Busi­ness­man, phi­lan­thropist and Jewish thought leader con­tin­ues the de­bate on what should be done to mend Di­as­pora-Is­rael ties

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - LETTERS - • MICHAEL FRIDMAN

My ar­ti­cle “Is­rael and the Di­as­pora: A Vi­sion for a New Part­ner­ship,” pub­lished on July 19 seemed to gen­er­ate a lot of in­ter­est, con­firm­ing how timely and rel­e­vant this dis­cus­sion is for Is­rael and the Di­as­pora.

I am grate­ful to every­one who, upon read­ing the ar­ti­cle, felt com­pelled to pro­vide com­ments, raise ob­jec­tions, or ask ques­tions. Many of these ob­ser­va­tions were very valu­able and prompted fur­ther re­flec­tion and fine-tun­ing of these ideas. In par­tic­u­lar, I would like to thank Robert Zinger and Jack Rosen for their ar­ti­cles de­bat­ing this pro­posal.

In sum­mary of all the feed­back re­ceived, I am able to dis­till the fol­low­ing the­sis: vir­tu­ally all par­tic­i­pants of this dis­cus­sion agree that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Is­rael and the Di­as­pora is strained and in se­ri­ous dif­fi­culty. As such, it re­quires im­me­di­ate and fun­da­men­tal ac­tion to struc­ture and in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize it. Con­sid­er­ing this, the idea of es­tab­lish­ing the Assem­bly of the Jewish Di­as­pora as a le­git­i­mate con­sul­ta­tive or­gan, cre­ated on the ba­sis of Is­raeli law, does not cause any se­ri­ous ob­jec­tion. How­ever, it does raise new ques­tions:

1. Why es­tab­lish a new or­ga­ni­za­tion, when so many or­ga­ni­za­tions al­ready ex­ist in Is­rael and other coun­tries? Some of them are highly re­spected, and many, in one way or an­other, work to strengthen the re­la­tions be­tween Is­raeli Jews and the Di­as­pora.

2. What should be the found­ing prin­ci­ples of the Assem­bly? Who should be del­e­gated to be a mem­ber, and on what ba­sis?

No doubt, these are rel­e­vant ques­tions that re­quire clear an­swers.

In­deed, many or­ga­ni­za­tions that work to strengthen the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Is­rael and the Di­as­pora ex­ist in the Jewish world. Many of them have a long his­tory, for­mi­da­ble ex­pe­ri­ence and en­joy the sup­port of the gov­ern­ment of Is­rael and prom­i­nent Jewish phi­lan­thropists. They are headed by highly in­tel­li­gent and com­mit­ted lead­ers, loyal to the Jewish cause. We can­not over­es­ti­mate the vast im­por­tance of their work.

And yet all these or­ga­ni­za­tions have one fun­da­men­tal lim­i­ta­tion: they can­not claim to le­git­i­mately rep­re­sent the in­ter­est of all mem­bers of the Jewish com­mu­nity. We live in the world where the con­cept of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy is ac­cepted as an ab­so­lute and univer­sal prin­ci­ple. This means that only those peo­ple who re­ceive our votes in an open and trans­par­ent elec­toral con­test can be right­fully con­sid­ered to rep­re­sent us. Un­for­tu­nately, not a sin­gle or­ga­ni­za­tion today pos­sesses a man­date to rep­re­sent all mem­bers of the Jewish com­mu­nity, even in a sin­gle coun­try – not to speak of a man­date to rep­re­sent all Jewish com­mu­ni­ties world­wide; it doesn’t ex­ist.

The very no­tion of mem­ber­ship in a Jewish com­mu­nity it­self is cur­rently de­fined in un­clear terms. The process for reg­is­ter­ing mem­bers of the com­mu­nity, even if it ex­ists, takes place at a lo­cal or mu­nic­i­pal level, and fo­cuses pri­mar­ily on re­li­gious groups. I am not aware of a na­tional reg­is­ter of the Jewish com­mu­nity in any coun­try. Per­haps the lack of such data­bases and reg­is­tra­tion pro­cesses has to do with the fears deeply rooted in the Jewish con­scious­ness – a fear of openly declar­ing one’s Jewish iden­tity and pro­claim­ing a men­tal con­nec­tion to the Jewish home­land. For this may in­vite sus­pi­cions of dis­loy­alty to one’s coun­try, and that is in the best case; and in the worst case lead to be­ing la­beled a mem­ber of the trai­tor­ous “fifth col­umn”. We know many such “worst cases” from the his­tory of our peo­ple.

