Israels new Jewish identity campaign fuzzy on details

Its leaders call it a “historic development,” a “paradigm shift” and a “change in the relationship” between Israel and diaspora Jewry.

But when it comes to the details of the Joint Initiative of the government of Israel and world Jewry, key questions have yet to be answered, including what it will do and who will fund it.

Conceived last year as a partnership among the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency for Israel and major diaspora Jewish bodies, the initiative aims to strengthen diaspora Jewish identity and connections between Israel and Jews worldwide.

Natan Sharansky photo/jta-flash90-miriam alster

On June 1, Israel’s Cabinet voted to invest upward of $50 million on the initiative through 2017. The government intends to increase the sum to $100 million annually by 2022.

The government wants diaspora sources — federations, philanthropic foundations and individual donors — to contribute double those sums for two-thirds of the initiative’s total budget. The funding will go toward expanding existing programs for young adults and creating new ones.

“It’s a historic development that the Israeli government has decided to take more responsibility for strengthening the identity of Jewish communities,” said the Jewish Agency’s chairman, Natan Sharansky. “We’re talking about Jewish identity built on a connection to Israel.”

Given the success of Birthright Israel, a free, 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish young adults, the initiative will focus on immersive experiences in Israel, college campus programs, Jewish summer camps and experiential learning, Sharansky said.

But though the Israeli government has set aside money for the initiative, it has neither lined up the matching grants from diaspora foundations nor outlined the specific programs that would receive the funding. Sharansky set a timetable of one to two months for program proposals to be drawn up.

A planning meeting for the initiative in November 2013 drew a virtual who’s who of major Jewish organizations and foundations. But Sharansky mentioned only Jewish Federations of North America as a potential initial source of U.S. funding.

“There are many unanswered questions at this point,” said the Jewish Federations’ CEO, Jerry Silverman.

The Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, as well as the Finance Ministry, will provide Israeli government funding for the initiative. It will be run by a body including representatives from the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency and diaspora funders.

Dvir Kahana, the director-general of Israel’s Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, said the initiative still requires strategic planning in addition to practical steps.

“We’re going to have a strategic plan for the next 25 years,” Kahana said. “With key people, we’ll make decisions both regarding existing programs and programs we need to create. We’re not set on any specific program.”

According to the text of the resolution passed by Israel’s Cabinet, a key portion of the initiative is strengthening the relationship between Israel and diaspora Jewry. The first stage of the initiative will focus on bringing young diaspora Jews to Israel and on Israel education in diaspora communities. It has not been decided whether the project’s initial stage will also educate Israeli Jews about world Jewry, Sharansky said.

The Jewish Agency, historically focused on promoting immigration to Israel, has in recent years taken up a new mission of strengthening Jewish identity in the diaspora and Jewish peoplehood. It now offers diaspora Jews long-term experiences in Israel without a commitment to immigrate.

Sharansky said that while Orthodox Jews have ritual observance to keep them engaged in the Jewish community, Israel is the only proven anchor to ensure Jewish identity for non-Orthodox Jews.

“In the non-Orthodox world nothing stops assimilation except connection to Israel,” he said. “In Orthodox communities, awareness of Jewish identity is very high. They live through their faith and Jewish tradition. When you move to others, you find out that this deep feeling of your belonging to this Jewish story and your desire to stay inside of it is becoming thinner and thinner.”

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

Ben Sales is news editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.