So apparently, Israel’s government is going to spend billions of dollars in a project to “bolster” Jewish identity in the Diaspora – focusing not just on North America – in an effort to counter “assimilation” and “intermarriage” among young Jews abroad. This initiative is being pushed by Naftali Bennett, the Economy Minister, best known for telling everyone that a Palestinian state won’t happen, and that anyone who thinks that it will is a “friyer – a sucker.” Some Jewish organizational professionals have called it “game-changing” in terms of Diaspora-Israel relations, especially in terms of the traditional “Diaspora funds and Israel spends” scheme. However, it does not really seem to be doing much in the way of new things: “assimilation” and “intermarriage” have been the bogey of right-wing Jewish identity projects for decades. Reference: Birthright, that rebbetzin’s singles mixer, the anxiously-worded sermons on Yom Kippur at many a Conservative synagogue.
Firstly, it seems that there has been putsch after putsch after putsch to prevent “intermarriage” without much success; perhaps it is time to think about why we’re excluding the “intermarried” at all? Secondly, the same goes for “assimilation.” It relies on a very artificial idea of what “assimilation” is: if we wanted to really be pure, I should have written this in Targumic Aramaic. Of course, Israel’s government has long been direct about what it wants young Jews to do. “Come discover your heritage,” I was told on a Facebook ad by a shirtless, muscular man (As if the Israeli publicity machine had never been in a gym in Northern New Jersey on Sunday morning!); “honor your heritage” we are told, by focusing on the past fifty years in one nation-state over the rest of the two thousand years of Jewish heritage.
Israel’s government and especially its right wing, it seems, are scared of losing influence. Two things may contribute to this. One is that Diaspora Jewry has done a pretty spectacular job of maintaining identity without Israel’s help. Witness how successful Limmud has been from its start in the UK – coming to Israel’s shores from abroad! – or the Rosh Hashaná Urbano in Buenos Aires. The second is that young Diaspora Jewry no longer fully accepts Israel’s actions in the Palestinian Territories under the idea of “we Jews always stand with and for Israel” – and are beginning to ask tough questions that make the Naftali Bennetts of the world quiver in their strict nationalist shoes. Your writer thinks that these dollars could easily be going to waste.
Jonathan Katz is a student at the University of Chicago.