The General Assembly (GA), a four-day conference convened by United Jewish Communities: The Federations of North America, opens today in Los Angeles. The largest annual meeting of the organized Jewish community, the GA this year could be a watershed event for American Jews and Israelis alike.
Up until the war with Hizbullah, this GA was on track to follow a standard format, with the Israel-related components of the program accompanying fare relating to day-in and day-out activities of the Federation world. But all that changed in late August as the GA was refocused around the theme "Together on the Front Line: One People, One Destiny," dozens of Israel-related sessions were added to the program and Israeli leaders from the prime minister on down signed on as speakers.
Prompting this transformation was a recognition that Israel's war with Hizbullah was far more than a military flare-up. With Israel's civilian population under attack; with Iran developing a nuclear capability and its president declaring that the Holocaust never happened and that the State of Israel - founded to ensure Jewish survival - should itself be wiped off the map; and with Islamic radicalism and a new anti-Semitism on the rise globally, there was a heightened sense that we are in this together.
The conflict had a visceral impact on American Jews, who responded with local rallies and solidarity missions, and who have contributed $350 million to UJC's Israel Emergency Campaign. And the GA was seen as offering a means of moving the response to the next stage, providing an opportunity for the North American Jewish community to come together to better understand today's realities, to convey and enhance the centrality of its connection to Israel, and to commit itself to an action agenda that will address these concerns.
AT THE same time, with the Israel Emergency Campaign providing greatly needed assistance and receiving significant visibility in Israel, many Israelis have recognized that, in a world where they are increasingly isolated and vulnerable, there is something profoundly significant about the connections with their overseas brethren. They have been touched to realize that there is someone standing with them at a time of trial and need, someone with whom they have ties of kinship.
And so today, American Jews and Israelis come together in Los Angeles with a heightened recognition of the GA's importance and look forward to a program that is sure to be enlightening and inspiring. And there is something more at stake too. For this defining moment comes at a time when the Jewish people are not just affected by external circumstances but find ourselves at a significant moment in our shared history as well.
In some ways the Jews of Israel and the Jews outside Israel have been going in separate directions over recent years. This is not only the case in North America, where assimilation exerts a strong pull and where concerns with Jewish education and Jewish continuity, along with other local issues, have emerged as community priorities. It is also the case in Israel, where for some the sense of being "Israeli" has overwhelmed what it means to be Jewish, where attitudes triggered by classic Zionism's rejection of the Diaspora may have left a residue, and where, as a recent study has shown, the schools teach hardly anything at all about Diaspora Jewry and its vibrant communities.
SUCH A separation is bad for both of us. And if the situation is not addressed, things are likely to get even worse, especially given the fact that the younger generations from both sectors lack the personal memories that helped forge a common bond linking previous generations.
This is not to say that Israel and world Jewry have become totally detached from each other. In many ways it is precisely the Jewish Federations throughout North America that have most effectively advanced the functional Zionism of our time. They have established a range of projects and programs that have made personal connections between Americans and Israelis possible and have enabled us to perceive one another through a realistic, human lens while demonstrating that it is precisely through direct experiences in Israel that Jewish identity can be powerfully spurred in American Jewish youth. At the same time, many Israelis are increasingly recognizing that their ignorance and disconnect from Diaspora Jewry needs to be reversed.
But more needs to be done in both places, and the time is ripe for the framing of a vision and the forging of a program inspired by the ways the events of this past summer have resonated. Such an endeavor could meaningfully strengthen the sense of Jewish peoplehood in today's world, with Israel appropriately at the core, but with mutual familiarity and appreciation defining the relationship.
If the General Assembly beginning today can help bring that about, it will indeed be a watershed event.
The writer is Executive Vice President of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.