How Much Do Diaspora Jews Matter To Israel?

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At approximately eight million people, diaspora Jewry comprises the fifth tribe of Israel. The Knesset is currently debating a proposal, which among other things addresses the connection with Diaspora Jewry entitled “Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People”.

President Reuven Rivlin’s 2015 “Tribes” speech spoke of the existence of a “new Israeli order” that comprises four main tribes: secular, ultra-Orthodox, Arabs, and religious Zionists. That, supposedly, is the Israeli collective: a federation of tribes with a common future, even if they disagree profoundly regarding the appropriate vision for the State of Israel.

Yet the picture may be more complex than that. President Rivlin spoke lately in front of thousands of Jews, members of the Jewish Federations, which represent an enormous group of 5.7 million American Jews. He promised: “We will never give up on our brothers of Diaspora Jewry. We will never turn our backs on the members of our family who live outside the Land of Israel.” On the face of it, his statements indicate the existence of a fifth tribe — Jews who live outside Israel — who are part of the collective in important ways.

At approximately eight million people, this fifth tribe is larger than the other three Jewish tribes combined. Any generalization about them is wide of the mark. Yet typical gaps between them and the Israeli majority may be seen: The fifth tribe is assumed to tend toward liberalism, while most Israelis are conservative; its religious preference tends toward non-Orthodoxy while most Israelis, even the secular among them, identify religion with Orthodoxy. Israeli Jews experience their Judaism as something obvious that is available to them without effort (Hebrew as the national language, following Jewish calendar, and a school curriculum infused with Jewish references, to give a few examples), while the fifth tribe must fight for its Judaism and, in quite a few cases, even gives it up, whether through assimilation or in other ways.

Should these differences place the fifth tribe outside the collective? Israeli policy regarding Diaspora Jewry appears to be governed by interests and dependent on the context. It is embarrassing to admit: When compared to the Arab tribe, Diaspora Jewry is the flesh of our flesh. When compared to the ultra-Orthodox tribe, Diaspora Jewry is a foreign agent. Here are the facts:

The Knesset is currently debating a proposal for a new Basic Law entitled “Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People.” This bill completely ignores the existence of Israel’s Arab citizens and promises them nothing as a national minority. One of its articles, which addresses the connection with Diaspora Jewry, proposes that the State of Israel work for the welfare of Jews who are in distress and captivity because they are Jews. The question arose during the debate whether this obligation should exist toward non-Jewish Israeli citizens who are in distress and captivity abroad due to their Israeli citizenship.

The members of the coalition believe that we have a duty to come to the rescue of a Jew in Seattle who has never been to Israel, and is in distress abroad because she is Jewish, while there is no obligation to come to the rescue of an Arab citizen of Israel, or a Druze veteran of the Israeli army, who is in trouble abroad because he is an Israeli. For them, national solidarity with the fifth tribe takes precedence over civic partnership with one of the other four tribes.

Yet when Jews living in the Diaspora ask that the State of Israel recognize their religious acts in the spheres of conversion and marriage and divorce, the State of Israel turns its back on them. The same state that is willing to assist an estranged Jew living at the ends of the earth, from Odesa to Caracas, refuses to give the Jews of the Diaspora a foothold at the Western Wall so that they can pray there according to their custom. The reason for this is the power of the ultra-Orthodox tribe, which dictates that we exclude non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewry. This is how the shared national connection is undermined, and the fifth tribe pushed out of the family of identity.

A clear policy must replace this internal contradiction. The civic collective must include Israel’s Arab citizens and the ultra-Orthodox community, but not Diaspora Jewry. Thus, for example, Diaspora Jewry should not have representation in the Knesset. On the other hand, Diaspora Jewry must be included in the family collective, which has symbolic and practical significance. This is not a relationship of quid pro quo, but the solidarity of an older sibling, to whom history has entrusted responsibility for all members of the family, including those who are different from us.