Earlier this week, thousands of Jews, the leaders from hundreds of Jewish communities scattered around the US, gathered for the 2017 General Assembly (GA), the annual meeting of the Jewish Communities of North America (JFNA). The guest of honor was President Reuven Rivlin, a popular national figure who was welcomed with tremendous warmth and enthusiasm.
Most of the GA participants understood, however, that Rivlin’s authority is limited and that he is first and foremost a symbolic leader, and that no matter how popular and respected he may be, he does not have much power to effectuate change in Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also addressed the audience, but by a video conference, while he sat far, far away. Literally.
A number of American Jewish leaders returned to the US from Israel just a few days before the GA, where they attended a meeting of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, of which the American Jewish community is the backbone. Two of the issues that were discussed at this meeting, as well as at the previous session a few months ago, polluted the atmosphere: the freezing of the Western Wall compromise deal and the Conversion Law. Both of these are now generating new insights into the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
For decades, American and world Jewry have been very accepting of Israel’s leadership and have respected government policies on both domestic and foreign matters.
The conventional sentiment is that it is a “democratically elected government” chosen by the Israeli people, and so should therefore also be accepted by Diaspora Jewry.
But time has taken its toll.
A new generation has moved into the American leadership and technology has shortened international exchanges and distances. Slowly, more question marks have been rising to the surface, sometimes about foreign matters, such as Netanyahu’s stance on the wall between the US and Mexico, or his controversial appearance before the US Congress to oppose the Iran Deal.
In general, security issues are left out of the debate, as they are in Israel, too. The new disagreements are about religious issues. In the Diaspora, Jews do not automatically accept the authority of the Israeli rabbinate, which is overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox, and they often reject the rabbinate’s decisions.
American Jews tend to follow the ancient Jewish axiom: Find yourself a rabbi. In other words, pick a spiritual leader who is fitting for you. In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox stream is in complete control of all religious practices for both the religious and secular communities.
It oversees every aspect of weddings, circumcisions, and funerals.
In the Diaspora, and especially in the US, haredim comprise a small minority. Many of them have formed their own insular communities and sometimes they need to fight for their very existence.
In the US, the most prominent forces in the Jewish community are the Conservative and Reform streams, both of which are rejected outright by the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment in Israel. This power struggle has recently narrowed in on two pressing issues: the Western Wall compromise and the Conversion Law.
The biggest divergence is that in Israel the haredi community has tremendous political power. Its representatives in the Knesset have succeeded in promoting their agenda, whereas the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have been forced to resort to public campaigns and petitions to the High Court of Justice to oppose their treatment as inferiors.
The American Jewish leadership learned its lesson following the endless crisis over the Western Wall deal and the Conversion Law, and is now for the first time taking on an active role in the Israeli political arena, a move that until now was considered off limits.
If in the past Americans focused their attention on coalition officials, now they are approaching opposition leaders as well.
If in the past they would participate only on festive Knesset occasions, nowadays they are setting appointments with a variety of MKs and ministers on an ongoing basis. If in the past they were careful not to show any disrespect for the prime minister, they now feel free to outwardly criticize and express their objections to his views and actions.
They are using the same tools that have served them well while lobbying American politicians. Just as they encourage and assist congressional leaders, American Jewish leaders have begun forming similar relationships with members of Knesset and ministers, despite one significant difference – their success in elections does not depend on support from the American Jewish community.
They are also putting pressure on Israeli legations in the US, including its embassy, to use any influence they have on Israel’s government. In short: lobbying at its best.
In my capacity as chairman of the Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish People (in cooperation with JAFI and JFNA), and as a participant in the Caucus for Strengthening Israel-US Relations (in cooperation with the Ruderman Foundation), I am actively involved in this new struggle.
I’ve led delegations of MKs to Jewish communities in the US and held numerous meetings with heads of organizations and religious leaders. During these sessions, American Jewish leaders have told me that the relationship between Israel and the US must be a two-way street, and that just as Israel relies on the strength of the US Jewish community, it must also reciprocate.
A new, different kind of language is now being used, which is focused on politics.
It is still polite, but it’s firmer and sharper. We are on our way to a new place and a new reality. I hope to see a new American-Jewish lobby in the Knesset that would lead activity at home and abroad.
I also expect that the debate over religious matters will expand to other pressing issues about which world Jewry will want to express its opinion and make its voice heard. A new era of public diplomacy has begun, and our relationship is rising to a new level.
This is only the beginning, and there is much more to come.The writer is an MK of the Zionist Union Party and chairman of the Lobby for Strengthening the Jewish People.