Top Jewish advocate delivers ‘tough’ speech on Israel-Diaspora relations

NEW YORK – One of North America’s foremost Jewish advocates on Thursday voiced concern over what he described as the “growing rift” in Israel-Diaspora relations borne out of religious tensions and political differences.

Canadian-American businessman and philanthropist Charles Bronfman said that despite the monumental gains the Jewish people have achieved since the Holocaust, a schism between the Jewish community in Israel and North America is expanding at an untenable rate. “I believe, with depth of heart, in the unity of the Jewish people, whose soul is in Jerusalem,” Bronfman said during a commencement address at the Hebrew Union College in New York.

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“I believe that if we, as a people, come to that same conclusion, we can achieve a greatness unthinkable until now. But I wonder, is that only a dream? Can it happen? Will it happen? If not, why not? Those of us who have worked intimately with Israeli and Diaspora Jews, must be aware that a rift has been developing, and, sad to say, increasing between us.”

The former owner of the Major League Baseball franchise Montreal Expos delivered the speech, billed as a “tough” but honest assessment of Jewish community relations, after being bestowed with an honorary doctorate degree at the Manhattan-based university.

“We need to reflect deeply upon our relationship and we need to ask questions; questions that are urgent and crying out for answers,” Bronfman continued. “Will Israel become less central to Diaspora Jews in the coming years? Will disassociation and alienation, perhaps even collision, characterize the relationship? Will Israel find the Diaspora a source of frustration and provocation? Will it view the concept of ‘we are one’ as an empty vessel? Is it to be a relationship of mere sentiment or a covenantal relationship in which the partners are unconditionally committed to each other and to the Jewish dream of perfecting the world?,” he added.

Pointing to recent polling data that suggested that the emotional connection felt by American Jews towards Israel is waning, Bronfman urged US community leaders to approach the issue with new innovative ideas in order to attract a younger constituency.

“Recent and continuing surveys have demonstrated that Diaspora commitment to Israel is generational. Perhaps, those of us who are older, forget that our children were not alive when Israel went through her birth pains, nor were they breathing during the awful darkness of the Holocaust. Thus, to them, to some of you, the miracles of rebirth of which we speak are stories told in history books, not the emotional experiences of we witnesses,” Bronfman noted. “Perhaps we also forget that the newfound strength, power and freedom of Jews, certainly in North America, as well as in other parts of the Diaspora world, has its own euphoria and perhaps our children have yet to realize that without a strong, moral and vibrant Israel, the status of Jews in the Diaspora would be very far from what it is,” he added.

Bronfman also pressed on the importance of creating a more accepting environment in the religious sphere, which has been contentious issue in Israel-Diaspora relations. The Chief Rabbinate in Israel has repeatedly shunned the Conservative and Reform movements – which bolsters the largest Jewish constituency outside of Israel – accusing the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations of “uprooting Judaism,” causing assimilation and intermarriage, and having “no connection” to authentic Judaism.

The issue came to head last June, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rescinded an agreement his own government arranged that would have carved egalitarian prayer space south of the Western Wall plaza. “Our souls are still seared by what happens in Israel. But do Israelis care enough about what happens in the global Jewish World? Can a Prime Minister really claim to be a guardian of the entire Jewish People when he reneges on a carefully crafted agreement knowing that he will suffer no political consequences at home? Indeed, he can, because this subject and others like it are of little or no concern to the vast majority of Israelis,” said Bronfman.

“You must have been as perplexed and angry as I am at the official rejection of your religious tradition of Judaism. We have but one Jewish State. It shocks me to the marrow of my bones that conservative, reform, liberal and reconstructionist Judaism are legally unrecognized by the State of Israel.”

Bronfman continued by saying that the Israel-Diaspora “relationship is anything but a one way street. We must do our part just as Israelis must do theirs in order to rescue the Jewish people from breaking apart. Let’s make no mistake, the powerful and vibrant diaspora and the powerful and dynamic State of Israel are interdependent. One cannot exist for long without the other.”

The 86-year-old concluded his speech by proposing the establishment of a new policy arm that would protect the interests of both Israeli and North American Jews in order to mitigate tensions among both communities, saying such an organization would fulfill the aspirations of Judaisms greatest leaders from the 20th century. “The time has come to demonstrate both the negatives as well as the positives that proposed Israeli legislation will have on North American Jewry. At the same time, we must heighten awareness of our vibrant communities, their importance to Israel and their real need to be recognized as full partners,” Bronfman said.

“Two years after the establishment of the State of Israel, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and Jacob Blaustein of the American Jewish Committee, published statements which defined the nature of the relationship between Israel and American Jewry. It is time to revisit the Ben Gurion-Blaustein covenants and to build upon their sense of respect, mutuality and shared destiny,” he added.

Bronfman is the former chairman of the Seagrams liquor empire and was appointed to lead the Jewish Federation of North America – one of the largest umbrella organizations in the Western hemisphere – in 1999. The Montreal native is also the co-founder of Taglit Birthright Israel, which has shaparoned more than 600,000 young people from 67 countries to the Holy Land since its inception nearly 20 years ago. As a lifelong advocate for Israel and the Jewish community, Bronfman also sits on the board of directors of the Israel policy Forum, and chairs its Advisory Council