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Israel’s new Diaspora man

JERUSALELM — The Israeli ministry responsible for engaging with the half of the world’s Jews who don’t live in Israel has gotten a new name — and a new direction. 
 Amichai Chikli announced during his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 2 that his ministry was changing its name from the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs to the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs and the Struggle Against Anti-Semitism.

Amichai Chikli (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The name change is a sign that Chikli could plan to focus on the problems of the Diaspora more than his predecessors, who have focused largely on promoting Israel to Diaspora Jews.

Chikli is the son of a Conservative rabbi who lives on a kibbutz founded by the Conservative movement of Judaism, which he defends but says he no longer identifies with.

He vaulted into prominence within Israel last year when he became the first member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to break with then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett over Bennett’s decision to form an alliance with left-wing and Arab parties.

“I have a problem with the trend of Reform Jews seeking to assimilate and affiliate themselves with groups who are anti-Israel,” Chikli told the Forward last year.

“The Reform movement has identified itself with the radical left’s false accusations that the settlers are violent, so they have earned the criticism against them, and I cannot identify with them,” he told the Jerusalem Post, also last year.

“They are going back to their roots in Germany of anti-Zionism and anti-nationalism. It’s a tragedy that they are going there.”

Chikli says he believes there should be a space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, a priority for many Diaspora Jews.

He criticized a haredi rabbi’s condemnation last week of Amir Ohana, a homosexual ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is the new Knesset speaker, saying on Twitter, “There is no disease more dangerous than baseless hatred.”

Yet he called Tel Aviv’s Pride Parade a “disgraceful vulgarity” in a Facebook post this summer.

In his new role, Chikli faces the task of winning over American Jewish leaders who may be skeptical of Israel’s rightward shift.

One area of ideological overlap, though, is in the fight against anti-Semitism.

Israel has gotten more involved in fights over anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the US in recent years, appointing actress Noa Tishby as its first ever “special envoy for combating anti-Semitism and delegitimization” last year.

Tishby’s travels have included visiting the campus of the University of California-Berkeley in the midst of a student anti-Zionist controversy at that school, and making appearances as a talking head on Fox News.

Chikli has indicated that colleges and universities are an area of special interest for him. “I am very worried about what is happening on the campuses,” he said in the Jerusalem Post interview.

“It is heartbreaking to see Jewish young people who concede their connections to their people and their heritage in order to connect to the latest fashionable movement that they are calling woke.”

Like US Jewish leaders (and Biden), Chikli vociferously opposes the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, known as BDS. He believes that anti-Israel sentiment is inherently anti-Semitic, issuing a stern warning to American Jews in his Forward interview.

“Don’t think that joining anti-Israel movements will help you with anything,” he said. “In the end, the folks from the BDS movement will attack you and your children because it’s not Israel that they hate, they hate Judaism.”

Last week, Chikli accused Yair Lapid, the opposition leader and past prime minister, of being “the spearhead of the BDS movement” because Lapid plans to speak critically to US audiences about the new government.

“What Lapid is doing now as an outgoing prime minister is a disturbing irresponsibility,” Chikli said in public comments that he also tweeted.

“He does not understand that when he tells the whole world that this is a ‘dark’ government, the world does not make a separation between government and state. That’s exactly how BDS does its work.”

Exactly how Chikli plans to engage with Diaspora Jews in his role, and when, is not yet clear.

But he has started his tenure by taking action — canceling a $1.4 million contract with a nonprofit group that his predecessors Nachman Shai had struck shortly after the election. Chikli said the group, which has ties to Israel’s left, was “political” but that he was canceling the contract because it was inappropriate to strike one when the ministry’s leadership was set to change.

Another plan approved shortly before the election also faces an uncertain future: a $2.3 million contract with the Reform and Conservative movements in the US to improve Israel’s image among young and liberal American Jews.

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