No. 69: A Conversation with the Minister of Diaspora Affairs

The following is a transcript of Episode 69 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity/Crisis, the show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, president of Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. And we’re recording on Tuesday, September 14th, 2021 the day before the day before Yom Kippur. And I’m excited to be in conversation with a major leader in the state of Israel, a major public official, the minister of Diaspora Affairs, Nachman Shai, who joined as part of what I think many of us experienced and are watching as a major cultural change, not only a political change, but a cultural change in Israeli government with the ascendance of prime minister, Naftali Bennett and alternate prime minister, Yair Lapid, which has brought a kind of sea change and a whole bunch of questions that have defined Israeli politics for about a generation under the previous prime minister Netanyahu. Minister Nachman Shai after an incredibly auspicious career in public and in private service has joined in this unusual ministry, the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, I guess, of particular interest to those of us who study Israel/diaspora, who live in America and who have watched this space of the relationship between American Jews and the state of Israel deteriorating over the span of a past generation or two, and into an unusual role of trying to address and navigate that relationship.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
One of the first activities in the role, which is striking, which is actually perfectly timed for this high holiday episode is the minister wrote an article that appeared in JTA at the beginning of September Jewish Telegraphic Agency titled, “Has Israel let you down? Its minister of Diaspora Affairs wants you to talk about it over the High Holidays” does something unusual by general Israeli standards, which is apologizing on behalf of the State of Israel for the State of Israel’s role in the deterioration of relationship between Israel and diaspora. And I’m excited to have this conversation with you, Mr. Minister, thank you. First of all, for joining us on this podcast,

Nachman Shai:
Thank you very much, Yehuda. And if I may say one word, this is the eve of Yom Kippur, right? And for many Israelis that also brings sound and images of the Yom Kippur War. And also the memories of 2,700 Israeli soldiers who fell in that war was inevitable. Now we know, so if we can just devote this conversation for their memory. Doesn’t mean that we have to discuss war now. I prefer to discuss peace with you, but just bear in mind that for us Israelis, the trauma of Yom Kippur will always be remembered in Jewish history and in Israel history. This war broke out at 2:00 PM.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
I appreciate you starting there because that actually is very telling, you know, about in 2013, I went on Facebook, which is our kind of spend most of my time on Erev Yom Kippur or a week before or whatever, and I said, how many rabbis here in North America are planning on speaking about this as the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War? And it was astonishing how few people had thought about it had even had the thought to like, oh, I should probably speak about that. And in that moment, that was one of those moments of like, oh, we are living in different universes. I can imagine you’re describing it. How many congregations in Israel, even without having to talk about Yom Kippur War on Yom Kippur are thinking about it. Right? And it’s one of these things that really divides us. So you’re entering into this role. You’re watching the relationship between American Jews and Israeli Jews, which is sometimes bad. And sometimes like with this example almost non-existent, so first of all, diagnose it. What do you see coming into this role? Where, where have you seen the problematics when you came in and what have you been noticing in your first few weeks in the role?

Nachman Shai:
There was a kind of disconnection between at least two out of the three denominations with Israel in general, and with this ministry in particular. They lost confidence in the government. Not only because of the Kotel, but the Kotel issue played a major role in that, but also other incidents before and after conversion and so on. Issues that stand between Israel and the diaspora, Israel did not pay attention to the positions, opinions of millions of Jews living out of the country. That created a kind of a rift between them, between you and us. And I said to myself, if I can do something to repair the damage, that’s what I’m going to do. I have the full backing of the prime minister of Naftali Bennett, who fully understands the situation. He hasn’t done too much yet, but I believe he will. If I have to do something that will be so-called remembered at the end of my term, you know, Israeli politicians have to take into account the terms here are not necessarily too long. I would love to dedicate as much as possible now at this stage to try to bring brothers and sisters from Israel and the entire Jewish world together to discuss Israel. Let’s talk about Israel. It’s fine with me. We may disagree about Israel’s actions, about Israel’s deeds, about Israeli policies, but one and only Israel for all of us. So let’s bring Israel back to the center of the dialogue between the diaspora and Israel.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
I guess my first question is like why? There is a country called Italy. There’s an Italian diaspora. They don’t really need a ministry. It doesn’t really matter. It might even be the case that Israel could do perfectly fine without a relationship with liberal American Jews as long as it retains the relationship with the evangelicals where there are a lot more of them. There are certainly plenty of Jews in America who are not troubled at all by the State of Israel. What is the interest here? Is it strategic? Is it moral? What is the concern that you see of why this frittering away relationship with liberal Jews actually causes concern to the state of Israel?

