Foreign Policy Blogs

Candid Discussions: Avinoam Bar-Yosef on the State of Israel and Jewish Diaspora Relations


Audi Steinwell via the PikiWiki


Avinoam Bar-Yosef is the President and the Founding Director of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (JPPI), an independent policy planning think tank based in Jerusalem. JPPI’s mission is to ensure the thriving of the Jewish People and the Jewish civilization by engaging in professional strategic thinking and planning on issues of primary concern to world Jewry. Mr. Bar-Yosef was Chief Diplomatic Correspondent and Commentator, and later U.S. Bureau Chief for the Ma’ariv daily newspaper. He has written extensively on issues and policies related to the Jewish people. Mr. Bar-Yosef sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association to discuss the current state of affairs between diaspora Jews and the state of Israel. The views expressed in this interview are those of Mr. Bar-Yosef only.


How would you describe the current state of relations between the Jewish diaspora and the State of Israel?

In one word, the answer is “good.”  In three: “room for improvement.”  There are basic differences between the Jews who live in Israel and those who live abroad. Israelis have developed a different identity than Jews in the diaspora.  They speak Hebrew.  They live in a Jewish-majority environment. They have a state structure, a democratic system with an elected government and parliament.  They serve in a Jewish army and need to balance between Jewish humanitarian values and security needs in a hostile neighborhood.

Diaspora Jews live in a completely different environment, their organizational structure is voluntary, they speak different languages, are mostly part of their local culture, loyal to their countries and at the same time a majority have special feelings towards Israel. They can afford to stick completely to humanitarian Jewish values that, as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, are the base of the free world’s civilization.  Their security needs are the responsibility of the governments in the countries they live. This difference can create friction in time of war.

There are other areas that could cause Israelis and diaspora Jews to grow apart.  Jews in the diaspora have developed different approaches to religion, which are more pluralistic since, unlike Israelis, they don’t need to function within a defined Jewish societal context.  All the same, Jews everywhere direct their prayers towards Jerusalem.

Yet, Judaism is not only about religion.  It is a civilization that can also include those who are not believers. It has a strong component of mutual responsibility among Jews that reflects and reinforces a sense of peoplehood.

This is the basic connection, and to enhance the relationship, Israelis have to understand better the pluralistic environment of the Jewish Diaspora and their attachment to countries where they live. At the same time, Jews outside Israel should be more open to the realities Israelis face, whether on the security front or in managing a clearly defined Jewish and democratic society.  This requires significant investment by both sides to educate the next generations in how to manage this special connection.

Given the seeming rise of anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic rhetoric around the world — with particular focus on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement — what does your research tell you about the current level of concern of world Jewry about their collective security?

Many Jews feel that there is a double standard in the way they are judged, especially in Israel but also in the diaspora. The rise of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric – and not just rhetoric – creates deep concern, especially in Muslim countries or in countries where Islamic fundamentalism is growing.  The memory of the Holocaust in Europe raises a sense of urgency caused by the fear of possible cooperation between Islamic fundamentalist elements and traditional anti-Semites that both use Israel to create a new anti-Jewish movement that poses an existential threat to Jews individually and collectively.

The concern over personal security varies from place to place. North America is an exception, but growing numbers of Jews, especially in Europe, are questioning whether their communities have a future in countries where they have existed, and to which they have contributed for centuries.  Israel was founded in part as a safe haven for Jews following the horrors of the Holocaust and the conflation of “anti-Zionist” with anti-Semitism further undermines the sense of security that Jews everywhere have felt since its inception. At the same time Israel has a responsibility for the security of Jews everywhere and is ready to do everything to ensure that such horrors will never happen again.

As you know, one of the most challenging subjects for Jews in the diaspora is the question of intermarriage and how this issue is impacting Diaspora Jewry’s ties to Israel as a homeland. How is Israel itself dealing with this issue?

