Assimilation, the eternal fear of Jewish leaders around the world, tops the agenda for Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
But for Israelis, who feel mostly immune to the phenomena and are also experiencing a growing gap with Diaspora Jewry, assimilation is rarely in the public eye.
This week, Bar-Ilan University attempted to raise awareness of the issue in Israel with an academic conference on assimilation. Bar-Ilan is also about to establish the world’s first research center dedicated solely to the study of assimilation, which the university hopes will be a bridge between academic research on the causes of assimilation and practical solutions to it.
Yet although trips to Israel and programs such as Birthright Israel – which sends young Jewish adults on free 10-day trips to Israel – are considered by some to be important tools in strengthening Jewish identity and combating assimilation, the question remains open whether Israel and Israelis can play a role in addressing the issue.
Israelis are undergoing an ongoing identity crisis of their own. At the same time, their understanding of Diaspora Jewish life is limited.
“With a correct understanding of what is going on, they can make a contribution,” said Lawrence Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, and the only non-Israeli participant in the conference.
However, he added, the conference showed that Israelis are “just learning” what their counterparts in the U.S. Jewish community discovered long ago: the need to address assimilation. It also appeared, he said, that participants were not fully in touch with “the specifics” of American Jewry.
Schiffman rejected the concept of fighting assimilation by trying to stop intermarriage.
“Intermarriage is a symptom of no Jewish education or commitment,” he said. “You cannot prevent intermarriage, you have got to teach Judaism, because if it’s meaningless to you then preventing intermarriage just becomes racism.”
Ya’acov Eliav, director of the International Center for Jewish Identity at Bar- Ilan University, said Israel can play a role in strengthening Jewish identity in the Diaspora.
He points out a Jewish identity competition run by Bar-Ilan’s Jewish identity center in recent years that attracts 100,000 mostly non-religious youth throughout the Diaspora.
At the same time, Eliav concedes that Israelis are also contributing to the worldwide Jewish population decline in contrast to conventional wisdom.
“At least 500,000 Israelis live all over the world,” he said. “The great majority of them are not connected to any Jewish community whatsoever. They send their kids to public schools and they try to assimilate into society immediately.”
According to David Clayman, director of the Israel office of the American Jewish Congress, Israelis can contribute to the issue – although they still have some things to learn about the Diaspora experience. Assimilation, he adds, is not as far from the Israeli experience as one might think.
In addition, he said, Israel is home to some of the world’s leading academic authorities on Diaspora Jewry. “Israel has the resources,” he said. “If Bar- Ilan really goes ahead and sets something up I think it could make a very significant contribution.”