Nachman Shai:
Depends on who you’re talking to because three months ago, when the finance ministry, guys come to my office to discuss next year’s budget. I preach to them about the upcoming 10-year strategic agreement between Israel and the United States. And I said that we need American Jewry, especially the Democrats, which are 70% to help us. It’s a practical matter, okay? Because they speak business. Do you want to understand why do we need the diaspora ministry, $4 billion a year? Can you imagine Israel’s defense budget without $4 billion a year? And sometimes an extra one, like the 1 billion that we have just asked from the White House and probably will be given to us, but you are from the finance ministry. Let’s talk money. But in general, I would like to do my best that the average Israeli, especially the young generation hasn’t learned about the gola, the diaspora, at all, and has no understanding whatsoever. What does it mean? Will develop a certain sentiment to Jews living out of the country.

Nachman Shai:
When we, what we call amiyyut, peoplehood, we lack a sense of peoplehood here in Israel, something that you many of you have been raised within the United States or elsewhere many Israelis for them Am Yisrael is just Israel. This is Am Yisrael. We live 7 million Jews together. This is Am Yisrael. No, you’re wrong. Am Yisrael is around 15 million people and maybe even bigger. That’s how we, we have to relate to you as part of Am Yisrael. For many Israelis is: Am Yisrael doesn’t exist.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
What you’re describing is not merely a strategic concern, but it is actually an essence of spiritual concern. So let’s probe that a little bit. Now, part of the reason why I understand why Israelis don’t particularly care about amiyyut is that they have a theory of mute, which is – you know, and I find this with a lot of my Israeli friends and colleagues. You guys do whatever you want, but eventually, you’re going to need to run here. And when you need to run here, we’ll keep the doors open for you. That’s a theory of amiyyut. I care about the Jewish people. I’m standing here. I’m going to hold this land. I’m going to protect it. And when you come, you come in. But to really take seriously diaspora Jews as something that is independently vital, that has a future, it runs against Zionism because so much of Zionism was premised on the idea that the aspirin doesn’t work. So how do you convince Israelis that diaspora is something that’s okay for American Jews without undermining the very thing that drives their Zionist identity.

Nachman Shai:
We have changed our attitude towards the gola, the diaspora. From the time I was born here almost 75 years ago, when gola was a word you haven’t even used or was it kind of a curse? You know, you came from the gola. We don’t want to talk. We just created the new sabra, the new Jew. It’s a new chapter in Jewish life. We only speak Hebrew and don’t tell us what to do and how. But we know everything. And 75 years later when I look at it, we are now much more open to listening to other voices. And to hear some advice from Jews or non-Jews who do not live necessarily in Israel, many of us have spent long times out of the country, take the shinshinim, for example, hundreds of young Israelis now spent one year in the United States or elsewhere.

Nachman Shai:
They come back different people than they left. And they are very young, too young for this mission. But at the same time, it’s quite an experience that changed their life. Now they understand what does it mean to live in the diaspora? I tried to develop this sense within Israel, through education, through leadership, through Knesset Caucus the army, the mil- everywhere I can. And also through the media, of course, by putting myself somehow at the center of it. So I was appointed to do something that you don’t even imagine what it means. And also by convincing the state of Israel to give me money for the purpose to be, give me funds. You know, it’s not a simple matter to ask Israelis, why do we have to spend our money to combat antisemitism when there is no antisemitism in Israel? Why do we care? Of course, we care. As long as there is antisemitism in the world, this country is committed. This country is obligated to combat antisemitism much more than we have been doing by the way. That’s what I’m trying to do.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
For the diaspora ministry: getting American Jews to be talking with Israelis and connected to Israel or getting Israelis to take seriously the diaspora, of course the answer is both.

