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Israel Plans To send "Foreign Aid" To American Jews

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September-October 1998

For the first time, Israel is planning to send what amounts to tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid to Jews in the U.S. and other countries.  

In a July meeting with two American philanthropists, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his agreement in principle to Israel’s participation in a project to fund trips to Israel by young Jews. The Forward (July 31, 1998) reports that this "comes on the heels of the government’s plan to add a line to the Israeli budget for Jewish education and Hebrew language training in the Diaspora. The importance of these developments lies in the precedent they set at a time when there is growing awareness that Israel is becoming a rich country while the American Jewish community is facing a crisis of identity and dwindling numbers."  

Mr. Netanyahu’s adviser for Diaspora affairs, Bobby Brown, states: "What we’re talking about is really an earthquake of change...Everyone agrees that Israel has an enormous responsibility in protecting the lives of Jews. We’re now talking about the spiritual lives of our people. The preservation of our history, our heritage, is no less important to the survival of the State of Israel."  

The two philanthropists who met with Netanyahu, Charles Bronfinan and Michael Steinhardt, have been pushing for the establishment of a "birthright project," which wound fund a trip to Israel for every Diaspora Jew between the ages of 15 and 16.  

The Forward reports: "Some of the most vocal advocates for Jewish renaissance are skeptical that trips to Israel are the answer to fighting assimilation..." Forward columnist Leonard Fein notes that, "As important as Israel is in Jewish life and as useful as it is...to imagine that every young Jew will be exposed to Israel, we ought not for an instant to suppose that a trip to Israel is going to inoculate our kids against assimilation here. The bottom line is, we cannot hand over the issue of how to fashion a strong Jewish identity to the state of Israel. That’s got to happen as a consequence of the way we live our lives here."  

The president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, Barry Shrage, said that trips to Israel would only be effective for the continuity cause if they are part of an "integrated gameplan" to deal with Jewish identity. "I’d be more comfortable if all of us were thinking in the broadest possible terms about what the creation of this Jewish renaissance would look like," he said.  

A spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Avi Shafran, said that, "... it would be a grave mistake to think of trips to Israel as a panacea for what ails the American Jewish Community." He said Torah study and the observance of Jewish law are the keys to Jewish identity and continuity.  

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