The column | Is Jewish love for Israel a one-way street?

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Once again Israel is under attack, and once again American Jews are rallying to the cause. Jewish organizations are raising money, solidarity events are being held, Jewish visitors to Israel are posting their experiences to social media. The Jewish press is filled with news about the Gaza operation — indeed, our cover package this week combines an update on the war with stories of Bay Area Jews in Israel running to bomb shelters and marveling at Iron Dome’s pinpoint accuracy.

American Jews care about Israel. A lot. But how much do Israelis care about us?

If you judge by looking at their media, not much.

Last month I attended a conference for the international Jewish media in Jerusalem. One of the sessions dealt with just this issue: how the Israeli and diaspora Jewish media cover each other. It was agreed that whereas diaspora Jews are eternally fascinated by Israel, the reverse does not hold true.

Panelist Dan Beylsky from Kol Israel Radio explained that for the Israeli media, diaspora Jewry is just one element of world news, and not necessarily the most important. It’s not that Israelis don’t care, he said. But their interest skews to the negative.

“If a Jew is attacked somewhere, we cover it as if the person were in Jerusalem or Afula,” he said. Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, neo-Nazis — these are all hot topics. Other Jewish issues, from ritual life to Jewish continuity, don’t get much play. “It’s amazing how Israeli outlets are not interested in what’s happening in Jewish communities around the world,” Beylsky told us.

Tovah Lazaroff of the Jerusalem Post agreed, and like Beylsky, she found it worrying. If the Israeli media doesn’t cover diaspora Jewry in all its depth and complexity, the relationship between the two communities will be just as shallow.

“How do you make local Jewish life around the globe relevant to Israelis?” she asked. “How do we create a common conversation?”

What’s puzzling is that the average Israeli actually is quite interested in diaspora Jewry. According to a poll released in mid-June, conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in cooperation with several government ministries and the Jewish National Fund, 81 percent of Israeli Jews do want to know what’s happening with Jews around the world. They’re not indifferent. The Israeli media is getting it wrong.

And lest one think that interest is self-serving, the pollsters broke it down for us. Asked which issue should be top priority for diaspora Jews, almost one-third of Israeli Jews answered “assimilation.” Anti-Semitism came in second, with 24 percent, followed only weakly by “a strong connection to Israel” (13 percent) and “financial support of Israel” (5 percent).

So it would seem that Israeli Jews do care about our Jewish identity. And soon they’ll be shelling out cash for that concern.

In June, the Israeli Cabinet voted to begin funding the Joint Initiative of the Government of Israel and World Jewry, a multiyear, multiagency project that envisions diaspora Jewish organizations and philanthropists working together with Israeli government agencies to shore up diaspora Jewry’s flagging Jewish identity.

It’s all still in the planning stages. Last November, some 120 smart folks from around the world — most under 36 — were brought to Jerusalem to brainstorm ideas, but no actual programs have been created. The concept is that local Jewish communities will assess their needs and develop their own programs — maybe. It’s all pretty unclear.

What is clear, however, is that this is the first time Israel is formally recognizing it has a role in helping diaspora Jews strengthen their communities, irrespective of how that affects the Jewish state. And they’re using Israeli taxpayer money to do it, to the tune of $54 million over the next three years, followed by a lot more.

It’s easy to be cynical. So far the other “partners” haven’t kicked in any money. And the premise seems absurd: the Israeli government teaching diaspora Jews how to be more Jewish? Stuff and nonsense.

On the other hand, as Yael Weiss Gadish, the Jewish Agency’s representative to the project, put it, “If the government of Israel doesn’t invest in the Jewish identity of the diaspora, that’s a direct threat to Israel. There will be no Jewish future. There will be no future for Israel.”

Sue Fishkoff
is the editor of J., and can be reached at [email protected].

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].