Knesset caucus to focus on relations with American Jews

We should learn from US tolerance, MK Ben-Simon says; caucus is a result of project connecting Israeli politicians with US community leaders.

By JORDANA HORN
April 10, 2011 02:43
4 minute read.
MKs going to the US to learn about American Jewry

mks going to america 311 (do not publish again). (photo credit: Flash 90)

NEW YORK – A program to promote better relations between Israeli leaders and the American Jewish community has led to plans to form a caucus in the Knesset on Israeli-North American Jewish relations, MKs told reporters in New York on Friday.

“It’s something lacking in the Knesset, and that will help better improve the relationship between American Jewish community and Israel,” Jay Ruderman, head of the Ruderman Family Foundation that, along with Brandeis University, sponsored the Ruderman Fellows program, said.

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The Ruderman Fellows program, in its inaugural year, is an attempt to create a deeper awareness of the diverse quality of American Jewish life by connecting Israeli political leaders with US-based community leaders, scholars, clergy and professionals.

Six Knesset members, selected as the program’s initial fellows, concluded a five-day series of seminars and meetings in Boston and New York on Friday, and met with reporters to discuss their experiences. The Israeli lawmakers who participated were Likud MKs Carmel Shama-Hacohen and MK Tzipi Hotovely, Kadima MKs Avi Dichter and Ronit Tirosh, and Labor MKs Eitan Cabel and Daniel Ben-Simon.

“This program was an attempt to take members of the Knesset from the three major parties and to educate them on the American Jewish community,” Ruderman said. “Hopefully it will continue, and as the years go on, we will build up a number of Knesset members, members of the Israeli government, who will have a better understanding of the American Jewish community.”

Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna said that it was while he was on sabbatical last year in Israel that he realized that there was no center for the study and teaching of American Jewry at any Israeli university.

“Every major American university has someone who teaches about Israel,” Sarna said. “There are many Israel study centers, but no Israeli study center on American Jewry. And as we see, even the leading figures in Israel do not feel that they understand American Jewry appropriately. This program will be the beginning of a new effort to teach Israelis about the American Jewish community so that our two communities can better understand one another.”

After five days of meetings, the MKs said they were surprised by the diversity, both for good and for ill, of the American Jewish community in both Boston and New York. At least one member, Cabel, had never visited the United States before.

Shama said he arrived in the United States knowing “very little” about American Jewry but leaves with greater appreciation of the significance of Israel to the American Jewish community as well as vice versa.

On returning to Israel, Shama said, he planned to be an ambassador to his fellow Knesset members and constituents for a better comprehension of the American Jewish community. As a member of the Knesset’s Constitution, Legislation and Law Committee that discussed the Rotem conversion bill, Shama said, he had “no doubt” that “if that bill is again discussed, should that happen, I will examine it from a much broader and clearer and different position, based on what I have learned here.”

Tirosh, who offered to spearhead the North American Diaspora lobby in the Knesset, said she was taken by the diversity of the American Jewish community in both good and bad ways. During a talk at Brandeis, she recounted, Dichter had been shouted down by protesters. Afterwards, she was shocked to discover that the protesters were American Jews and former Israelis.

“I’m very impressed by the liberalism and the way you look at each other,” Tirosh said. “But I thought American Jewry would automatically support Israel and that we can rely on it. But now I understand that we need to give them more tools in order to find a way how to support us in these difficult days of boycotts.”

Dichter said the trip taught him the differences between the powerful American Jewish community and its counterparts in other parts of the Diaspora.

Cabel said that had the Knesset debate on J Street been held after this trip, his outlook likely would have been different, and that he felt that both AIPAC and J Street had something to contribute to the conversation about Israel.

Ben-Simon said he was particularly impressed by a dinner at Brandeis University with students – not the food, per se, but the fact that kosher-observant and non-kosher-observant Jews ate together, without judging one another for the choices they had made with regard to their Judaism.

Saying Israelis were “undergoing open-heart surgery on the question of the character of the Jewish state,” Ben-Simon said Israelis could take a page from the American playbook in terms of tolerance and diversity.

“Unlike us, you prosper on diversity, and you do it with such style,” he told the US reporters. “We nearly kill each other. In diversity, we can be united.”

And on the flip side, Ben-Simon counseled American Jews to take an active stand on issues in Israel.

“You will have to tell Israeli leaders the impact of what they’re doing on you,” he said. “But you’re not courageous enough. You come to Israel and take photos instead of saying, ‘What you’re doing has an impact on us.’ Tell Israeli leaders what you think about it. Tell them to think about you and not just their voters and their interests.”


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