Charles Bronfman, right, takes questions from the audience at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom as Michael Goldbloom and Rabbi Lisa Grushcow look on. (Janice Arnold photo)
Action must be taken now to stem the growing division between Israelis and Jews living outside the Holy Land or “our sense of peoplehood and common destiny” will be lost, businessman and philanthropist Charles Bronfman said in his native Montreal on May 16.
The co-founder of Birthright Israel, which has brought more than 600,000 young Jewish adults to Israel from around the world over the past 20 years, is leading an effort to create an Israel-Diaspora Jewish alliance to address what he sees as an urgent issue.
Bronfman was the keynote speaker at the annual Victor and Sheila Goldbloom Family Forum, held at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom.
Bronfman was expanding on the theme of Jewish disunity, which he had spoken about a year earlier at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in New York and returned to in greater depth at the Montreal Federation CJA annual meeting last September.
“Unfortunately, I must reiterate (my concerns) even more fervently today, for the rift keeps on growing wider and wider and wider. If left untended, our shared strength, security and success could well be in jeopardy,” he said. “In this era of undeniable Jewish success – a golden era, even – can we afford a divide in our own house?”
Bronfman said certain recent actions in Israel have “negatively affected” Jews abroad, who represent 57 per cent of the world’s Jewish population.
“We have watched with growing alarm and dismay as a series of initiatives and political manoeuvrings have sought to delegitimize (non-governmental organizations), undermine the principle of judicial review and weaken Israel’s bedrock and longstanding commitment to a free and independent press.”
These include the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate’s strictures on conversion and the government’s nation-state law, which Bronfman stated is “widely perceived outside and inside Israel as biased and negating elements of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence” that guarantees equal rights to all citizens.
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Bronfman is part of a small group concerned about the Jewish future that is working on the alliance, which would bring together every segment of the Jewish community in the Diaspora and Israel.
Envisioned as a “broad coalition reflecting the views of a majority of Jews everywhere,” it would be based in Jerusalem and involve the leaders of major institutions in Israel.
The target date for its launch is Rosh Hashanah, which falls this year at the end of September, and three years will be given to see if it works, said Bronfman.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is highly supportive of the idea, as are other prominent Israelis, Bronfman said, while acknowledging that Israelis generally are not that concerned about a perceived rift with Diaspora Jews.
“Most Israelis are understandably preoccupied with their own condition. They’re not conscious of, nor very interested in, our discomfort,” said Bronfman, who has lived principally in New York for nearly 25 years.
On the other hand, Diaspora Jews, especially those in North America, have “a deep commitment to Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, inseparable from our own deeply rooted values of pluralism and diversity,” he said.
“Sadly, the incoming government is predicted to be even more hard-nosed on religious equality,… stifling what makes a democracy a democracy,” said Bronfman. He observed that haredim and religious nationalists will have 21 seats, joining with the Likud’s 35, in the incoming Knesset.
Bronfman also voiced his distress at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to gain immunity from prosecution on corruption charges.
The alliance would seek to foster mutual understanding between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, Bronfman said.
“We, myself included, get extraordinarily upset about the (rabbinate) in Israel controlling lifecycle matters … (while) Israelis don’t understand why we get into such a snit. Understandable? Yes. Acknowledged? No.”
As a priority, the alliance would encourage Jewish schools to teach about modern Israel, particularly its people and what makes them who they are.
Israeli youngsters should learn why some of their country’s actions provoke “apathy and even hostility” among Jews elsewhere, Bronfman said.
“Instilling empathy and deepening awareness must be common denominators. Whether it be our successes, our diverse expressions of religious observance or our contributions to humanity, there is much to learn from one another.”
The idea of a “Birthright in reverse” has been discussed, he said. Currently, 17 Israeli organizations send people to the Diaspora, “but they are not co-ordinated at all.”
Birthright has shown that having young Diaspora Jews spend time with their Israeli peers helps dispel misconceptions about the other, he said.
In the discussion afterward with Rabbi Lisa Grushcow and Michael Goldbloom, the latter wondered why Bronfman has embarked now upon what has traditionally been taboo: public criticism of Israel.
Bronfman said that, after his HUC address, he received much encouragement to take his words to another, more active, level. “We can’t live without each other. It’s that simple,” said Bronfman, who remains deeply committed to the concept that Jews are one people with its “soul in Jerusalem.”