How many of us fantasize about an Israeli government that would be more receptive to the views and feelings of diaspora Jews? Especially at a time when conflicts over Israeli policies on Mideast peace, the settlements, egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and the religious rights of non-Orthodox Jews have led to increasing divisions between American and Israeli Jews.
Michael (Mikhail) Fridman would like to see the establishment of a high-level, democratically elected assembly of prominent Jews from throughout the diaspora who would consult with top officials in Israel, making recommendations on vital issues of foreign and domestic policy that impact Jews everywhere.
“Dream on, Mr. Fridman,” right? But the difference between him and the rest of us who want a greater say in Israeli decision-making is that he may just have the clout to do something about it. The 53-year-old Russian billionaire and philanthropist is a co-founder of the Russian Jewish Congress, the Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Genesis Prize (a kind of Jewish Nobel Prize). He has the ear of top Israeli officials and the funds to make them sit up and listen.
Fridman wrote an essay in The Jerusalem Post this summer calling for a new diaspora body that “would have a consultative voice” and “have its role established by law in the Knesset,” offering advice to Israeli leaders that could help improve the state’s international diplomatic reputation and create new pro-Israel “support groups” among Jews around the world.
In a video phone interview from Moscow last week — he lives in London but conducts business globally — Fridman emphasized that he is not judging Israeli political actions or seeking to impose diaspora views on the Jerusalem government. But he is deeply worried about the diminished sense of connection — emotional, political and tribal — between younger diaspora and Israeli Jews. “I think it is critically important for both sides to engage in a high-level exchange of minds,” he told me. “I would like to see a forum that would be mutually beneficial,” where gaps could be closed and bonds tightened. Israeli leaders could listen to and better understand diaspora concerns, he said, and diaspora Jews would come away with enhanced loyalty to a Jewish state that is responsive to their issues.
Fridman stressed the need to revive diaspora-Israeli solidarity, noting that if present trends continue, Jewish communities around the world will be “less prepared and less capable” of mobilizing support for Israel in a time of need.
In recent days, two prominent U.S. rabbis — one Orthodox and one Reform — have voiced their strong personal concerns about the eroding diaspora-Israel relationship. Explaining, in part, his decision to make aliyah, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, wrote that “Zionism is losing its steam” in the U.S. The rabbi, who led Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., for more than three decades, added that “much of the passion seems to have gone out of the diaspora community’s relationship with Israel.” (See page 5.) And Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Free Wise Synagogue in Manhattan, noting that he has not criticized Israel from his pulpit before, told his congregation this past week that “if not resolved, this crisis [between liberal diaspora Jews and Israel] will destroy the relationship between the Jewish state and the Jewish people.” (See page 1.) He is calling for the Reform movement to pressure Jerusalem and increase support for the liberal streams in Israel.
Registering All Jews
Fridman is well aware of many of the obstacles to his plan. For starters, I pointed out, there’s the fact that numerous groups already meet regularly with Israeli leaders and see themselves as representative of diaspora viewpoints. These groups include the World Jewish Congress, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and national Jewish umbrella organizations from Europe, South America, etc.
True, they all are important organizations doing fine work, Fridman said. But he pointed out that “they have no official status on the level of the Knesset to represent the diaspora, and they were not elected” by a significant number of Jews. “Ordinary Jews are not part of the process.”
The World Zionist Organization comes closest to what Fridman envisions. It was founded by Theodor Herzl at the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897, is committed to promoting Israel, with Jerusalem its capital, and it’s made up of delegates elected from international Zionist federations and organizations around the world, including Hadassah, B’nai Brith, the World Sephardi Federation and representatives of the major religious streams.
But when was the last time you voted in a WZO election, or heard about its activities? That tells you something about its clout.
A bold aspect of Fridman’s plan is to have a truly global representation of Jews taking part in an election of the diaspora assembly, based on creating a census of all Jews outside of Israel. When I suggested that many Jews would be reluctant to participate in a worldwide registration effort, as it could conjure up nightmares of past efforts in world history to single out and target Jews, he said that times have changed. “Today, a time of increasing assimilation, is the right time” to launch and promote a voluntary registry of all Jews, by country, based on the definition of Who Is A Jew in Israel’s Law of Return, Fridman said. And he is prepared to underwrite the costly and complex venture, which he said could be aided by cutting-edge technology. Fridman believes that a transparent and transcontinental campaign to elect representatives to an official diaspora assembly would motivate and inspire world Jewry and deepen their connection to Israel and to each other.
One major obstacle to Fridman’s proposal is that in Israel, where seemingly every aspect of domestic life is political, diaspora Jews are not represented in political life. At present, when American Jewish leaders lobby the coalition or Knesset members for an issue of significant importance here, they are told, in effect, “come back when you have a constituency that has a say in our elections.” Until then, Israeli officials insist, advocating for a diaspora position doesn’t add up to votes and isn’t worth the effort.
The most recent and blatant example was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reneging on a long-planned compromise in June that would have assured enhanced egalitarian prayer at the Kotel and given liberal denominations a voice in administering policy in the area surrounding the Western Wall. The coalition also backed a bill that would give the fundamentalist Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over conversions in Israel.
The prime minister’s rationale was that if he had not fallen in line with the charedi parties in his government, his coalition would have collapsed. So much for promises and addressing the concerns of the majority of diaspora Jewry.
While Netanyahu has described his role as the defender and protector of Jews everywhere, a member of his entourage told me last month that, regrettably, the prime minister is more concerned about maintaining close relations with evangelical Christians in the U.S., who are deeply loyal to him and number in the tens of millions, than with the majority of American Jews, who Netanyahu believes will go on supporting Jerusalem even if they get upset at government policies at times.
If true, that’s a dangerous and cynical calculation. (And surveys indicate that younger Evangelicals are less supportive of Israel than their elders.)
All of which makes Michael Fridman’s campaign more timely and intriguing. He’s right in asserting that the diaspora-Israel relationship is precious — and in danger of continuing erosion unless a bold effort is made to restore it.
“I worry that 50 years from now, diaspora communities could disappear,” Fridman told me. “We need to find a way for the majority of diaspora Jews to feel engaged.” And, I would add, for Israel to recognize its own need to help preserve and sustain a vibrant diaspora.
For now, the prospect of an enlightened Israeli leadership offering world Jewry a new level of consultation and input in key decisions seems remote. But one has to start somewhere, and Fridman’s proposal deserves serious consideration. As Herzl put it more elegantly: “If you will it, it is no dream.”