Comment: Israel-Diaspora rift looms large at General Assembly opening

The deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel reports his first-hand account of the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Los Angeles.

November 13, 2017 10:24
3 minute read.
Israel western wall

Conflict at the Kotel. Members of the Reform Movement clash with Orthodox worshipers at the Western Wall last week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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Israel’s unfulfilled promise of being the nation-state of the entire Jewish people was a central theme of the remarks delivered by Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, at the opening plenum of the organization’s General Assembly that convened in Los Angeles on Sunday.

Working for the realization of this sacred pledge wasn’t the only task with which he challenged the hundreds of participants gathered, but it was the one he put forth most powerfully – and the one that was greeted with the most enthusiasm.

Specifically, Silverman announced that JFNA’s board of directors would be formulating a resolution reaffirming the organized Jewish community’s everlasting commitment to Israel, but also articulating in no uncertain terms its expectation that Israel would make good on its undertaking to be a place in which every Jew would feel at home, regardless of denominational affiliation.

He avowed that this declaration championing Jewish pluralism would call upon the government both to reverse its decision of last June to freeze the implementation of its earlier commitment to facilitate equal access to the Western Wall for all who sought to pray there, whatever their customs and beliefs, as well as to permanently halt legislation that would give exclusive control over matters of conversion to the Chief Rabbinate.

Jerry Silverman standing at the Western Wall. (Photo by Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post) Learning how to engage the next generation is one of the hottest topics facing the Federation Movement. (JFNA Facebook)

These are neither Israeli issues, he asserted, nor Diaspora issues but, rather, Jewish issues and of import to all who care about the future of the Jewish people.

It was not to be taken for granted that Silverman would dedicate so much of his opening remarks to these matters. With all the other concerns on the agenda of North American Jewry – making day school education universally affordable, increasing enrollment in Jewish camps, growing the number of youngsters going to Israel, caring for the elderly and impoverished at home, responding to the needs of Jewish communities in times of emergency, finding ways to meaningfully engage the next generation in Jewish life – he might well have chosen to put the sensitive and delicate matter of religious freedom in Israel on the back burner, or to deal with it behind closed doors. But had he done that, he would have been out of step with his constituency.

Throughout the opening day of this impressive gathering, the relationship between Israel and North American Jewry came up repeatedly. Among the remarks voiced at various sessions at which I was present: “There is an inequality in our relationship with Israelis, an imbalance in our emotional ties.

We care about them far more than they care about us.”

“They don’t know us, they don’t understand American Jewry at all. They don’t even want to.”

“We’re stuck in a disconnect.

Israelis, even if they don’t admit to it, even if they don’t realize it, still project an attitude of negating the Diaspora.”

“Israel used to be the most unifying cause in the Jewish community. Today it is the most divisive.”

While such vocalization of discomfort with the relationship was generally prefaced by statements of unwavering support for Israel on the part of the speakers, they simultaneously expressed concern that such commitment could not be taken for granted among the next generation. Such an eventuality is an anathema to Jewish communal leaders, and their frustration over Israel’s inability to embrace all Jews equally is palpable.

It is also a source of pain. The Jews of North America are clearly hurting over their brands of Judaism not being recognized in Israel.

Adding insult to injury is their perception that Israelis don’t care.

Silverman challenged those in the audience to ask the hard questions as they give thought to where they want to go next and as they continue plotting the future of this “powerful story of our collective.” Then he asked them to consider what history will say about the paths they will have chosen at this particular juncture 100 years from now. We Israelis would be well advised to do the same.

The writer is deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

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