Nachman Shai:
Of course. I cannot rate and give priority, but we try much harder out of the country because of the future generation. I’m confident that those Israelis that will remain Jews if it’s not Jewish life, but believe in the Jewish state. So for being Jew for us, it’s just a way of life. But what about your young generation? What about assimilation in the United States and elsewhere in high percentage? And I’m not here to give advice to anyone, how to run their life, but I’m asking myself how many Jews will be left 10 or 15 or 50 years from now when I unfortunately will not be around. I care for the future of the Jewish people. I can tell you that more and more Israelis are aware of it. And we would like to increase the number of Israel is that we’ll ask those questions that it’s not only about Israel. Please open your eyes, I say. And look out of the country and ask yourself, what’s the future of the Jewish people and what are you going to do in order to help Jews who live out of the country to remain Jewish, to run Jewish life.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
At the heart of the tension between these communities is the question of do American Jews – I speak primarily to American and Canadian Jews, but let’s say diaspora Jews more broadly, do they have a voice? Are they able to have an opinion about what takes place in Israel? That’s one of the crux issues. So yesterday at the Hartman Institute, we opened up a new center called the Center for Yahadut v’Medina, the center for Judaism and state. And one of your peers in the Israeli government minister Yoaz Hendel, the Communications minister made an old differentiation so that it was a new articulation of an old differentiation, which is you can have your opinions on security, but we don’t really care about them. But on certain issues, religion, state, it’s really important that you as diaspora Jews raise your voice. And that it’s important for us to listen. It’s an old distinction. American Jews have the right to have a voice on one set of issues. I’m curious your take on that question of, is it only on issues of Kotel, on religious pluralism, on spirituality which American Jews could certainly contribute to Israeli society? And what is the place, if any, for American Jews to actually have really strong opinions about other issues that define this relationship, including security and occupation, those types of things that those of us who are deeply invested in Israel are really concerned about?

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Every topic. Including security. Including foreign policy. If we are assigned to tikkun olam, why don’t we do tikkun Israel? Do you want to correct the world? What, why, why exclude Israel? I’d like to hear your opinion. Why peace and war as well? Because when we fought the Hamas last summer, your life in the United States was impacted. I would say even heavily impacted, starting was public opinion, going down to anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in the streets of Brooklyn, right? You may say, ah, my friends and Israel don’t embark on war any longer because it impacts our friends. So I said, no, Yehuda, you’re wrong. We will if necessary, unfortunately, but we have to bear in mind. What does it mean to you? And to be prepared for that. It’s one area. So even peace and war, of course you don’t pay taxes and you don’t live in Israel and the – no, but it’s fine because it takes so it’s so central in our life that if I exclude the dialogue only to religious so-called matters, it will be a mistake. And I know my opinion is a little bit different than yours and other colleagues of mine, but that’s fine. And especially in today’s world, when news cross the world so fast and you know, you can live in the states, but in the Israeli timetable, you can live a full Israeli life out of Israel. Full Israeli life: language, culture, music, even friends, like we are doing right now.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
It’s like any version of intimacy. Imagine that somebody says to you, I want you to care deeply about me and I want to be in conversation with you, but this whole piece that’s really important to me, you’re not allowed to talk about having an opinion about like, do you really want an intimate relationship or are you actually stipulating the terms that actually undermine that? So when you look at American Jews and I think we probably have some similar diagnoses and some differences, a lot of my work, and a lot of the work of the Institute is about, in some ways, persuading American Jews, about why our relationship with Israel can matter to them, knowing that it’s actually really possible for American Jews to have meaningful Jewish lives and meaningful Jewish identities without a relationship to Israel. In fact, sometimes the relationship with Israel is frustrating and it’s inconvenient or it’s embarrassing. Why is it important to you beyond what it helps Israel? Why is it important for American Jews to be in closer and deeper relationship with the state of Israel, than where they currently are?

