The annual Wexner Israel Fellowship Alumni (WIFA) Institute met last week in Haifa. It was a full program, including an in-depth look at municipal turnarounds in cities such as Akko, Karmiel, Yeruham and Hura. Another topic discussed, following Rabbi Elka Abrahamson’s opening remarks, was the fraying relationship of North American Jews and Israel. The new chair of the WIFA Council, Nadav Tamir, drafted this call to action in response.
The relationship between Israeli and North American Jewry is in an ongoing serious crisis with dramatic implications for our future. It concerns the future relationship between the two largest and most important Jewish communities and will determine the issue of continuity of the Jewish people.
We, the graduates of the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program, must address this problem in Israel and make our voices heard. Since we are deeply connected to both communities and strongly committed to the future of our country and of the entire Jewish People, we must act towards mending the rift.
The essence of Zionism and its core mission was to establish a State that maintains the balance between a democracy where all citizens (Jews and non-Jews alike) are equal, and a national home for the Jewish People both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Without partnership with the North American Jewish community, we will not remain the authentic national home for the Jewish People. Such a partnership cannot be sustained if we consider the vast majority of our brothers and sisters in North America as second-class Jews. Moreover, we should not relate to them in an instrumental, one-sided manner, expecting them to donate money and blindly support our political stands. Too many Israelis consider the way many North American Jews choose to express their Judaism as illegitimate and dismiss them because they choose to live abroad.
We cannot expect them to take an interest in us without us taking an interest in them.
The old paradigm which explained our common identity as Jews based on a shared past or common threats (the Holocaust, anti-Semitism of the past or Iran and terrorism of the present) — no longer constitutes a good enough reason on either side of the ocean to form a relationship, especially as far as the younger generation is concerned.
The younger generation in North America today does not have to grapple with anti-Semitism or share their parents’ guilt for having abandoned the Jews in Europe. Young people watch Israel moving away from the liberal values that define their identity and find it difficult to see in it a source of inspiration. They encounter a State of Israel that cannot handle any legitimate criticism, dismissing its critics as anti-Semites. Our defensive and aggressive reactions alienate many of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, especially the young ones, who expect open discussion rather than accusations.
We have a lot to learn from each other.
The studies that were held among graduates of Birthright and Massa prove that Israel can definitely contribute towards Jewish continuity — a visit to Israel usually adds value to the Jewish identity of Diaspora Jews and motivates them to take part in the life of the community.
Studies show that politics is not what binds these young people to Israel, but rather the exposure to the dynamism and attractiveness of Israeli society. When we put politics at the center of our relationship and make it a prerequisite for partnership, we turn Israel into a separating rather than a connecting factor.
We Israelis have a lot to learn from the Jewish communities in North America about the strength of community, pluralism and the power of philanthropy. Perhaps a vestige of our socialist founders, most of us still expect the State to solve all problems, while North American Jews were able to form communities, based on mutual support and shared values, that promote many issues in a much more efficient way than the State. We can also learn from them about religious pluralism. They were able to generate many options for living a Jewish life unrestricted by the monopoly of one stream, so that more people, even “secular” Jews, can feel at home in Judaism, Jewish practice and learning.
In order to preserve the Jewish People, there is an urgent need to formulate a forward-looking vision of our relationship and to stop basing the connection on the past or on fear. We have to produce a new vision for the future of the Jewish people and its role in the world that would be relevant and attractive to the younger generation.
There is need for an inspiring message based on human values, both Jewish and global, and on the Jewish humanistic concept of “Tikkun Olam.”
We must form a real partnership where both sides — Israeli citizens (Jews and non-Jews alike) and Diaspora Jews — get to know one another and discover mutual interests. This partnership must be based on an open dialogue and common projects where both communities join hands in order to promote a shared vision.
We, the graduates of the Wexner Fellowship Program, must promote this partnership as well as the dialogue and the shared vision with our sisters and brothers in North America in order to stop the erosion before it’s too late. This call does not just pinpoint a problem. It’s a call for action. And it’s in our hands…
Nadav Tamir, a Wexner Israel Fellowship alum (Class 15) and current Chair of the Wexner Israel Fellowship Alumni Council, is the Director for Government and International Affairs at Peres & Associates consulting firm (on a leave of absence from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Previously Nadav served as the policy adviser to the President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres. Nadav has also served as Consul General of Israel in New England, as an adviser to the Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as a political officer at Israel’s Embassy to the United States. Before his tour in Washington, DC, he served as policy assistant to three Foreign Ministers. Nadav earned a BA magna cum laude in Political Science from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and an MA in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government as a Wexner Israel Fellow.
Here is Nadav’s full letter in Hebrew: