We have an opportunity to connect Israeli society to the story of world Jewry
By Eliana Rudee, JNS
Following the adoption of the Israeli government’s plan earlier this summer to help ensure unity of the global Jewish community, JNS took some time to talk with Minister of Diaspora Affairs Omer Yankelevitch about the strategic plan.
The framework was based on the conclusions of the special Public Committee (the Fassberg-Kandel Committee) to examine the future of the Jewish people.
Yankelevich, 42, an Israeli attorney, educator and social activist, serves as a Knesset member in the Israel Resilience Party under the Blue and White Party. She grew up in Tel Aviv and later moved to Bnei Brak.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What are the biggest threats to contemporary relations between Israel and world Jewry, and how does the plan address them?
A: I see two major challenges. First, Israeli society does not feel connected to a greater Jewish people. Second, we are too focused on what divides rather than unites us.
The government’s recent decision to adopt the Fassberg-Kandel Committee is a significant step towards addressing these challenges by formalizing Israel’s obligation to strengthen the Jewish world. The plan aims to respond to the Jewish people’s shared challenges head-on by ensuring the State of Israel’s investment in connecting Jewish people around the world to each other and to their shared destiny.
We are carrying out this decision in several ways — first, through building Jewish peoplehood in Israel. We have an opportunity to connect Israeli society to the story of world Jewry. We are doing this through: building and expanding “world Jewry” curriculum in Israeli schools in partnership with the Ministry of Education; providing new training for shlichim (“emissaries”) when we send them abroad; and creating and supporting experiential trips for current and future Israeli leaders to visit Jewish communities abroad, and then bring back their experiences and infuse them into Israeli society.
On the other end, we are strengthening Jewish identity and relations with world Jewry through formal and informal education; projects that support smaller communities; and joint projects meant to create shared conversations.
My office is focused — through flagship initiatives like Mosaic United — in investing in both formal and experiential Jewish educational initiatives during the most formative years of a young Jew’s life. Meaningful Jewish experiences and education during the formative years of a young person’s life can ensure the strength of their Jewish identity and commitment to the Jewish people for years to come.
Additionally, Mosaic — the Ministry’s informal education wing, in partnership with Chabad, Hillel International and Olami — is present on campuses around the world, providing resources and support to strengthen Jewish identity and connection of young people during a critical point in their lives.
One project that the Ministry launched to move forward this vision is Shalom Corps, a global movement that inspires activism and social responsibility as an expression of Jewish values and belonging. Bringing young people together around a shared mission has the ability to create strong bonds between Jews everywhere while generating good for the entire world.
Together, these activities create one message and represent a significant paradigm shift in Israel’s relationship with world Jewry; we are not 7 million Jews in Israel and 8 million throughout the rest of the world, but a united nation of 15 million with one common destiny. With this in mind, we can take on any conflict or challenge facing us today. Let’s focus on what unites rather than divides us.
Finally, a major concern is anti-Semitism, both in terms of the physical security of Jewish communities and growing online hate. My office is responding to this issue by working with Jewish communities around the world on strengthening the security measures employed at their institutions.
Additionally, I am working in my role as the minister responsible for Israel’s fight against anti-Semitism to engage leaders around the world regarding this issue. I encourage world leaders to adopt the IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism, which can serve as a baseline in addressing the problem.
Q: Disunity has been a challenge of the Jewish people for thousands of years, perhaps since the exile of the Israelites. What is the need for a first-ever strategic framework to ensure the continued existence and unity of the Jewish world?
A: As the nation-state of the entire Jewish people, a central mission of Israel is to ensure the continuity and strength of world Jewry and the Jewish people’s connection to one another.
The gap between Israel and world Jewry means that Israel must develop its vision, commitment and investment in Jewish peoplehood and the strengthening of Jewish identity worldwide. That is exactly what this framework aims to do. It transforms the phrase, “All of Israel is responsible for one another,” into both a mandate and work plan. The resolution adopting the framework makes clear that the Jewish and democratic State of Israel sees itself as a part of one united Jewish people — 15-million strong — around the world and is ready to invest accordingly.
