If there is a State-Diaspora relationship that remains a major source of inspiration for the Armenian world, it is the Jewish example. The role of the state of Israel remains a reference both known and fantasized about by Armenians. What is the nature of that relationship? What are the tools available to Israel that strengthen the synergies between Tel Aviv and Diasporan Jews? This is part three of a series of studies on State-Diaspora relations.
When Armenians gather to discuss the future of their diaspora and the need to better coordinate the ties between Yerevan and the rest of the Armenian world, a comparison with Israel is inevitable. Even though Israel, in contrast to Armenia, ideologically bases its creation in Zionism, a secular political movement born in the diaspora.
A Diasporic State
Israel identifies itself as a “Jewish state.” This is reflected in state symbols such as the menorah and the “Star of David”, in the national anthem (Hatikvah), in state ceremonies, and in numerous laws formalizing the state’s Jewish identity, most notably the Law of Return. Israel’s Jewish identity means that it regards itself as the state for all Jews around the world, and hence their representative and defender. In the words of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, “Israel is the State of and for a world people.” Israel’s identity as the Jewish state, then, has taken upon itself the mission to protect and defend Jews everywhere and to advance Jewish interests in the international system. Hence, Israeli foreign policy is not just concerned with securing the interests of its own citizens, but also of Jewish citizens of other countries.
As the Declaration of Independence of May 15, 1948, stipulates, “the State of Israel will be open to all Jews.” In 1950, the Law of Return made immigration to the Jewish state and acquisition of Israeli citizenship a right for any Jew in the diaspora. Since its establishment, the Jewish state has constantly deployed considerable effort to encourage immigration and quickly found success: between 1948 and 1951, the Jewish population of Israel doubled, then doubled again between 1951 and 1970, and finally multiplied by eight from 1948 and 1988. Aimed at—for ideological and strategic reasons—the assimilation of the diaspora in the new state, this policy was bound to affect Israel’s relations with the countries from which they came. 
In 2018, the Knesset passed into law the Basic Law Proposal: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. The law reinforces the Jewish character of the State as it grants only Jews the right to self-determination in the State of Israel, and enshrines for the first time Israel as the “national home of the Jewish people.” The legislation refers not only to the national symbols mentioned earlier it also codifies the days of state holidays. In addition, the text emphasizes the links between Israel and the Jewish diaspora in the world. The state must ensure “the safety of members of the Jewish people in danger or in captivity because of their Jewishness or their citizenship.” It must also take care to “strengthen the affinities” between the State and the diaspora and preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among this diaspora. Finally, the new Basic Law focuses on “the development of Jewish communities” considered a “national value”. It affirms that the State will “act to encourage and promote their establishment and consolidation.”
This text comes at a pivotal moment: for the first time, there are more Jews in Israel than in the entire diaspora. In July 2020, the world Jewish population was estimated at 14,410,700 people according to Omer Yankelevich, the Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs who presented an annual report to the Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs of the Knesset. 6,740,000 Jews live in Israel, making it the largest community. In second place is North America, which has 6,088,000 members. Additionally, there are 1.072 million Jews in Europe, 324,000 in South America, 300,000 in Asia, 120,000 in Oceania and 74,000 in Africa. While many Diaspora Jews have strong emotional ties to Israel, in 2020 the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs Vir Kahana pointed out that 80% of Diaspora Jews do not feel not related to Judaism, nor to their Jewishness.
The Jewish Agency
The Jewish Agency, a parastatal organization of the Israeli government, was established in 1929 to be the executive of the World Zionist organization in British Palestine. After independence, it was transformed into a government body responsible for Jewish immigration to Israel (aliyah). Since 2009, the Agency no longer depends on the World Zionist Organization. It has become an organization responsible for immigration from the diaspora and the reception and integration of new Jewish immigrants. Between 1948 and 2019, an annual average of about 48,000 Jews settled in Israel. Of the approximately 9.6 million people in Israel in 2020, about 3,300,000 people have come since the state was established in 1948, from all established Jewish communities around the world and make up about 45% of the total population established in Israel. In order to fulfill this essential mission for the future of the State of Israel, it has representations for this purpose in all the important countries with regard to their Jewish population: United States, Canada, Russia, Ukraine, Great Britain, France, Argentina, Brazil, Holland, South Africa, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, etc. Today, the Jewish Agency is working, in addition to tasks and missions relating to the arrival of Jews in Israel, on many projects that are not all related to immigration. It supports various education programs in urban or peripheral areas within the housing estates of the major cities of the Jewish state.
Taglit-Birthright Israel is an Israeli non-profit organization created in 1999, which offers trips to Israel to young people of Jewish faith or culture, aged 18 to 26, with the objective of strengthening ties between the State of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. From 1999 to 2014, 350,000 young people from 64 countries participated in the program, and approximately 80% of the participants were from the United States and Canada. In Hebrew taglit means “discovery”. The Birthright Israel program started in 1994 on the initiative of two businessmen (Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt). The project had obtained financial support from the Israeli government, private donors, and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Several million dollars are donated to the organization each year. Birthright Israel has inspired similar programs for other diasporas with similar goals: Birthright Armenia for the Armenian diaspora, Reconnect Hungarian for young adults in the Hungarian diaspora, and Birthright Greece for the Greek diaspora. Israel’s national airline El-Al is the operator of the flights for members of Taglit-Birthright.
