Presidential Conference: Being Jewish in the Diaspora

Sunday, June 24, 2012 1:30 PM

How can we safeguard Jewish life in the diaspora, and what is Israel’s role in this endeavor?

The threats on the continued existence of Jews in the diaspora are many and varied—assimilation, gaps in Jewish identification and identity, financial difficulty in maintaining community systems, individualism and anti-Semitism. KKL-JNF offices all over the world confront these issues daily, and consistently work for the benefit of Jewish communities around the world and the continued development of Israel.
A panel entitled To be Jewish: the Challenge of being Jewish in the Diaspora addressed these issues at length. It was chaired by Steve Linde, Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief, who said that Jews in the diaspora face many threats, from identity issues to terrorism. “But in spite of all the difficulties,” he said, “many communities are thriving, new Jewish organizations are being established, and Jewish creativity is flourishing.

Being Jewish in the Diaspora Panel. Photo: Yoav Devir

“How can we safeguard Jewish life in the diaspora, and what is Israel’s role in this endeavor?” Linde asked the panel.
Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice President and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that as Jews, we should first look at the past and only afterwards at the future. “The goal is not the survival of Jewish communities but their prosperity. The greatest threat is apathy, and the key is educating the younger generation.”
Regarding anti-Semitism, Hoenlein said, “It is not politically correct to say, ‘I hate Jews,’ but it is okay to say, ‘I hate Israel,’ and it is certainly okay to say, ‘I hate Zionism.’”
Rachel Korpus, President of the Zionist Federation of New Zealand (ZFNZ), spoke about the challenge of life in a small, distant community. “All of us are labeled as Jews who live in the diaspora, but our challenges are very different. We in New Zealand are few but tough. We are far away and therefore creative.” On the isolation and distance, she smiled and said, “It takes a lot of time to get to Israel, so I am now jet lagged two and a half days.”
Emanuele Fiano, Member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, related to the number of Jews in Italy, which is constantly decreasing. “The question, as far as we are concerned, is not what kind of future we will have, but how long it will continue,” he said, “and we must open the doors of the Jewish community to all Jews. There is no Jew that can tell another Jew he is more or less Jewish than him. We need new, young leadership to ensure continuity.”
Prof. Judith Boxer Liwerant from Mexico said that demographics have become a challenging issue all over the diaspora. “The role of Israel has always been vital and central in the lives of Jews in Latin America,” she said.
Rabbi Richard Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism in the USA, claimed that it was easier to be Jewish in the diaspora than to be a non-Orthodox Jew in Israel. “We face challenges, and this is nothing new, but the community is large and strong in the USA. Reality is changing, but we are responding to the changes creatively. Our job is to help everyone find his or her place in Jewish life.”
According to Jacobs, “Judaism has never been meant to be frozen and unchanging. The meaning of Judaism is to live a meaningful life. The circle of our responsibility also includes those who think differently than we do.”
As for connecting to Israel, he said, “Israel is nothing less than a miracle. Israel needs us to stand by it forever. Along with concern for the security of Israel, we also have to ensure the values of tolerance and democracy.”
Hoenlein closed the discussion by saying that there is no Jew in the diaspora who can imagine life without Israel. “Israel is a source of inspiration and a spiritual center for all of us, even if each of us defines his connection to Israel a little differently.”