In a recent JTA opinion piece under the headline “Has Israel let you down? Talk about it,” Nachman Shai, Israel’s new Minister for Diaspora Affairs, urged Diaspora rabbis to talk about Israel in their High Holiday sermons, but to do so in wholly non-political terms: “Talk about the bonds between us, as a Jewish people, about our shared past and imagined future. Talk about the challenges, but also the opportunities.”
Shai, 74, wants to rebuild ties between Israel and Diaspora communities. He is particularly well suited to facilitate the effort. During 10 years in the Knesset, he worked to improve ties with the Diaspora, after having held a senior position in what is now the Jewish Federations of North America, and having served as Israel Defense Forces’ spokesperson, press secretary of the Israel Mission to the UN and press adviser to the Israeli Embassy in Washington. In other words, Nachman Shai knows the Diaspora, understands diplomacy and is familiar with the inner workings of Israel’s government.
Shai seeks to avoid divisive politics as he focuses on strengthening the international Jewish community. His message is non-ideological and straightforward: The Jewish state and the Jewish Diaspora need each other and can and should help each other. For many, the idea that the Diaspora needs Israel’s help is both novel and disorienting. But Shai asked our rabbis to address the issue directly. “Share with your congregants that we in Israel are slowly but surely taking responsibility for our side of the relationship in a way that you have never seen,” he wrote, and in the language of the High Holidays, added, “we realize we have disappointed you and are doing teshuvah, repentance, with a sincere desire to make things right in the future.”
Among the things Shai wants to do is unfreeze and implement the 2017 agreement for a state-recognized egalitarian prayer section near the Western Wall, and increase government funding for projects with non-Orthodox groups. And he wants Diaspora Jews to inspire Israeli Jews with “clarity and backbone to empower us to make the bold decisions that will ensure our continuity as both a Jewish and democratic state. We need your justice-minded values to assure Israelis that moving toward two states for two peoples is the only solution, both for our security and our soul. We have room to be inspired by your models of pluralism and diversity, and of organized Jewish communal life within our own religious practice.”
What is attractive about Shai’s agenda is that it focuses on peoplehood, not politics. His Jewish conversation has little to do with the Palestinians, and nothing to do with Iran.
Instead, he is focused on Israel as a Jewish homeland — something that is much more than just a Jewish state.
We applaud Shai’s efforts, even as we recognize that the political divide in our community continues. Shai is suggesting that we compartmentalize our political and our peoplehood commitments to Israel. And he’s asking our rabbis for help in getting that done.