or two in business and political meetings, and then, afterward, I would make it a point to spend a final afternoon visiting the local Jewish communities.

The businessmen were usually more than delighted to accompany me to meetings anywhere — from the offices of important trade ministers to an obscure factory. But I was struck that when it came to my visits to the Jewish communities, very few would exhibit a real interest to come with me. Most would use the extra day to shop, see the sights or eat at restaurants.

Natan Sharansky

Eventually, I asked some of them about this. What became clear is that they, like many other Israelis, tended to view diaspora Jewish life as something to be glimpsed at in the rear-view mirror.

It was a vestige of an antiquated past — they didn’t need to bother visiting Jewish schools where kids struggled with Hebrew. The old Portuguese synagogue is quaint, but essentially uninteresting. Why waste my time? The soccer games in the sands of Copa Cabana are so much more interesting.

The condescending attitude of my Israeli friends toward the diaspora has been mirrored, I think, in the way the diaspora itself has historically related to Israel. Jews in the West were used to seeing themselves as the strong ones, aiding Israel in its desperate hour of need.

In a strange sort of way, Israeli Jewry and diaspora Jewry had each viewed the other as if it were an unfortunate younger brother in danger of sinking into oblivion at any moment. And, truth to be told, neither attitude was entirely wrong.

Nevertheless, this paradigm has run its course and has become outdated.

Israel has become a high-tech powerhouse, and can more or less take care of itself. By the same token, the diaspora has proven that it will be around for quite a while yet; rumors of its death are much exaggerated.

So what next? Can the diaspora and Israel forge a new relationship based on something more enduring than mutual charity or patronizing beneficence toward the other? Can they share a way of looking at the future?

Let’s begin by asking: What are the emerging threats, opportunities and needs that will occupy our attention and resources for decades to come?

The most obvious answer is the existential menace to Israel coming from Arab terror and from Iran. But while that’s true, there is another existential threat, too: identity.

The great threat that faces us is mass assimilation into a homogenized, global culture.

In a world in which clerks in India answer the phone for Alamo car rental in Los Angeles, in which national borders seem to evaporate in a blur of McDonalds and Twitter messages — in that world, Israel will be under greater pressure to

 justify its existence as a Jewish state, and the Jewish people will be under greater pressure to maintain itself as a distinct entity.

If we fail to meet this challenge, we will silently disintegrate from the inside, as surely as if we had been attacked from the outside.

To confront the identity challenge, we must leave behind the old paradigm — the sense that we are isolated communities — and begin to encounter, in each other, our larger nationhood. We need each other to understand who we really are, as a people.

To that end, growing numbers of diaspora Jews, thousands and thousands of them, are starting to understand: To experience Israel — through Birthright, Masa and other Israel experience trips — is to encounter Jewish nationhood in a riveting, visceral, tangible way.

For a student used to experiencing his or her Jewishness primarily through a “prison-like” multi-year stay in afternoon Hebrew school, this is an encounter with one’s peoplehood that is at once different, refreshing and real.

Israelis, too, are starting to understand the converse: That Jewish life does not begin and end in Israel, and that encounters with diaspora Jewish life, too, can be good for the Israeli soul.

When Israelis meet Jews in the diaspora who have chosen, proactively, to remain Jewish, that’s inspiring. Moreover, Israelis need to learn about the importance of the last 2,000 years of diaspora Jewish life — to have a real sense of Jewish identity.

Diaspora and Israeli Jewry need one another. Neither of us alone is klal Yisrael; we, together, are the Jewish people.

For the last 80 years, the Jewish Agency has been a bridge between diaspora and Israeli Jewry. Working together, we have done historic things.

Now let us take the next great step: Embrace our shared land of Eretz Yisrael and our shared peoplehood of Am Yisrael so that we can teach our children about the meaning of their Jewishness and make them care passionately about Israel.

In so doing, we will maintain the vibrancy of our nationhood for centuries to come.

Natan Sharansky is chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. This piece first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.