The Optimistic Jew
Reinventing Israel-Diaspora Relations
I believe that in order to rejuvenate Zionism we have to reinvent Israel-Diaspora relations. The driving force behind a revitalized Israeli-Diaspora relationship should be the Diaspora and not Israel. The Diaspora should take a larger responsibility for addressing the challenges of creating an enhanced Jewish future and cease being be satisfied with being subordinate to Israel’s needs. I say this as an Israeli and as a Zionist and claim that this would be best for Israel and Zionism.
This approach would replace the present character of Israel-Diaspora relations in which Diaspora resources are directed to the social problems of Israel as a supplemental force in education, welfare and immigrant absorption. A renewed relationship should be concerned as much with Diaspora needs, values and desires as with the needs of Israel.
We cannot ignore how Israel’s problems affect Diaspora Jewry. The second Intifada had both psychological and security repercussions for many Diaspora communities and triggered a new wave of anti-Semitism in Europe. It is simply immoral for us Israelis to claim that the Diaspora has no right to interfere in Israel’s affairs when Israel’s affairs have such an impact on the Diaspora. Or as Napoleon’s Minister Talleyrand would have said: “Monsieur, it is worse than immoral, it is stupid”!
Since North American Jewry constitutes 80% of the Diaspora, it will often be the particular Diaspora performer in what follows. This in no way discounts the productive and perhaps even leading role European Jewry and other smaller Jewish communities might play.
Toward a New Paradigm
The dominant Jewish paradigm since the creation of the state has been a highly efficient Diaspora fundraising apparatus transferring money to Israeli institutions dominated by Israel’s political society. The sums have been diminishing in real terms in relation to Israel’s GDP. This is a positive indication of Israel becoming a mature, developed economy and society. This would not have been possible without the Diaspora financial contribution.
The traditional Israel-Diaspora relationship was a tremendous historical success. But success breeds satisfaction with the forms, structures, values and subcultures that made it possible. Self-satisfaction breeds complacency which is a certain recipe for a breakdown of imagination and creativity.
The traditional financial relationship has had only modest effect on most of Israel’s citizens for the past several decades. Some Israelis would even claim that Diaspora contributions have become dysfunctional to the healthy development of Israeli society. They would claim that these contributions are an indirect subsidy to the power of Israel’s political society at the expense of the development of Israel’s civil society. The time has come for a new paradigm wherein these relatively small sums go directly to Israel’s civil society with the aim of improving Israel’s quality of life. That is, to more efficient and effective public administration; innovative educational initiatives and national projects (such as energy independence) that could mobilize the energies and skills of large numbers of uninvolved Jews.
This would have great indirect impact on the economy. Efficiencies in public administration alone could save sums equivalent to the present Diaspora contribution, as would Israel achieving energy independence. The long term economic benefits of educational innovation are obvious. This is an approach familiar to investors – it is called leveraging. This would be a leveraging of Diaspora resources that would increase the effectiveness of Diaspora contributions and be of greater benefit to Israel.
A New Relationship
Historically, the Diaspora has interacted with Israel primarily by way of Israel’s political society, either directly with the Israeli government or indirectly by way of Israeli political representatives in the Jewish Agency. Israel’s political society has also, in large part, mediated person-to-person and community-to-community projects such as Project Renewal. Reversing this order would create a more balanced and symmetrical relationship, since organized Diaspora Jewry is by definition a civil society.
The Diaspora interacted almost exclusively with Israel’s political society because Israel did not have a dynamic civil society during its first decades. Today, however, Israel possesses a rich diversity of volunteer, self-help and citizen organizations that offer many opportunities for a wider, deeper and more mutually rewarding Israeli-Diaspora relationship.
Diaspora Jewry can take some credit for the development of this civil society. Project Renewal, the New Israel Fund and increased Federation emphasis on involving contributors in specific projects are some Diaspora initiatives that have helped nourish this civil society and have laid groundwork for the new relationship suggested here. The goal should be to deepen Diaspora contact with the rich tapestry of Israel’s civil society which has reached a level of maturity whereby it can engage Diaspora Jewry’s civil society as equals without the mediation of Israel’s political establishment.
Diaspora Jewry needs to do this because Israel is the primary instrument by which the Jewish People interact with the world. Israel is the showcase through which the Gentiles perceive the Jews. Jews take pride in Israel’s achievements in desert reclamation, its daring military exploits such as the Entebbe operation and the fact that other small, undeveloped countries often see Israel as a model to emulate. Even serious Palestinian intellectuals (off the record, of course) will tell you they see Israel as a model for their embryonic Palestinian State.
