Wanted: Americans to Serve in the Knesset

by Jay Ruderman

Israel’s relationship with the United States has entered a critical phase and the ensuing pressures that this year will bring must be handled with sensitivity by both sides.

Many Americans – Jews and non-Jews alike – have a deep affection for Israel. The same could be said for Israelis, who value the deep connection and unparalleled support of the United States, the world’s most powerful democracy. But as the two nations move forward during unstable times, they must strive to remain in sync. The engagement of the U.S. Jewish community has been so important to maintaining this special relationship and toward ensuring Israel’s long term interests that any weakening in the relationship is a cause for concern.

The clear difference of opinion between the Israeli and U.S. leaders on the timetable for action to prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons highlights a strained Israel-U.S. relationship perhaps better than any other single factor. The frustration expressed by Israel over the seriousness of this threat and what the government sees as a slow and far too measured approach by the U.S. is indicative of the different viewpoint of these two nations.

The United States is Israel’s most important strategic ally. That alliance, and the moral, political and military support that comes with it, offers protection to Israel at a time when security of the nation and region are so vulnerable. It is because of this vital relationship and the great need for Israel to approach its relationship with the United States with the highest degree of respect and caution that Israel should be better utilizing the unique tools and perspective of Americans in Israel. There is perhaps no greater time than now to make better use of American olim who are well positioned to understand the nuances and sensitivities of the relationship in a deeper and more intuitive way than their fellow Israelis.

I am not suggesting that American olim should be relegated to the role of the loyal advisor to Israel’s political leaders. Rather, I believe the time has come for them to assume up front political roles in Israeli political life. There are no Americans, for instance, currently serving in the Knesset. The Israel-United States relationship would be greatly improved by the presence of American olim, who can speak directly to the passions and interests of U.S. citizens and would bring American perspective to Knesset dialogue. Such members of the Knesset would give Americans a greater connection to Israel, in much the same way that Golda Meir, as someone who had been raised in the U.S., forged a strong bond with American Jews.

It is hard to understand why American olim don’t serve in the Knesset. After all, they represent the largest group of immigrants to Israel after those from former Soviet republics. Russian speaking olim, on the other hand, serve in large numbers and form a powerful Knesset voting bloc. They advocate strongly for the interests of their community in a way that American olim can aspire to replicate. American olim also have a myriad of special interests that would be best served by having their own representatives in the Knesset.

Philanthropy has a role to play. The Ruderman Fellows program organized by our foundation, in which Members of the Knesset travel to the U.S. to better understand the U.S. Jewish community, has demonstrated the ways in which Israelis have not fully internalized the diversity of American Jewish life and the complexity in their connection to Israel.

One Ruderman Fellow, MK Faina Kirshenbaum, wrote after her trip, “Whatever their (American Jews) views, investing in dialogue with them is a critical Jewish mission. We must establish a shared platform for discourse and exchange because only in dialogue can the Jewish world find the commonality of spirit and commitment to ensure our joint future.”

Americans in the Knesset could be a critical link in enhancing the Israel-U.S. relationship. They could help their fellow Israelis to better understand the American viewpoint and could also help Americans to better understand the Israeli perspective.

Programs like ours that bring Israeli leaders to America, and those that bring American leaders to Israel, are very effective at opening eyes and minds, but they are no substitute for committed and engaged American-informed perspective in the Knesset.

Jay Ruderman is President of the Ruderman Family Foundation.