Israel does not have a direct impact on intermarriage in the diaspora.  This is especially characteristic of societies where Jews are assimilated and well received. Israel is making greater efforts to strengthen Jewish education so that young Jews will have a stronger Jewish identity and feel part of the Jewish people, even when they marry outside the Jewish community.

Based on anecdotal accounts, many Diaspora communities are witnessing declining levels of enrollment at Jewish parochial schools, prompting fears that subsequent generations are moving further away from experiencing ties to Israel. Is your research showing this trend as well? If so, how is Israel reacting to this trend?  

There is no doubt that the high cost of Jewish education creates difficulties for parents.  Jewish communities around the globe are making an effort to enhance the quality of Jewish schools and Israel is allocating more funds to encourage the connection of young people to Israel.  Among the most successful examples of this is the Birthright program that brings young people to Israel for the first time, and the extended MASA (“Voyage”) programs as a follow up for those who are ready to experience Israel more deeply.

For years, Jewish education has been touted as the best way to ensure connectivity to Israel in the Diaspora. Given the prohibitive costs of private Jewish schooling in the Diaspora, many grassroots and lay leaders are calling for the Jewish Federations to restructure their expenditures and redirect funding towards subsidizing Jewish education in the diaspora. This could come at the expense of diverting funds away from projects in Israel. How is this situation being discussed or addressed by Israel?

Today, Israel has developed a healthy economy. The Diaspora contributions are more of an expression of peoplehood than a critical need. The Jewish People Policy Institute has developed a project called “New Paradigm” for the Israeli government, recommending that it take greater responsibility for the Jewish identity of the next generations.  Since the establishment of the Jewish state, the Jews around the globe have contributed significantly to Israel’s physical and social development. Today Israel can afford to invest in Jewish education abroad and has a responsibility to do so. This is understood today by the Israeli government, by the Jewish Agency for Israel chaired by Natan Sharansky, and by many Israelis who recognize that the diaspora is also a strategic asset for them.

The conflict with Hamas in Gaza this past summer generated significant international controversy due to the high Palestinian civilian death toll, which was also harshly criticized by some within the Jewish diaspora. What is your take on the conflict’s dynamics and the criticism it received from the diaspora outside of Israel?

As I mentioned earlier, this different approach to the existential threat towards Israel is not completely understood by all Jews in the diaspora. We feel deeply for civilian victims in Gaza, but we also witness on a daily basis the results of continuous attacks by Hamas and its partner groups since the withdrawal of the Israeli Army in 2005, which included the removal of all Jews living there.  In the years that followed, Israeli towns and villages in the south and the center of the country were under continuous attack by thousands of rockets and mortars. Children were raised in shelters and under continuous threat. Gaza does not pose an existential threat to Israel, but no country can afford such a situation.  Israel’s leadership made every effort to avoid the war and diminish civilian casualties on the other side, but the attacks by Hamas became unbearable and there were no other good options to solve the problem.

What is the position of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute on how best to strengthen the ties between Israel and diaspora communities?

Israel should ensure the safety of every diaspora Jew when visiting Israel.  This means taking a more pluralistic approach to the Jewish religious streams, understanding better the pressures on Jews as minorities in their countries, and being open to different expressions of Jewish identity.  The State of Israel should better understand that diaspora Jews are first invested in the societies that they come from. Judaism is an essential feature of their local identity and Israel is perceived as a sister community with deeply shared roots.  Israelis should limit their expectations accordingly.

Diaspora Jewish communities should better appreciate the price Israelis pay to safeguard the core state of the Jewish people and Jewish civilization.  While Israelis believe that they live in the most exciting era of Jewish history, they also feel isolated in a hostile neighborhood. They consider Jewish communities around the globe their most significant ally.  This itself places a burden and responsibility on the shoulders of Jews globally in the event of an existential threat to Israel.

To create a better understanding between both parts of the Jewish people, a continued dialogue should be held in a structured manner and both sides should make an effort to invest in the young generation’s Jewish identity.