Memo To The Next Knesset: Get To Know American Jewry

The view from New York, the largest Jewish city in the world, is that Israeli politicians have very little understanding or regard for the issues that are close at heart to the American Jewish community.

by Mishael Zion

American Jews didn’t vote in this week’s Israeli elections, but many decisions made by the newly elected 19th Knesset will directly affect the Jewish community here.

The 18th Knesset was marked by a series of controversies between the world’s two largest Jewish communities: The proposed Rotem bill, which denied Jews who convert through America’s liberal denominations a share in the Law of Return; an ad campaign urging Israelis to return from abroad, which was perceived here as an attack on the viability of Jewish identity in America; and the aggressive marginalization of women at the Kotel, on buses and in the streets of cities like Beit Shemesh – an issue which evoked almost across-the-board American outrage, from the Orthodox community to the secretary of state.

What steps must be taken so that the tenure of the 19th Knesset can be marked by a paradigm shift in Israel’s relationship to the American Jewish community, and in American Jews’ relationship to Israel?

Having voted in both the Israeli and American elections, and as a rabbi of a virtual community of young Israeli and American Jewish leaders that spans from the West Bank to the West Coast, I believe it is time to press the reset button on the way Americans and Israelis understand each other. While there has been ongoing scrutiny of the changing relationship of American Jewry vis-à-vis Israel, there has been little discussion of the way Israelis view American Jewish life, and it is time to shift the spotlight onto this issue.

Going beyond the “survivalist” conversation it is commonplace for American Jews to see Israel through a lens of survival: Direct-mail solicitations from Jewish organizations constantly embellish Israel’s grave existential threats (donate here). What is often overlooked is that Israelis see American Jewry as under existential threat as well.

Israeli headlines often trumpet the demographic challenges of intermarriage and the dwindling numbers of American Jews. Israelis question the viability of North American Judaism in a rehash of the anti-diaspora views of old.

While there are real challenges for both Jewish communities, this survivalist framework is detrimental to both sides. As long as we focus on each other’s worrisome chances for a viable existence, we will never appreciate the ideas and authentic choices happening on the other side. The American-Israeli relationship, founded in the dynamic of the rich uncle and poor nephew, must be redefined as a two-way street, with vulnerability and resilience, affluence and need, on both sides.

Get to know us. For Israel’s sake. Modern travel and Birthright have revolutionized the way Americans see Israel, bringing American Jews to visit Israel in the hundreds of thousands. Yet even these often superficial visits are more than the amount of attention Israelis – and Israeli leaders – usually give the American Jewish community.

Israeli media coverage of American Jewish life is mostly confined to the ebb and flow of the Israel lobby in Washington. Israelis are barely aware of the creativity, diversity and energy of the unique phenomenon that is American Jewry.

This is changing: American organizations are beginning to bring members of the Knesset to the United States, not to lobby and fundraise for Israel but to educate them about the Jewish community here. However, the value of visiting America goes far beyond advocating for the interests of American Jewry. When Israelis who spend time in America return home, they bring an enriched sense of what their own Judaism could be. I have seen this among the Israeli alumni of the Bronfman Fellowships, who spend time in the U.S. when they are 17, and as adults are energizing Israeli Judaism in surprising ways. We can call it “reverse Birthright.”

Get into a room together. When and where do we talk to each other? The leadership of the two communities might meet often, but we must strive for grass-roots collaborations among the community members themselves. We must cultivate networks of connections between like-minded communities and organizations from both sides. The “Siach” project is a good model: developed by UJA-Federation of NY, Siach brought Israeli and American social justice organizations together for conversation. The American Jewish Committee recently brought together Israeli and American activists around concerns over the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, showing that rather than this being an Israel vs. America controversy, there are strong alignments between the communities on both sides of the issue.

We must forge more grass-roots bonds and internal coalitions between American and Israeli groups with similar interests, from activism and arts to politics and business.

The view from New York, the largest Jewish city in the world, is that Israeli politicians have very little understanding or regard for the issues that are close at heart to the American Jewish community. Indeed, Israelis as a whole lack a narrative frame in which to understand what American Jewry means to them. Let’s define the 19th Knesset as the one in which American Jews educate their Israeli peers about the issues and challenges that are close to our heart – for the sake of both communities.

Rabbi Mishael Zion is the co-Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships. He is the author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices”, and blogs regularly at textandcity.blogspot.com.

This article first appeared in The Jewish Week.