Dear Jewish American Leaders: We’re not Speaking the Same Language

By Zvika Klein

Dear Jewish-American leaders: I know you’ve been going through rough times. The egalitarian Kotel government initiative has been “frozen,” the new “conversion bill” created frustration, anger and a sense of betrayal. As an Israeli covering your side of the story – I feel for you. You’ve finally realized the tragic reality: Israelis don’t really know you, American or Diaspora Jewry. Israelis also don’t necessarily consider your opinion when making important decisions. The thing is, it’s been like this for a very long time.

As a reporter and a columnist, covering Diaspora affairs for Hebrew-speaking media, I often blame Israeli society, its leaders, rabbis and politicians for creating this gap between us.

“Diaspora Jewry has had our back for so many years,” I tend to write. “They have been lobbying for us, and funded the Jewish state from the very beginning.” I explain that half of the Jewish people do not live in Israel, and that most of them live their Jewish lives very differently than us. I always feel that Diaspora Jews know more about Israel than what Israelis know about their brothers and sisters across the globe – and in a way, unfortunately, it’s true.

But if we want to try and solve this difficult situation, there has to be some sort of communication between us, and that is exactly what’s lacking.

Surprisingly, the Israeli media covered the “Kotel Crisis” seriously, especially after heads of North American Jewish organizations canceled dinner with Prime Minister Netanyahu. But unfortunately, many Israelis translated your anger as a “threat.” Some of your leaders said straight out: “Our congregants will have difficulty to keep on donating to Israeli causes.” You have to understand that Israelis don’t work well with threats – especially from a group of people who want to, as it were, “interfere” in Israeli politics and policy.

In short: You’re not speaking the same language, and I’m not just talking about the Hebrew-English language gap, but rather a mentality gap. Israeli Jews only hear about you lately regarding two issues: We hear of Diaspora Jews in the Israeli media mainly when there are antisemitic threats or big waves of aliya. Israel may be a central part of your Jewish identity, but Diaspora Jewry is not a central part of the average Israelis Jewish identity. That is a big difference, and if you don’t internalize this, you won’t be able to get us. I write this from sorrow, but it’s very true.

Just recently, when bomb threats were sent almost daily to hundreds of Jewish institutions in the US, an Israeli journalist asked me if “I could help find an American Jew who decided to stop wearing a kippa in public as result of the threats.” I explained to him that there aren’t any Jews like that in the US, and that this is a bit exaggerated in the Israeli media. Another friend asked me if it was safe to travel to the US. Can you believe the disinformation?!

Heads of the Jewish Federations of North America said during their recent visit to Israel that they plan on creating a campaign in Israel so that “Israelis know what we’re about,” they explained. My answer to this is: It’s about time, but also a bit too late. Hundreds of millions have been invested in promoting the connection of young Diaspora Jews to Israel, but how much has been invested in getting Israelis to learn about Diaspora Jews? Not very much.

There are a few organizations that have been promoting visits by delegations of influential Israelis to Jewish communities around the world. Sort of a reverse Birthright trip. But not more than a few hundred Israelis have participated in these important delegations.

Dear Jewish-American leaders: If you won’t do it, no one will. You have to hire the best creative minds and think how you can convince Israeli society that this is not a war between US Reform/Conservative Jews and Israeli/Orthodox Jews, but our last chance to prevent a historic split. Think how you can get Israelis to love not only American malls, movies and music, but to love you, as fellow Jews.

There are many good-hearted Israeli Jews who are trying to convince Israeli society that we need the connection with you in order to be a Jewish state, but we need your help. It should be on the top of your priority list, if it isn’t already.

Zvika Klein is an Israeli journalist, covering Diaspora affairs for the Makor Rishon newspaper and the NRG360 news site.