The Conference of American Jewish Federations set to take place in Tel Aviv will be devoted this year to “renewing dialogue between American Jewry and Israel.” It’s just a shame that this well-meaning event will not include voices from settlers, Haredim, Arabs, and those from the country’s periphery.
By Zvika Klein
[Editor’s note: While written prior to the GA, the underlying message – “to meet with Israelis who don’t think like you” – is one all organizational leaders should keep in mind.]
Hello to my dear brothers from across the sea!
Listen, we need to talk. You think a lot of things about us, many of them not positive and even negative. On our side, I admit, the situation isn’t much different. Many Israelis aren’t even aware of your existence and are certainly unfamiliar with the rich community life you live. At the extreme margins, they believe that you and all your friends are BDS activists and extreme leftwingers, the sort who are only interested in advancing political or international solutions which will harm our security without having to suffer the consequences of this.
Your side also has extreme parties unfamiliar with our reality. They are convinced that Israel is an apartheid state or at the very least – a serial violator of human rights. They also believe that the Chief Rabbinate hates every Jews who does not live in Israel, especially if they are not Orthodox.
The truth is far from either of these ideas, but if we don’t talk – we won’t know this. This distant discourse is problematic and complex. How will we solve problems within the family without us being able to explain who we are?
I believe that if both sides continue to double down and not move towards each other, we will not be able to make progress as a people. But after two thousand years of exile, that’s small potatoes.
This is precisely the subject chosen this year as the focus of the Conference of American Jewish Federations set to take place this coming week in Tel Aviv. The title – “We need to talk” – expresses the complex relations between the State of Israel and organized North American Judaism. The GA, the general assembly of the federations, has been convening annually for close to a century, and since 1998, this meeting of the minds has taken place here in Israel. The visitors will conduct a tour in Jerusalem, meet with Knesset Members and ministers, and speak with Israeli youth. The central event will include speeches by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and newly minted Jewish Agency Chairman Yitzhak Herzog.
According to Jerry Silverman, President and Director of the Jewish Federations of North America or JFNA, the choice of this subject derives from the feeling of many in the American Jewish community that the dialogue and connection with Israel is not “as we would like it to be.”
“For many of the diaspora’s Jews, Israel is still a miracle, and they really love it,” Silverman claimed emphatically, but he claims this relationship is not mutual, “When it comes to subjects related to policy – whether it’s the Kotel, conversion, mikvahs, the Nation State Law, or the status of non-Orthodox movements – we hear of blacklists of the Chief Rabbinate, which even include Orthodox Rabbis.”
Silverman defines the situation as a “break in the relationship,” and he wonders “Why do Israeli leaders need to speak lashon hara about this or that movement, or on this or that Jewish tradition? Our work at the current conference will be to connect between Israel and North American Jews, based on the understanding that we need to talk.”
But some claim that the Jewish Federations do not really intend to listen to the real range of Jews in the State of Israel and throughout the Jewish world. Am Echad, an organization of Orthodox Jewish leaders across North America, launched a campaign against the event. “Their voices are not heard at the GA,” a statement published by Am Echad read. “Too many Israeli voices disappeared from the discourse,” the ad went on to say, “The mainstream of the religious Jewish community of Israel, but also the voices of most Israelis who do not define themselves as liberals, and the voice of Orthodox Jewry in North America.”
“The Jewish communities in the US and in Israel are very different,” said Am Echad Co-Chairman Shlomo (Saul) Werdiger. “There is therefore real need for dialogue, so that we can understand the diversity of opinions in both countries in depth. Unfortunately, this will not happen at the GA. Instead of the participants being able to hear opinions common among most Israelis, the Federation chose to engage in groupthink.”
This statement is joined by Dr. Irving Leibowitz, also co-Chairman at Am Echad. “Obviously American Jewry is interested in what is happening in the country and worries about Israel,” he argues, “Therefore we need to hear the diversity of voices in the Jewish community, and not just one approach. The message reflected from the program and the choice of lecturers is that only one opinion is worthy of being heard. The Jewish Federation needs to listen more and dictate less.”
Over the years, Orthodox communities were not a fundamental part of the world of federations, the biggest umbrella organization in American Jewry. This has been changing lately; Silverman himself wears a knitted kipa. His brother Alan heads the Bnei Akiva Moshava camp in Pennsylvania, and is one of the most prominent religious Zionist leaders in the US.
The Federations claimed in response that the discussions at the GA do indeed represent the range of religious, political, and geographic opinion in Israel. They point to speakers like the Chief (and Orthodox) Rabbi of Dimona Rabbi Yitzhak Elefant, Knesset Chairman Yuli Edelstein, as well as Jewish Home MK Betzalel Smotrich and Meretz MK Michal Rozin. “We hope the coming GA will succeed in creating an atmosphere in which the entire Jewish community can be heard,” they said.
The GA did indeed make an effort to find a diverse group of people to represent Israeli society. I can attest that I am contacted monthly by American Jewish organizations interested in hearing a Haredi or national religious speaker who “thinks differently,” but the relevant people usually do not speak English or are uninterested in taking part.
At the last conference of the AJC, the most veteran American Jewish organization, there was a debate between Efrat Local Council Chairman Oded Ravivi and Labor MK Stav Shafir. Ravivi, a kind of foreign minister of the Yesha Council, represents the settler public at many of these events. Unfortunately there aren’t enough fluent English speakers from the right and religious Zionism, and certainly not from the Haredi world. If the national camp wishes to present our position across the sea in an intelligent manner, cultivating such speakers needs to be a top priority. By the way, I checked whether Ravivi or another council chairman from Judea and Samaria was invited to take part in the GA. The answer was negative. Smotrich is certainly a settler, but he is one of hundreds of speakers.
In sum, my North American brethren, I am not interested in rejecting such a significant organization and certainly do not wish to judge an event before it takes place. But I truly hope that you will try during the three conference days here to meet with Israelis who don’t think like you – settlers, Haredim, people from the country’s periphery, Eastern Jews, traditionalists. The sort who will say things you won’t necessarily like. Only this way can we bring about real dialogue, rather than an internal and thus fruitless monologue.
Would that this comes to pass. Your success is also ours.
Zvika Klein is an Israeli journalist, covering Diaspora affairs for the Makor Rishon newspaper and the NRG360 news site.