Nachman Shai:
It’s a good question. I advise them to get into this dialogue between us, because it will enrich their life as Jewish people. There is no Judaism into this world without Israel. If they ignore Israel, he said, I can be a Jew without any relations with Israel, they’re wrong. How can they close their eyes and say, I’m a full Jew without any attachment to Israel? I don’t think it’s possible because for all corners, for all matters, Israel is the center of Jewish life into this world. You cannot run away. It’s like, you can not in my view you cannot run away being Jewish as well, but that’s something else. But in this case, if Israel is not the center, where is it? Where is it? It’s not that we impose ourselves upon you. It should come from your side. You said, I’d like to know more about Israel. I’d like to learn more about Israel.

Nachman Shai:
I’d like to understand much more about Israel. What I feel like there’s a shortage of information about Israel, the sort of knowledge about the history of the state, how things started, how they develop. When young American Jews in American campuses now are exposed to not the antisemitism, but anti-Israelism, I’m not sure they are well equipped. Just with information, forget about taking positions. Just to know what happened there, how this state came to being, how did it start? Who teaches them? The history of the State of Israel, which is integral part from Jewish history in the past 100 years.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
What do you think is critical for Israelis to understand about diaspora Jews in order for them to be in relationship with them? I assume I know you’ve been on a listening tour. You’ve been on a conversation tour with diaspora Jews, with diaspora leaders. We had a rich conversation about some of the dynamics of American Jewish life. I suspect most Israeli Jews don’t understand American Jews. It’s not just, what do you want Israelis to understand about diaspora for Jews, but what will enrich Israeli Jewish life? When they learn something about the Asper Jews, what’s going to change for them?

Yehuda Kurtzer:
No present without past the present is based on the past, about history. They should learn their past. You want to be an Israeli, but it started somewhere and not necessarily with Herzl in 1897. Maybe a few hundred years before, maybe a few thousands of year before, then you start with the roots. The roots are all around the globe, Jews live all around the globe. They also carry the same mission, the same message of history, Jewish history. If you look at them and you ask, so what’s your history? Where did you come from? Then we realize we all come from the same place. We have the same roots. That’s all fascinating about Judaism. That’s what I’m going to tell. And I will tell to like my friend, it’s not a practical matter. I did already carry this. I told you about how I would translate it as a national security issue, because Israelis like to speak about security. Security helps on any matter. It says security. We all stand and said, oh, security and salute. No, it’s not only about security. In a way, it’s part of our national security. It is, but it’s not all about it. It’s much deeper. It’s much deeper. And you know, when I speak about it, then I try to do it as much as possible, especially in the media people listen, and then come back to me and said, you know, we heard something new that we haven’t heard before. I really mobilize all my communication talents for that matter.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
It’s one of the most interesting aspects that I’m just watching from afar about this current Israeli government. I don’t know whether it’s humility. I don’t know what it is or opportunity, but to say, I don’t know that we’re going to solve all the major problems, but where can we make a little bit of progress on some of them. It might actually be possible. So let’s take the one kind of famous example that you led with, which is the Kotel compromise. What should we be watching for over the next few months in terms of the return of the Kotel compromise? How’s that actually going to play out in Israeli society?

Nachman Shai:
The Kotel issue should be removed from the vital dialogue between you and us. There’s no reason whatsoever to this government, which has no, almost all opposition, and the Ultra-Orthodox parties, which have been pressuring the Prime Minister in the past are not members of this coalition, so politics is truly important to here too. Let’s discuss it, how to do it as soon as possible. That’s my position to the Prime Minister. He actually made a certain promise to deal with it after the chagim. But this is a way of saying in Israel for everything is waiting until after the chagim, after the chagim. I don’t want to hear about after the chagim any longer. With so many things are waiting for after the chagim. I think that if we resolve this issue, finally, we create such a new atmosphere and open a new chapter in the relationship between American Jewry in general and the state of Israel. And it’s really in our heads. It’s really not – we don’t have to work too hard. The compromise was already reached. The outline was waiting there that just taking the initiative and moving forward. And that’s what I told. And I actually sent the letter and I’m now really circulating even a draft for a government resolution on that. So they don’t have to work out, just follow my advice. And I know that that the prime minister, the finance minister, the defense minister, almost every member of the coalition and of the government is in favor.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
And do you think that there’s a way to do it, that’ll be able to survive the coalition politics of a later Israeli government that is predominantly right-wing/Haredi. Like part of the problem is that the more that it’s tied to specific coalition politics, the more it’s vulnerable that it’s on and then off again.