And yet I strongly be­lieve it is im­per­a­tive to be­gin the process of reg­is­ter­ing mem­bers of Jewish com­mu­ni­ties in the very near fu­ture. It is the most ef­fec­tive way of com­bat­ing the creep­ing, mer­ci­less as­sim­i­la­tion. For each one of us who feels some­how con­nected to his or her Jewish­ness, this is the chance to re­flect on our iden­tity and make a de­ci­sion about be­long­ing – or not be­long­ing – to the Jewish world and the Jewish tra­di­tion.

It goes with­out say­ing that this reg­is­tra­tion should be ab­so­lutely vol­un­tary and should be con­ducted by Jewish NGOs in a given coun­try. The em­bassies of Is­rael should play a lead­ing role in or­ga­niz­ing and sup­port­ing this reg­is­tra­tion. Clearly, this will re­quire ad­di­tional hu­man and fi­nan­cial re­sources, but I have no doubt that many Jewish phi­lan­thropists would be ea­ger to sup­port such an ini­tia­tive.

It also seems ev­i­dent that the sta­tus of a mem­ber of the Jewish com­mu­nity out­side of Is­rael should be­come legally syn­ony­mous with the sta­tus of a re­turnee/repa­tri­ate to Is­rael as stip­u­lated by the Law of Re­turn. Thus, the Jewish com­mu­nity of a given coun­try will in­clude only those cit­i­zens that want to reg­is­ter as its mem­bers, and who are el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive Is­raeli cit­i­zen­ship if and when they want it.

Clearly, the pro­ce­dure of set­ting up na­tional Jewish data­bases and reg­is­ters will take sig­nif­i­cant time and re­sources; the whole process may take a few years. But I be­lieve the re­sult will be ul­ti­mately re­ward­ing, for this is the only way to es­tab­lish a full-fledged Jewish com­mu­nity in the Di­as­pora; a com­mu­nity able to make le­giti-

mate de­ci­sions on be­half of all of its mem­bers on the ba­sis of open and trans­par­ent demo­cratic pro­ce­dures. New tech­nol­ogy avail­able today can make these pro­cesses stream­lined and even con­ve­nient.

Fol­low­ing this, fur­ther steps to­wards es­tab­lish­ing the Assem­bly are ev­i­dent. Within one or two years, should such a “cen­sus” take place in a few key coun­tries with large Jewish pop­u­la­tions, it would si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­solve a num­ber of im­por­tant is­sues. It would put an end to the end­less guess­work of ex­actly how many Jews live in a given coun­try. It would en­sure pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion of each coun­try’s Jewish com­mu­nity in the Assem­bly. But most im­por­tantly, it would en­sure that elec­tion of the del­e­gates is fully trans­par­ent, pro­vid­ing le­git­i­macy to the del­e­gates and con­fi­dence to the vot­ers. As Jews , we value democ­racy – this is a cul­tural and re- li­gious code deeply in­grained in our con­scious­ness.

I fully ex­pect these re­flec­tions will cause many crit­i­cal re­marks and ob­jec­tions. I do hope that they will pro­vide fer­tile ground for dis­cus­sion among im­por­tant stake­hold­ers: politi­cians, busi­ness­peo­ple, phi­lan­thropists, so­cial and re­li­gious ac­tivists. Should these dis­cus­sions fa­cil­i­tate changes in the pub­lic dis­course, I would con­sider my goal ac­com­plished. A shift in pub­lic opin­ion will in­vari­ably ma­te­ri­al­ize in new ac­tion. And I be­lieve that for all of us the time to act has come.

The au­thor is an in­ter­na­tional busi­ness­man and phi­lan­thropist who founded Jewish foun­da­tions and NGOs in Is­rael, Rus­sia and the United States.

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