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JIIS Bulletin - December 2011
Assessing Jerusalem-Diaspora ties
The relationship between the Jewish Diaspora and Jerusalem provided the grist for a lively discussion at the Institute in early October. The event marked the publication of: For the Sake of Zion I Shall Not Stand Still? The Jewish Diaspora and the Jerusalem Issue, a JIIS study by Prof. Gabi Sheffer and Eyal Tsur. Their work focuses on six out of the seven largest Jewish communities in the diaspora and their relation to Jerusalem since the Oslo accords." It looks at the impact of the diaspora on Jerusalem and of Jerusalem on the diaspora," said Tsur. "No attempt had been made until now to map this relationship comprehensively, or to assess the processes diaspora Jews went through." Among their findings, he said was that "today there is greater legitimacy to live as a Jew in the diaspora than in Israel's early years." Moreover, he said, a larger number of Jews are identifying themselves as Jewish in ethnic and national terms rather than as a religious affiliation. That said, the future of the young generation of Jews in North America is looking to be problematic due to broad assimilation. 

Jerusalem still represents the center of Jewish attraction for diaspora Jews, but it is increasingly identified as a political issue. A change in attitudes in this context can be seen since 2000, when Ehud Barak was prime minister, he noted. Since then "there has been more argument, and less consensus." 

It is worth noting, he said, that Jerusalem has only two sister cities – Fez in Morocco and New York City. 

Rebecca Caspi, Director General, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Israel Office and Senior Vice President, Israel and Overseas, gave an "impressionistic" view of the relationship between American Jews and Jerusalem. In formal terms, there are 157 Jewish federations as well as an additional 300 or so communities who "meet Israel" through a very broad range of activities." On the whole, American Jews still have a "quite romantic" view of Jerusalem, yet "of some 5.5 million American Jews," she said, "only 35 percent have visited Israel." 

Dr. Edward Rettig, Director of the Israel Office of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), praised the new study saying "it is amazing how Israeli academia has avoided this issue." He noted that there is no official voice speaking for American Jewry and stressed that Jewish organizations there are essentially voluntary. In fact, he added, some of them think of themselves as not Jewish per se but rather pro-Israeli. This approach requires a "switch" in thinking on the Israeli side in order to better understand each other. But, he cautioned, if Jerusalem is going to become a city in which women on the bus have to sit in the back, "98 percent of Jews won't identify with it." 

Yair Sheleg, of the Israel Democracy Institute, suggested that it is more important for Jews in the diaspora to retain a local identity than a Jewish one, "or they would be here." Thus, he said, Israel should consider a more universal approach to how it presents Jerusalem – and this should take into account other religions as well. 

MK Dr. Nachman Shai, former Senior Vice President of JFNA Israel, said that his experience taught him that American Jews looked at Israel's capital as "weekend Jerusalem" (e.g., enjoying its tourism potential) vs. "weekday Jerusalem" (the nitty gritty issues that occupy its residents and leaders daily) – and the latter "did not interest them." He noted that donations to Israel went up and down in correlation with the country's changing security needs. Yet Israel cannot afford not to nurture all the voices expressed by American Jewry – even if it does not like what it hears. 

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