The resignation of Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky, should be an occasion for at least some kind of disturbance in the Israel-Diaspora relationship. That it passed without a ripple says much about the meaning of the Israeli post and of Sharansky’s own agenda on the job.
The title of Diaspora affairs minister was created in the 1990s for a particular Knesset member, Rabbi Michael Melchior, whose interest in issues of Jewish identity and pluralism had brought him into politics as head of a small party of Orthodox liberals allied to Labor. Once in the Cabinet post, he earnestly took on those causes, helping to get Diaspora concerns onto the Israeli agenda while representing Israel in global forums on Holocaust restitution, antisemitism and the like.
Sharansky came into the post with his own understanding of Jewish priorities, largely forged during his decade in a Soviet prison. He was acceptable to Diaspora Jewish activists because he was a hero in their eyes, thanks to his courage in facing down Soviet tyranny a quarter-century earlier. But he was not a factor in Israel; since arriving their in the mid-1980s, he has quietly struggled, mostly without success, to find a public role as an immigrant leader or champion of human rights. None of his attempts has captured the Israeli imagination, and in the end it was his reputation among Diaspora Jews that brought him into the Cabinet post. In the post he devoted himself largely to his own agenda, mostly fighting antisemitism and advocating his particular vision of democracy.
If no visible vacuum was created, it was largely because a sizable infrastructure already existed for advancing Diaspora-Israel relations, built around the Jewish Agency for Israel and the vast complex of direct ties between Diaspora Jewish groups and their Israeli counterparts. It’s enough to note, as Nathaniel Popper does in his Page 1 article, the lively, ongoing debates over Ethiopian immigration, the distribution of Holocaust restitution funds, the growing field of teen travel to Israel and the efforts to create a new architecture for Israel-Diaspora consultation and representation. All these discussions have proceeded comfortably enough without an Israeli minister to orchestrate them.
If there is one area that cries out for coordinated action, it’s the question of Jewish representation. A disturbing series of crises, apparently unrelated to one another, have managed simultaneously to cast shadows over most of the recognized institutions of world Jewish representation: the financial scandal in the World Jewish Congress, the Israeli legal challenges facing the land policies of the World Zionist Organization and Jewish National Fund, and not least the shadow of uncertainty hanging over the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
All these come at a time when Jewish communities face major challenges on their home turf, from the rise of radical Islamism in France, Holland and Great Britain to the canards of pro-Israel meddling by Jewish lobbyists in Washington.
Sharansky has many years of honorable service ahead of him, both to Israel and to the cause of democracy. Israel-Diaspora relations, however, require leadership from people who care about the stuff of Jewish communal life. Israel’s prime minister should think carefully before filling the post once again with someone whose heart is elsewhere. We’d be better off on our own.