Israel US flags.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ten years ago when Shoham Nicolet co-founded the Israeli American Council, his organization was shunned by Israelis and Jewish Americans alike. Major Jewish organizations refused to collaborate, telling Nicolet that “Israelis should be in Israel,” and Israeli officials saw them as a “failure of the system” for having made “yerida” (going down) from Israel.
The council’s mission is to strengthen the Israeli community in America as part of the wider Jewish community there and to serve as a bridge between the people of Israel and the US. American Jews told Nicolet that by helping the Israeli community organize, they would be more likely to stay there, while Israelis saw the initiative as a liability that clashed with their goal to bring all Israelis back to Israel.
“That was the paradigm,” Nicolet told The Jerusalem Post
in an interview in Tel Aviv last week, as the organization gears up to mark a decade with its annual conference in Washington in November. Some 10% of US Jewry is Israeli, Nicolet noted, remarking “Bringing everyone back to Israel isn’t an option.”
“One option is to lose them,” he said, pointing to disconnection and assimilation as paths to that end. The other option, which the council is pursuing is to “convert Israeli Americans into a strategic asset.”
Nicolet has been living in the US since 2000. “There was a definite feeling that Israelis were living in pockets and any attempt to build a community was in parallel to the Jewish community and not as part of it,” he said of the initial challenges faced by the organization and the community at large. Those pockets still exist, however, Nicolet sees them gradually dissolving, with the help of the council.
Moments in Life of Israeli Americans - IAC. (YouTube/Israeli-American Council IAC)
In 2013, the council changed its name from the Israeli Leadership Council to the Israeli American Council. “It [the name change] said ‘Listen, we are Americans and we are here to stay and we are part of you. To the Israelis, it said “We are Israelis and we support you but we are also Americans and we are proud of it. It told our community, ‘There is a good chance you are going to stay here. So let’s take care of our kids and grandkids.’”
Today, Nicolet has willing partners from both countries and is delighted at the leaps the organization has made. He said he would not have believed 10 years ago that this year’s conference would be attended by 3,000 people and include the participation of many high-level officials from the US and Israel, such as US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and Education Minister Naftali Bennett and a video message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Today, the council is accepted as part of the wider Jewish community, and even has some of its offices inside Jewish community center buildings.
“What’s unique about us is our Israeliness,” Nicolet says. “Our connection to Hebrew and to entrepreneurship and innovation... We want to keep our Israeliness, but it has to be part of the larger Jewish community and that’s our historic responsibility.”
Referring to a perceived growing gap between American and Israeli Jewry, Nicolet says “everyone talks about it but few actually deal with it. American Israelis are a living bridge that just by being there can bridge this gap.”
Referring to the many cultural differences between Israelis and Americans, Nicolet opined that Israeli Americans, with their hybrid identity, can be crucial mediators, capitalizing on their familiarity with both cultures and languages.
The council, whose biggest funder is Sheldon Adelson, operates a variety of programs for people of all ages that aim to bring people together around Israeli culture and Israeli causes. It also works on domestic issues that are relevant to its community. One such project is promoting Hebrew classes as a second language in public schools.
Another crucial area of activity is on campus, where the council runs a program called Mishelanu that serves a pro-Israel base for American-Israeli students. “When I see antisemitic caricatures... I think about how my son will grow up in America as a Jew. In the past eight years, we have seen great escalation on campuses...
What’s dangerous about it is that it’s covered with so-called political issues hiding behind political debate. But if you really look and listen, it’s pure antisemitism.”
The council is active in fighting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. It served as the leading force behind the anti-BDS bill in Nevada and co-led the effort to pass landmark anti-BDS legislation in California.
“We have worked to convey to policy- makers and other communities that hate-movements such as BDS are a threat, not just a threat to Israel or the Jewish people. First and foremost, they threaten our way of life here in America,” the council stated. In addition to working to pass legislation at the federal, state and local level to combat BDS and other hate groups, the council works alongside state governments to implement and enforce legislation already on the books.
While the council is active on this issue, and in the past was vocal in opposing the Iran nuclear deal, it describes itself as apolitical.
“The biggest issue is that being pro-Israel is seen as political,” Nicolet said, adding that his organization seeks to change that. “You can love Israel without talking about politics in Israel and America... Our vision is to see a strong Israel and a strong US interconnected.”