Nachman Shai:
But once it was done, it will be irreversible. And we have to be courageous. Believe me, it’s time to be courageous. Actually, it was in Netanyahu’s hand. At the time when we were all celebrating in Israel was 400 Reform rabbis who came to Israel to celebrate. Maybe they celebrated too much and too fast. But as a matter of fact, it became so important. Maybe disproportionately important, but it’s there. And now it’s too late to say, well, we are so sorry that we didn’t respond at the time. Between Israel and the Jewish world we can do something which will transform the situation from one side to the other.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Well, you’ve been really generous with your time and I appreciate it. Before we conclude, and since we’re in the middle of holiday season, and you’re sitting in such an unusual position at the intersection of the relationship between Israel and the Jewish people, you’re not a rabbi, but maybe you could give a blessing to the Jewish people. What would you give as your blessing right now for the Jewish people in the middle of this weird time? In this moment, in this season.

Nachman Shai:
What I would like to wish to Israel is equality, peace, health, of course, justice. I’d like to respond to the vision of the Prophets, but also to the founding fathers of the state of Israel, which are still –  remember in a way between you and us, some of the values are applicable as well, equality and, and a sense of unity between Jews all around the world. I think the message from this coalition, which you rightly mentioned, it’s a big surprise is unprecedented, is that we understand that without unity, we cannot go anywhere. And after four elections campaign, we decided to be united even if we disagree with each other on over 50% of the issues coming to the cabinet table. But we still manage, Yehuda, week after week to produce compromises that I’m so proud of, because I believe that the secret of Jewish survival for many, many years, was to find compromise. To find a compromise.

Nachman Shai:
It’s not easy because we all have principles and we all believe that there’s all one single ideology that matters. No, there’s more than one. And that’s om important that we finally understand in the same role, 30 people sit and they listen to each other and they care for each other and they get out of the room after two or three hours with full agreement. Can you believe it? So what I wish to see is a sense of understanding, compromise, and unity between you and us as well. You know, it makes the Israelis, most of them happy and relaxed, and they urge me in the street: “Please don’t fight with each other. We are so few after all, can we afford just fighting with each other?” This is the destiny of the State of Israel? And I say no. And so I would like to thank God for creating this government in a way, it was a miracle. The miracles are not over yet. I mean, in our history, there is another one. And if we can inspire the entire Jewish people for the same sense of unity, understanding, reaching compromises between denominations and between Sefardi and Ashkenazi, this is something that I would like to wish to all of us.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Hard to argue with that, you know, I’m a child of a diplomat. So someone who says my wish for the world is compromised is really a beautiful image. And truly given that all of the racial and ethnic and political complexities of the state of Israel and those that divide the state of Israel from diaspora Jews as well, a vision for compromise where not everybody always gets exactly what they want, but everybody gets what they need is a beautiful message.

Nachman Shai:
That’s it.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
That’s it. Thank you. Thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it. I think it’s a critical message and you know, I’m on your team.

Nachman Shai:
Shana Tova. Gmar Chatimah Tovah

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Gmar Chatimah Tovah. Chag Sameach.Thanks so much for listening to our show this week and special thanks to minister Nachman Shai, this week’s guest. Identity/Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Joelle Fredman with assistance from Miri Miller. And music provided by so-called. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically about a week after our episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online shalomhartman.org. We want to know what you think about the show. You can rate and review us on iTunes to help more people find our show. And you can write to us at [email protected] You can subscribe to our show, wherever podcasts are available. See you next week and thanks for listening.