The Ministry of the Diaspora
Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs was created in March 2009. Previously, it was an administration integrated into the Ministry of Information (1967-1969, 1974-1975), the Ministry of Social Affairs and Diaspora (1999-2001, 2003-2006) and the Ministry of Diaspora Society (which was entrusted to fight against antisemitism) from 2007-2009. The combination of the Information and Diaspora Affairs portfolios earlier (1967-1969, 1974-1975) highlighted the ministry’s role as one of the primary mouthpieces for the Israeli government abroad, although by comparison Diaspora Affairs dealt more directly with diplomacy, state to state, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry works to strengthen Jewish identity and ties with Israel and contribute to a thriving Jewish diaspora that is proud of its heritage and feels directly connected to Israel. Its ultimate goal is to strengthen Jewish identity and ties to Israel among Jews who have no sense of kinship or connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. Its main programs are the “Israeli Jewish People’s Initiative”, known as Mosaic United, and the Taglit and Masa projects –– all on behalf of the Government of Israel. Also noteworthy is the Momentum Project, which brings thousands of mothers to Israel on an intensive program designed to strengthen their Jewish identity. Another objective of this ministry is the fight against anti-Semitism. For this, the Ministry has formulated a strategic plan designed primarily to guarantee the safety of communities and individuals in times of crisis or otherwise. Activities focus on reducing the number and severity of antisemitic incidents around the world, raising public awareness about antisemitism, strengthening the commitment of individuals, organizations and governments to combat antisemitism, and providing assistance to people affected by antisemitism.
In order to strengthen the ties between Israeli society and the diaspora, the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs has implemented the “Diaspora Connection Index” which aims to acquaint different strata of society in Israel with the Jewish diaspora. This consists of several initiatives including the launch of a “diaspora week” with programs planned in museums, schools and other institutions, the implementation of projects in formal education (teaching programs developed in cooperation with the Ministry of Education), training of opinion leaders, public campaigns in the media and in the field of non-formal education. These activities aim to broaden and deepen public knowledge within Israeli society about Jewish life in the diaspora, the diversity and geographic distribution of Jewish communities around the world, and the challenges these communities face; to strengthen the sense of affinity between the Jewish state and the Jews of the diaspora, and to stimulate Israelis to become actively involved in various fields related to world Jewry.
While there are no Diaspora MPs in the Knesset, the ministry views Diaspora Jews as an integral part of the Jewish nation and considers Israel as the unique center of the Jewish world. The goals in the above areas are to increase the knowledge of the Israeli public about Diaspora Jewry, its communities and individuals, and the challenges they face. They are also aimed at promoting participation and action on issues relating to Diaspora Jews. Several projects exist in this area, such as integrating the subject of diaspora into formal and informal education systems, and raising awareness among Israeli opinion leaders on the subject through an in-depth course on the challenges facing the Jewish people.
A public committee was appointed in 2020 to examine the relationship between the State of Israel and communities around the world that have kinship with the Jewish people but who are not Jewish and entitled to rights under the Law of Return. The Ministry of Diaspora acts as a “facilitator” to all Jewish candidates for aliyah; by offering several types of services and acting as bridges between the diasporas and the various Israeli administrations.
Fight Against Assimilation and Anti-Semitism
In order to ensure its sustainability, Israel sought the assimilation of the diaspora in the new state, a policy that was bound to affect Israel’s relations with the countries from which they came. Thus the foreign policy of the Jewish state is determined by at least two considerations: the pursuit of its state interests and acting to incentivize immigration of Jews in the diaspora to Israel. These two objectives can come into conflict, however, a situation that most often, according to Goldberg, results in the prioritization of the interests of the State over those of the diaspora.
In fact, Israel is faced with the same challenges and problems as Armenia in terms of preservation and transmission of identity, and religion, and the need to fight against xenophobia which continues to affect many Western societies.
Israeli elites and political establishment have always taken a demanding and often one-sided approach to Diaspora Jewry, expecting them to serve as a vital resource in generating pro-Israel support, a source of unconditional funding, and a potential pool of future immigrants. But by failing to consider diversity of opinions, values, and aspirations among Diaspora Jews, Israeli leaders have taken diaspora support for granted. Added to this is the growing gap between Orthodox Jews in Israel, whose influence has been growing steadily for decades and the secular and Reform Jewish currents that are predominant in the diaspora. The Israeli government’s lack of taking into account the opinions of the diaspora in the development of their policies, exacerbates this divide over time. In recent years, Israel has become an ally of many right-wing populist regimes around the world.
Many Diaspora Jews are shocked by Israel’s alliances with xenophobic and liberal regimes that replaced antisemitism with islamophobia. In this way, it can be said that the impact of Israel’s current policy has led to growing division among Jewish communities abroad.
1- Peretz, Pauline, “Politique d’immigration, politique étrangère et diplomatie parallèle. Arbitrages et opportunisme d’Israël dans la conduite à l’égard de sa diaspora”,, Relations internationales, vol. 141, no. 1, 2010, pp. 47-64.
2- Jews represent approximately 75% of the total population residing in Israel.
3- Goldberg, “The Jewish Factor in the Israeli Reaction to the Doctors’ Plot in Moscow” in Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Ideological and Political Perspectives, Tel-Aviv, Bar-Ilan University Press, p. 184.
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