On the other hand, most Jews feel shame and dismay at Israel’s mistakes. If Israel is Jewry’s showcase and her actions affect all of world Jewry, the Diaspora has a moral obligation to “interfere” in Israel’s affairs. Moreover, Diaspora Jewry does not require the approval of Israel’s political establishment in order to cooperate with Israel’s civil society in projects that affect all of world Jewry.
From Financial to Human Resources Contributions
Diaspora financial contributions were a necessary phase of Israel’s history. In the pre-state era and early years of statehood these contributions produced astounding results. This approach, however, has now run its course. Not only is the Diaspora financial contribution of declining importance to Israel’s economy and dysfunctional to the development of Israel’s civil society, it has also become dysfunctional to Diaspora life—concentrating on the wealthy few to the detriment of more comprehensive community involvement. Many Diaspora Jews feel neglected by Jewish organizations and alienated from organized Jewish life because they do not have large sums to give and are thus marginalized or even ignored.
The emphasis should now shift from monetary contributions to Israel’s political society to human skills contributions to Israel’s civil society. This would be of greater benefit to Israel and would also enable Diaspora organizations to widen the base of Jewish involvement. It would attract individuals and groups presently disaffected with Jewish communal life. A chronic weakness of Diaspora life has been a lack of activities that interest significant numbers of Jewish professionals and academics and that could use their skills in meaningful communal activity.
The basic principle of this approach is to leverage declining Diaspora impact on Israel into increased impact on Jewish life in general. We could do this by creating coalitions around issues and projects that bear directly on Jewish welfare, have wide appeal for non-Jews and could involve large groups of heretofore unaffiliated Jews.
The Jewish Energy Project
Energy is just such an issue. The greatest threats to the security of the Jewish People are Iran’s nuclear bomb program, increased anti-Semitism and the growing radicalism of world Islam as well as large populations of hostile Moslems in Europe and North America. Financing all these threats are Persian Gulf oil revenues.
Iran could not finance its nuclear program if it did not have the revenues of two and a half million barrels of oil a day. Saudi Arabia (whether its government or its citizens) could not spend billions of dollars a year in distributing anti-Semitic literature worldwide or financing Taliban style school systems throughout the Moslem world if it did not have the revenues of eight million barrels of oil a day. Would Hezbollah and Hamas have achieved such organizational vigor without the support of Iran, Wahabi clerics and wealthy laymen from Saudi Arabia? The radicalization of European and American Islam is also underwritten by Persian Gulf oil revenues.
This dictates that the Jews formulate a coherent “Jewish Energy Policy” aimed at creating political alliances and economic instruments dedicated to downgrading oil as the dominant international commodity. Oil must once again become a commodity on a par with coffee, sugar and tea (when was the last time the world was held hostage by the price of tea?).
Worldwide consumption of crude oil is projected to grow by 40% by the year 2020 if the consumption growth rate of the past several decades is sustained. Most of this supply increase will come from Persian Gulf countries. They have the largest proven reserves and these reserves are cheaper to develop than known and potential reserves elsewhere. Even if the real price of oil does not increase or even declines slightly, these militant anti-Jewish countries will benefit from a great increase in financial and hence political and military power. As a consequence, we may expect increasing support for terrorist organizations, anti-Semitic propaganda, and a heightened rate of development of non-conventional weapons of mass destruction.
A Jewish Energy Project would present Diaspora Jews with numerous opportunities to develop alliances with an assortment of pressure groups and economic entities thus widening the peripheries of positive Jewish influence. It would also give organized Jewish communities an opportunity to enlist uninvolved Jews interested in alternative energy and the environment.
Individual Jews, Jewish organizations and AIPAC should become active supporters of the Set America Free Coalition www.setamericafree.org. This organization brings together prominent individuals and non-profit organizations concerned with the security and economic implications of America’s growing dependence on foreign oil. This coalition, organized by the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, points out practical ways in which real progress toward energy security can be made over the next several years. Some Jewish individuals and organizations (such as the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs) are already active with this organization. I suggest that support for this organization be equivalent to support for Israel. I say this as an Israeli because I realize that this is one of those keystone initiatives which, if properly leveraged, can effect revolutionary change. This would be to the benefit of Israel since what benefits the Jewish People benefits Israel.
Following are allies American Jewry might recruit around a project dedicated to making North America energy independent within the next 10 to 15 years, either as part of Set America Free or as the separate Jewish Energy Project:
Environmentalists: American Jews should support environmental organizations that push for alternative energy and conservation measures on federal, state, county and local levels.
