The ask

JFNA’s Fingerhut hopes next week’s GA will fortify Israel-Diaspora ties, despite current tensions

Some 3,000 North American participants will mark Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut alongside Israelis to highlight federations’ role in building and maintaining the state

The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly will kick off on Sunday evening in Tel Aviv for an event that’s relatively short on content but long on personal, visceral experiences as the organization looks to deepen the connections between the delegates and the State of Israel, JFNA President and CEO Eric Fingerhut told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Unlike most General Assemblies, this year’s gathering is being held not in the fall but in the spring to overlap with Israel’s Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, and its 75th Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut. This is to give the attendees the opportunity to mourn alongside Israelis on the former and celebrate with them on the latter in order to be a “part of this miraculous achievement of 75 years,” Fingerhut said.

Roughly 3,000 people from 74 federation communities are slated to participate in the General Assembly events, both in the gathering at the Tel Aviv International Convention Center and the associated activities. The majority of the formal programming will take place on Monday, followed by a Yom Hazikaron ceremony with MASA at the Latrun memorial site that night. On Tuesday, JFNA delegations will visit military cemeteries across the country to participate in local memorial ceremonies. That night, many participants will party in Tel Aviv and the following day, they will attend a massive barbecue in Neot Kedumim Park.

However, the assembly also comes during a tumultuous period in Israel, with large numbers of Israelis taking to the streets on a weekly basis to protest the government’s proposed judicial overhaul. In an uncommon move, mainstream international Jewish groups – including JFNA – have also criticized the coalition’s stated plans, both the way that the legislation was being rolled out and the content of the proposals themselves. (Earlier this month, a whirlwind JFNA delegation visited Israel for 24 hours to voice its concerns and call on politicians to negotiate and reach broad consensus on the judicial reforms.)

Despite these contentions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited to speak at the opening of the General Assembly on Sunday evening and a number of other Israeli lawmakers – including opposition leader Yair Lapid; MK Simcha Rothman, the chief architect of the judicial reform proposals; MK Oded Forer and MK Idan Roll – were invited to appear throughout the conference. This has prompted protest groups to organize demonstrations against Netanyahu and the judicial reforms outside the JFNA gathering and to attempt to disrupt the proceedings inside the convention center on Sunday night.

JFNA has stood by its decision to invite the premier and other politicians, acknowledging in a public letter that the event comes at a “tumultuous” moment but saying it was also “an especially opportune time to listen to these political leaders and engage in conversation with them, not to cancel such meetings.”

Ahead of the General Assembly, eJP spoke with Fingerhut over Zoom from his hotel in Tel Aviv about his hopes for the event and for Jewish federations’ relationships with Israel going forward.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Judah Ari Gross: Welcome to Israel! How are the final preparations going?

Eric Fingerhut: They’re going well. First of all, we’ve been planning this for a year because of the 75th anniversary and just to recognize the deep history and connection that Jewish federations have to the creation and development of the State of Israel. We’ve been part of this historic story every step of the way, helping create the infrastructure of the Jewish state, caring for the vulnerable, supporting aliyah, bringing people to the Jewish state, and advocating for the inclusive society that it is. So we wanted to be a part of this celebration.

It’s not historic that the General Assembly is in Israel. In fact, the General Assembly’s been in Israel every five years for as long as I can remember. But as you probably know, the General Assembly is usually in the fall, and we moved it to this time to be able to fully participate with Israelis, with our family and friends and brothers and sisters not just for the 75th anniversary — we could do that all year — but to actually be here for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut and to share that moment together of both mourning and celebration, as part of this miraculous achievement of 75 years.

So this is a very meaningful moment. Now we know, of course, that as it turns out, it comes at a moment when there’s a lot of political debate and disagreement. And we’re well aware of our role as a place where people want to express both, to express all of their points of view on that. But we hope and expect that even with all that, the reason why we actually originally scheduled this well over a year ago and started planning this well over a year ago will not be lost.

JAG: Is there a concern that, to at least a certain extent, the event will be overshadowed and swept up in this current political moment in Israel?

EF: I know that that will be part of the conversation. It’s not a concern. It’s important for me to remind people what the reasons are for being here and what the goals are for this conference. And to also respect that one of our roles is to be the bridge between the State of Israel and the Diaspora, especially the Jews of North America, which are the largest Diaspora community. And so that’s part of our role is to be a platform for that dialogue to take place. right now, that’s what that dialogue is focused on. So we understand that.

JAG: Was there any consideration to not invite the prime minister and the representatives from other parties? The World Zionist Organization, for instance, decided to avoid the controversy and didn’t invite anybody from any party to its congress this week, so they’ve mostly flown under the radar.

EF: Well, first of all, the event on Sunday night is a four-way shared event of the Jewish Federations of North America, World Zionist Organization, Jewish Agency for Israel and Keren Hayesod. So WZO is participating with us in that, and, collectively, the four of us decided to invite both the president and the prime minister. Between those four organizations, we truly represent the entire Jewish people, and we decided — a year ago — to invite the president and the prime minister without knowing who the prime minister would be today. We knew who the president was, but we didn’t know what the prime minister would be. I think we all stand by that decision, that having the president and the prime minister of the sovereign State of Israel on the 75th anniversary of independence is one of the pieces of this historic moment. And we are privileged to host them.

In terms of the rest of the program, we have historically also invited the opposition leader to our General Assemblies and others to participate in panels and discussions. I absolutely can’t see why we would not do that just because right now one of the issues is particularly pressing and particularly important and contentious.

I will note that we’ve been very clear about our position in this debate. We’ve not gotten into every detail. But we have highlighted one particular concern on the substance. And more importantly, we’ve called on the parties to participate in dialogue, discussion and negotiation.

And there are negotiations happening now at the President’s Residence.

JAG: What are your goals for this General Assembly? What are you hoping that people get out of it, beyond just celebrating the 75th Independence Day?

EF: Really there are two things.

One is that I really do think it’s important that we appreciate and highlight the role of the Jewish federation system in the creation and the establishment of the State of Israel. There’s not a block of this country that hasn’t been touched in some way by the Jewish federation system, which so loves and cares for this Jewish state. And of all people, we Jews know that we must teach our history and build our memory. We know that not everybody who’s coming knows all that history. So that’s one.

And secondly, this is the 75th anniversary and, be’ezrat Hashem (with the help of God), we will be here at 100. So it’s time to start to look forward and to hear from thinkers about what we envision an Israel at 100 looks like.

I want to come back to the point I made earlier that we’re here. We cut short the formal programming of the General Assembly, which usually lasts two or three days. We only have really one day of formal programming so that we can experience together Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut to deepen the cultural ties, deepen the tissue that ties us and binds us together. We hope that through that experience our participants and the Israeli participants will ask themselves, ‘How do we continue? How will we, in the next 25 years, continue to build those ties even as each society inevitably develops in different directions?’ I mean, no matter how much we have in common, we also speak different languages and we have different cultures and different music and even different holidays. That’s the other thing we hope to achieve.