The American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum extravaganza, currently underway, has brought 2,400 activists to the Jewish state to talk everything Israel: policy, diplomacy and international relations, as well as how to advance the cause of advocacy for the country and for the Jewish people.
But as with many events involving major US Jewish organizations, there is an undercurrent of concern regarding the relationship between Israel and its brethren living abroad.
The AJC put out a poll just ahead of the forum’s commencement, showing wide gaps on crucial issues between US and Israeli Jews, while President Reuven Rivlin kicked off the event by noting that “gaps are getting deeper and deeper,” between the two branches of the family.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was welcomed to the stage at the plenary session of the convention on Sunday night with a crescendo of adulatory and bombastic music, which made him quip that he was being treated like a movie star.
But he also acknowledged the tensions that have arisen by adroitly broaching the concerns of many Diaspora Jews, especially in North America, over trends that have developed over the course of the current government regarding matters of religion in the Jewish state.
Netanyahu did not directly acknowledge the severe arguments and tensions that have arisen over issues such as the Western Wall and Jewish conversion, but alluded to the problems by reiterating that “Israel is the home of all Jews” and that “every Jew should feel at home.”
Without mentioning the frozen Western Wall agreement, he noted that the state is upgrading the current site and that “The unity of our people... is not always amenable to our daily politics.”
Despite the prime minister’s somewhat coy approach to these issues, several sessions on Monday tackled them head on.
And Likud MK Yehudah Glick, describing himself as a permanent optimist, opined that the press has painted a more negative picture than the reality of Israel-Diaspora ties, arguing that the very fact that the issue is a central topic of discussion proves that Israel cares about it.
He also argued that Israel is attentive to the voice of Diaspora Jewry, pointing out that the Foreign Ministry has shunned the farright Freedom Party of Austria and has been attentive to the stance of the Austrian Jewish community, which has objected to attempts to cooperate with the party.
Glick himself has, however, ignored those concerns, and has personally met with the party’s chairman Heinz-Christian Strache.
MK Ksenia Svetlova from the Zionist Union party engaged in a feisty but good-natured debate with Glick, expressing the hope that in the coming years, Orthodox control over religious life will be weakened, but acknowledging that such changes would be difficult.
Tellingly of the mood, she received several rounds of applause from the audience, especially from crowd-pleasers like calling for Jewish conversions of all denominations to be accepted, and when chastising Glick for equating “the abuser” – that is those in control of religious life – with “the victim.”
And the audience seemed largely in Svetlova’s camp, with several pointed questions being asked regarding Israel’s attitude to the Diaspora and the religious establishment.
Dalia Grinfeld, president of the Jewish student union in Germany, argued that Israeli leaders frequently speak in the name of Diaspora Jews, but have failed to sufficiently take their stance into consideration.
She called for the establishment of a new forum where Diaspora Jews could be involved in decision- making processes taken by Israel that impact Jews in the Diaspora.
In a separate session debating the relationship between the US and Israel, former Israeli ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor pointed to the deep differences in the life experiences of US and Israeli Jews, and the fact that gaps are widening in the relative support for Israel in the Democratic and Republican parties.
Zionist Union MK Ayelet Nahmias- Verbin picked up this theme, noting that the US officials at the recent Jerusalem Embassy opening did not include Democrats, and saying this should be a worry for Israel, adding that the suspension of the Western Wall agreement “was one of worst things ever done by Israel to the Diaspora.”
And the audience reflected these concerns, with one member questioning Netanyahu’s close embrace of US President Donald Trump, who he said had, while treating Jews well, “normalized hatred of other groups.”
Benjamin, a US college student who is active in student politics and campus Israel advocacy, provided a more nuanced take however.
A strong supporter of Israel, he said he viewed the country as both “the history and the future of the Jewish people,” and as a home of the Jewish people, despite the fact that he personally does not live here.
Nonetheless, he said the disputes over religious life in Israel had not impacted his support for the country, but was insistent that the Jewish state pay more attention to the concerns of liberal Jews in the US for fear of further alienating them.