NEW YORK – The vast majority of Israelis polled in a recent study think Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has the best understanding of the complexities of the US-Israel relationship.
The poll focused on the relationship between Israel and the US, and was released ahead of the third Ruderman Fellows Knesset Mission trip to New York and Boston, sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation and aimed at better educating MKs about the American Jewish community.
Israel-US ties will also be the focus of the third Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York on April 6.
“The American Jewish community plays one of the most important roles in securing Israel’s future, yet this vital Diaspora community is often not well understood by Israelis and their leaders,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the foundation. “The Ruderman Fellows Knesset Mission seeks to educate Israel’s leaders to the diversity, pluralism, and changing connection of American Jews to Israel. We believe that this one-of-akind program will lead to a more nuanced relationship between Israel and American Jews.”
Of the politicians listed by the poll – Netanyahu, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett, opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – 44 percent feel Netanyahu has the best handle on the US-Israel relationship, while 23% of respondents say they don’t know which politician has the best understanding.
Bennett and Lapid received 7.3% and 4.2% of respondents’ votes, respectively.
Ruderman told The Jerusalem Post that the main focus of the upcoming trip for MKs was to help mitigate this apparent gap in knowledge that he said many Israeli politicians display. In his long history of interacting with Israeli political figures, Ruderman said, he realized that they “didn’t understand American Jewish community, and didn’t care.”
“I believe the role of the American Jewish community is of strategic importance to Israel, and yet when I met political figures, they didn’t care and they didn’t know much about American Jews,” he said.
After all, most Israelis’ interactions with American Jews are in the context of discussing Israel: “Americans would come and talk about the threats facing Israel in Israel, and then Israeli politicians would come to the US and it would be the same conversation,” Ruderman said. “No one was talking about what the American community looks like, how it’s different than in Israel, how it operates, its connection to Israel and how that might be changing.”
Jewish life in America is very different, and just as vibrant, as in Israel, Ruderman said.
This trip is an attempt to teach the attending six MKs from Meretz, Labor, Yesh Atid, Bayit Yehudi and Likud Beytenu to not be so inwardly focused. “A lot of statements made in Israel are intended for internal consumption, but make Jews in the Diaspora upset,” Ruderman said.
“There is a need to be more sophisticated and nuanced for the Diaspora community, because they’re paying attention.
And as an elected official for the only Jewish state in world, they should be aware of the largest Jewish community outside of Israel.” After all, Ruderman said, that outside community helps ensure Israel’s security, and that doesn’t happen by accident.
“Dynamics in the American community are not static,” he said.
The Ruderman poll revealed that most Israelis recognize the need to engage with and be better connected to the American Jewish community, and are concerned about the trend in the younger generation of American Jews of disengaging from Israel. A total of 62% of respondents strongly felt that the Israeli government should be spending money on trying to reverse this trend.
On the two previous years of the trip, 2011 and 2012, Ruderman said, many MKs, who have visited the US hundreds of times and who have never been before, found their attitudes changed.
Former head of Shin Bet Avi Dichter, one of the fellows on the 2011 trip, reportedly told Ruderman that even though he’d been to the US many times, it was the first time he’d actually learned about the American Jewish community.
“I think they’re extremely surprised at how the community works together,” Ruderman said of how the MKs have reacted in the past.
“They’re shocked at pluralism here among the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox elements.
“Also, I believe they come to America thinking that all Jews have a connection to Israel and that they should be making aliya, and if they’re not it’s for material reasons. And then they come and they realize there’s a vibrant Jewish community here and they don’t know anything about it.”
One very interesting response was to a question about the Israeli rabbinate: Most Israelis – around 49% – strongly feel that the Chief Rabbinate should officially recognize the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, streams to which the majority of American Jews belong, “and that this will in turn strengthen the connection with American Jews,” the poll said.
Only 10% of American Jews identify as Orthodox, the only brand of Judaism currently recognized in Israel, while 19% of respondents said Reform and Conservative Jews should not be recognized.
However, most respondents (31.4%) felt that Diaspora Jews should not be represented in the Knesset, 29.7% said Diaspora Jews should be represented “to some extent.”
Around 37.2% were ambivalent about the idea of immigrants heading key ministries and Knesset committees that work in Diaspora relations.
About 30% of those polled felt that the views of American Jews in the peace process should be taken into account “to some extent,” 22% thought American concerns should be taken into account “to a great extent” and 18% said “not at all.”
The poll was run by Telesker and conducted by telephone with 500 Hebrew-speaking men and women over the age of 18.