Home Improvements Industry: American Jews should be active in trying to reduce per capita household energy consumption to the levels of Sweden or Germany. This means lobbying for tax write-offs for energy-saving home improvements and appliances. Allies would be industry and home improvement giants such as General Electric, Hewlett Packard, Westinghouse, Home Center, Home Depot and many more. These industries and their suppliers employ millions of people who might become better disposed to Jewish issues as a result of this initiative.
Organized Labor: The above policy would produce hundreds of thousands of well-paying domestic jobs and would appeal to organized labor. This could be a major factor in reestablishing organized Jewry’s traditional alliance with organized labor.
Veterans and National Security Organizations: Energy is the primary strategic resource of the industrial world. Yet, for more than 30% of its energy needs and 50% of its petroleum needs, the industrial world depends on unstable countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Venezuela, and Nigeria, or hostile countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Libya. This security lapse is causing great concern among veterans and national security organizations. They, too, are natural allies.
Educators: One might envision a Twin Towers energy project promoted throughout the school districts of the United States. Uniting the social studies and science departments, it would encourage school children to surf the Internet and engage in research to find low-cost energy conservation measures that they could install in their schools and at home. A system of Twin Tower clubs could be established and could piggyback on existing youth programs such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4H. Children are by nature idealistic, and the combination of patriotism and environmentalism could galvanize them and create an irresistible grassroots movement. Such a project would enable Jewish teachers, a large and neglected segment of the community, to finally assume their rightful position in the Jewish community.
The two million Jews of Europe, including Russian Jewry, could promote their own version of a European energy independence project. European Jewry could help initiate a sister organization called Set Europe Free. The South African, Australian, and Latin American communities could also pursue similar smaller scale initiatives.
Diaspora Jewry could leverage its limited power by building coalitions around projects of universal interest that also have direct benefit for the Jewish community and that could attract new groups of young Jews into active Jewish life. If this is done within the framework of Jewish values such as Tikkun Olam it could effect a spiritual regeneration, in addition to the political, economic and social benefits.
The Special Role of the Israeli Diaspora
The Israeli Diaspora, which may comprise as much as 15–20% of the North American Diaspora, should assume a special role in redefining Israel-Diaspora relations. Expatriate Israelis understand better than other Diaspora groups the needs and weaknesses of Israel. They are therefore less likely to be intimidated by possible protestations from Israel’s political society regarding Diaspora initiatives.
The Israeli Diaspora has long been the stepchild of Jewish life, often looked upon askance by Diaspora Jews and condemned and boycotted by “official” Israel. In the eyes of official Israel, they are yordim—people who left Israel, as opposed to olim—people who immigrated to Israel. Emigration from and immigration to Israel is not just a sociological phenomenon as it is with other nations. Traditionally, it has had explosive moral implications. For official Israel, yordim were often pictured as traitors or as weaklings.
The attitude of native Diaspora Jewish communities toward these Israelis has been ambivalent at best:
- The fact that they had left Israel, often for good reasons, complicated communal and fundraising activities and confused Diaspora emotions. Israel is idealized more by Diaspora Jews than by Israelis. The very existence of Israelis who left Israel challenged strongly held conceptions.
- The fact that they were Israeli in every way annoyed Diaspora Jews no less than the Israelis in Israel annoyed them.
- The yordim often did not participate in Jewish communal and institutional life. They often kept their distance and did not trouble to hide their condescension. For many Israelis, Diaspora Jewish life was a pale shadow compared to their Israeli experience. They did not camouflage this attitude and earned the resentment of many Diaspora Jews.
- Official Israel actively dissuaded the Diaspora communities from enlisting them. When they were enlisted, it was for practical reasons.
This approach to the Israeli Diaspora must undergo a far-reaching transformation. In the future, the Israeli Diaspora must become the bridge between Israeli and Diaspora civil society. They must become an ally of reformist forces in Israel. This is a role native Diaspora Jews have been loath to play and feel uncomfortable with.
The Israeli Diaspora must also assume a greater leadership role in the social and cultural life of the Diaspora community. For the non-Orthodox Jews especially, they are the most Jewish Jews. They offer a living model for a secular Jewish culture that is an alternative to Orthodoxy and an often shallow Diaspora Jewish life.
In effect, the Israeli Diaspora might fulfill the most Zionist pioneering function of the 21st century by assuming a leadership role in Israel-Diaspora relations. The law of unintended consequences may have turned the most maligned group in Jewish life into one of the most important players in the battle for an improved Jewish future.
The Optimistic Jew
Tsvi Bisk is an American-Israeli futurist. He is the director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking (www.futurist-thinking.co.il/) and contributing editor for strategic thinking for The Futurist magazine.
He is also the author of The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century. Tsvi is available as a lecturer or as a scholar in residence as well as for strategic consulting
The Optimistic Jew