Practically, it will provide us with clarity and direction as we develop our strategic-action plan and activities. Our action plan includes substantially expanding investment in formal and informal educational opportunities and experiences, deepening the understanding of Israelis regarding Jewish communities worldwide and connecting young Jews from around the world through projects related to tikkun olam, such as Shalom Corps, a global Jewish volunteering initiative launched by the Ministry in partnership with the Jewish Agency and a number of philanthropists.
We have already invested, together with Jewish organizations and philanthropists, hundreds of millions of shekels in such initiatives through frameworks such as Mosaic United and Momentum. The passing of this resolution will help ensure that these programs continue to grow and expand. It should be noted that all of our efforts are done in partnership with other organizations and institutions throughout the Jewish world and represent the State of Israel joining in this already ongoing effort within a formal capacity.
Q: This sounds like an important mission indeed, especially as there are growing concerns of a gap between Israel and the Diaspora. What have been the most recent developments in the field of Israel-Diaspora relations, and how has the coronavirus affected that relationship?
A: There have been major developments in the field of Israel-world Jewry relations in recent years. One of the most significant shifts is the growing awareness that Israel must take more personal responsibility for this relationship by engaging Israeli society around understanding and appreciating themselves as a part of a larger Jewish people. Jewish communities outside of Israel have understood for some time the need to invest in world Jewry’s connection to Israel. Only now are we in Israel — our government, institutions and civil-society leader — waking up to the need not only to connect Jews around the world to Israel, but to connect Israeli society to the Diaspora and work to make sure that Israelis feel a deeper sense of connection and shared destiny with world Jewry.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the relationship. Jewish camps, trips to Israel, conferences and the constant flow of shlichim between Israel and world Jewry are key frameworks through which we maintain the bonds between Am Yisrael. With these activities largely on hold, we’ve had to pivot, becoming far more creative in how we engage. We’ve invested, along with partners, thousands of shekels, into the field to support Jewish education — both formal and informal initiatives.
I believe that one positive outcome is the incredible development of digital content that can be used for generations to come in educating and connecting the Jewish people. Our office, through our educational initiative, United, is providing Jewish day schools and teachers looking to adapt during this time with ongoing resources, training and opportunities to facilitate engagement and the sharing of resources and knowledge.
We have also engaged in virtual “meet-ups” through our Mosaic initiative and a partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camps, between young Israelis and world Jewry. What started as a pilot model is now being used to build the framework for wide-scale “virtual meet-ups” between Jewish students and classrooms around the world.
Additionally, moving the conversation online opens up the field to individuals who might not have been engaged or have had the opportunity to go to a Jewish day school or come to Israel for the summer. I am confident that as we use this time to build new programs and online content, once the coronavirus ends, there will be an increased sense of urgency to meet in person and connect.
Q: I understand that strengthening the bond between Israel and Jewish Diaspora communities is of utmost importance to Israel, the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and global Jewry. What end results do you hope to see?
A: Building a strong relationship between Israel and world Jewry is fundamental to the State of Israel, to the Zionist dream, and to the continued strength and resilience of the Jewish people. Israel was founded as the nation-state of the entire Jewish people. As such, it is our central obligation to build bridges with Jews worldwide so they all feel connected and at home in Israel. Particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, when our ability to meet in person is taken away, finding new and creative ways to strengthen this connection is more meaningful than ever.
I am doing this now, despite the limitations, by reaching out to as many communities as possible. I go on “virtual tours” of community centers and Jewish day schools, convening roundtables throughout the Jewish world and meeting one-on-one with a wide range of Jewish faces and voices. My ultimate goal is that Jewish people around the world will feel part of a shared common destiny.
Q: How much money will be allocated to this plan?
A: We are now in a dialogue with the Finance Ministry regarding the budget, although currently there is a more general debate over whether the government’s budget will be for one year or two years. I deeply believe that even given the challenges of dealing with COVID-19 in Israel, the Israeli government must be committed to substantially supporting our brothers and sisters around the world.