Can Israel Reinvigorate Jewish Identity At Home and Abroad? A Major Initiative Says "Yes" — David Gottlieb

May 1, 2014

Sightings5_1.jpgIn an era when massive, top-down fundraising and programming initiatives have fallen out of favor, one such endeavor is about to be unveiled. Its goal: “bringing Israel to Jews and Jews to Israel.”

Its name, “The Prime Minister’s Initiative,” leaves no doubt as to its provenance. Developed by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel, the official rollout is set to begin in the coming weeks.

This heralds an unprecedented level of investment in the struggle to reinvigorate the Jewish identity of Jews living in Israel and especially outside of Israel, in the Diaspora, at a time when younger Jews feel increasingly free to define their own Jewish identity—or reject it altogether—and increasingly alienated from the State of Israel. The Initiative thus constitutes a new chapter in the shaping of Jewish identity.

Its strategy calls for a four-pronged approach consisting of education and “engagement” on Israel at university campuses; educational programming at Jewish institutions; “education experiences” that encourage young Jews to visit Israel (modeled on the successful Birthright program); and programming that promotes the immigration (aliyah) of young Jewish professionals to Israel.

The goal is to raise $300 million annually for the Initiative, with one third coming from the Israeli government, one third from fee-for-service revenue, and one third from philanthropists and Jewish federations (networks of Jewish social welfare, social service, educational and philanthropic organizations, found in most American cities with sizeable Jewish populations).

This ambitious outreach project is remarkable for two main reasons. First, it reverses the traditional roles of Israel and the Diaspora in defining and funding Jewish causes. Starting with the Zionist movement in the late 19th century, Diaspora Jews made development in Palestine and then the State of Israel their overwhelming philanthropic priority.

This remains largely true today. In a recent series of articles in the Jewish Daily Forward,Josh Nathan-Kazis reports that 38 per cent of funds donated outside of the system of Jewish federations by American Jews go to organizations focused on Israel—more than is given to any other Jewish cause.

Some in the Diaspora question the wisdom of this reversal. “Why,” a Forward editorial asks, “should Diaspora Jews—Americans in particular—trust, depend on and defer to Israelis to strengthen our Jewish identity?” The question reflects the insistence on the part of many American Jews that a strong Jewish identity does not require unflinching dependence on or support for Israel—that it, in fact, requires that Israel be challenged to live up to the ethical standards articulated in Scripture. 

Second, the Initiative, in aiming to reach Millennials relies on a contested approach. As Yehuda Kurtzer notes in the Times of Israel, “By running the initiative itself, the Jewish Agency is ironically borrowing an American Jewish model—the Federation!—in its belief that a centrally organized approach can work more effectively than seeding its money in the open market. Meantime, this model has actually undergone massive revision here in the US, and the Jewish Agency has not caught up.”

Misha Galperin of the Jewish Agency disagrees, asserting that the initiative will enable Jews the world over to “finally behave like a global community,” steering its collective destiny from “who we are” to “who we dream of becoming.”

Reaction to the Initiative in the Israeli press has been skeptical. Gil Troy, writing in the Jerusalem Post, agrees with Kurtzer’s assessment that the outreach model is outmoded: “Calling an educational project the ‘Prime Ministers’ Initiative’ may woo older philanthropists who want the official validation; but it may alienate younger students who resist any hints of politicization and indoctrination.”

It may also rankle Israelis who think the money would be better spent at home: Stephen G.  Donshik, a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program, asserts that Israel could better deploy its share of the cost in addressing the country’s critical and growing social welfare needs.

The reaction of the Diaspora press has been similarly wary. Says the American Forward,“Jerusalem is basically saying: Even if we aren’t to blame for the tepid, assimilationist attitudes that young Jews, especially, exhibit towards organized Jewish life and to Israel, we will help fix the problem.”  

Questions abound: Which Diaspora Jewish institutions will have a hand in the program’s direction? How can a self-sustaining $200 million fundraising apparatus be built and managed by two allied but different cultures? Will young Jews, born generations after the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel, embrace such a large and official effort to shape their Jewish identity?

The outcome will take some time to assess. What is already clear is that Israel now sees itself as the senior partner in determining the parameters and priorities of Jewish identity, both at home and abroad.

While the initiative’s effect on the Israel-Diaspora relationship may be felt only gradually, the struggle for ownership of the future of Jewish identity is already underway.

Resources:

Bronner, Ethan. “Israel Reaches Out to the Diaspora.” The New York Times, March 15, 2014, SundayReview New Analysis. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/sunday-review/israel-reaches-out-to-the-diaspora.html.

Donshik, Stephen G. “A Comment on the Prime Minister’s Diaspora Initiative.”ejewishphilanthropy.com, January 15, 2014. http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/a-comment-on-the-prime-ministers-diaspora-initiative/.

Galperin, Misha. “A Giant Initiative to Save the Jewish People: Making Case for $300M-a-Year Investment in Our Future,” The Jewish Daily Forward, April 17, 2014.http://forward.com/articles/196442/a-giant-initiative-to-save-the-jewish-people/.

The Jewish Daily Forward, “A New Relationship Between Israel and the Diaspora.” March 25, 2014, Editorial. http://forward.com/articles/194999/a-new-relationship-between-israel-and-the-diaspora/.

Ibid. “The Right Plan to Save Jews?” March 26, 2014, Editorial.http://forward.com/articles/195245/the-right-plan-to-save-jews/?p=1.

Kurtzer, Yehuda. “Let us help you help us.” The Times of Israel, March 2, 2014, Ops & Blogs. http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/let-us-help-you-help-us/.

Nathan-Kazis, Josh. “26 Billion Bucks. The Jewish Charity Industry Uncovered. Part I – Donors Give More to Israel Than to Education.” The Jewish Daily Forward, March 24, 2014. http://forward.com/articles/194978/-billion-bucks-the-jewish-charity-industry-unco/?p=all.

Image Credit: ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com
 

Author, David Gottlieb, is a PhD student in the History of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is also co-founder and executive director of Full Circle Communities, Inc., a philanthropic nonprofit developer of affordable housing and provider of supportive services. His Twitter handle is @dnormang.

 

 

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a PhD Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.

 

 

 

Publication author: 
David Gottlieb