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Institute Seeks to Improve Israelis’ Knowledge of Diaspora

A new SHI research group takes a unique approach to Peoplehood study
Tehila Friedman is a Research Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute and a program director for Shaharit, a think tank promoting a new social covenant in Israel. She is the immediate past chair of Ne’emanei Torah va’Avodah, a modern Orthodox movement promoting pluralism and democracy, as well as a board member of the Yerushalmit Movement, a nonprofit for a pluralistic Jerusalem. She was a fellow in the Mandel Leadership Institute and

The Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem has established a research group of Israeli scholars to establish new conceptual foundations for a Zionist appreciation of world Jewish Peoplehood , and to create educational curricula to be distributed through multiple Institute programs.

Dr. Tehila Friedman, an Institute research scholar and the research group’s leader, spoke of the project in an interview.

Q: What is the aim of the research group?

Tehila Friedman: The aim of this research group is to develop the basic thinking – a Torah – of the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. What’s the basis for this relationship, from an Israeli perspective? The answer may appear obvious: We are all one people – what do you need to talk about? But actually, it’s not so obvious for a couple of reasons.

First, for years, Zionism was very much based on shlilat ha-gola – negation of the Diaspora. This meant that to be Zionist and to live abroad were fundamentally in conflict. Can we develop a Zionism today that is not based on shilat ha-gola?

This is also a paradox, because when Israel was established, the founders didn’t really want a Diaspora. They wanted all Jews to come to Israel. But on the other hand, they then, and we still, need a strong Diaspora that we can rely on economically, for security reasons, for lobbying on Israel’s behalf, and for diplomatic support. So, we don’t need Diaspora Jewry… but we actually do need it. This paradox is really at the heart of Zionism.

The other reason is that if you look candidly at the situation, American Jewry and Israeli Jewry are heading in different directions. We are in the midst of an international crisis that posits democracy and liberalism as opposites. I’m referring to democracy in the sense of majority rulership – as opposed to protecting human rights, minorities’ rights, etc. You can see this developing all over the world. We didn’t choose it. It’s simply the spirit of the times.

Part of this also are challenges to nationalism. Israel as a national state is on one side of this crisis. American Jewry – as a strong minority that is very sensitive to minorities’ rights – is on the other side. Can we build strong enough Jewish solidarity to overcome this gap?

Q: Can you pinpoint a date or two that signified the time when North American and Israeli Jewry – at least leadership – began to split apart?

TF: The Iranian deal, from the Israelis’ perspectives. Many Israelis felt that if in this critical moment, Americans weren’t backing the Israeli prime minister, so where are they when we need them? On the other hand, when the Kotel agreement collapsed – after the Israeli government signed it, after all those years of process, after everything – we changed our minds. And without even saying anything officially. So, it was a big slap in the face to the leadership level. I must say, in this issue, I completely take the American side.

Q: Do you believe these challenges can be overcome?

TF: In the last few years – since the Kotel agreement fell apart – Israeli society realized that something is wrong, because of the strong reactions emanating from US Jewry. So, for the first time ever, this issue made headlines, and more Israelis became aware that there is a problem. We need to be able to overcome them – otherwise we won’t continue to be one people. And if we’re not one people, so, who are we? That’s the basis of Judaism.

Q: How will the research group address this situation?

TF: We’ve seen a boom of organizations trying to do things to overcome this, to bridge the gap. We want to be the place that develops the Torah, that gives them a deeper basis to their work. We are talking here about the need, the political need, the spiritual need. For me, it’s an existential need, because we’re talking about the unity of the Jewish people, and I feel there is real danger here.

It’s going to be focused on the Israeli education system. What we hope the research will do is to feed the field. Our research group doesn’t aim to produce thinkers who will write beautiful essays, but rather to feed the educational programs of Hartman and hopefully also help other organizations that are working on the issue.

Q: What do you plan for this project in the near-term?

TF: The material we develop will be used in existing Hartman Institute programs, such as Be’eri, Hevruta, and Hartman high schools. And we would like to convince the next Minister of Education to enact that every Israeli student in the ninth grade must spend half a year or so learning about Diaspora Jewry.

The questions and answers above were lightly edited for clarity.

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