American Jews marching in New York with Israeli flags. How can we bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora?.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘We need to talk” is the title of the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly taking place in Tel Aviv this week.
So, here is some real talk: The JFNA GA may say they want to talk, but there are some parts of Israel which have the feeling that this American Jewish organization is not really interested in hearing what they have to say. Instead, it seems to some, the GA wants to talk to the Israelis who already think like them.
One message that came across loud and clear was the organization’s decision to hold the GA in Tel Aviv.
Any other year that may not be such a big deal. But this year, Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s eternal capital was reaffirmed on the world stage through official American recognition. The choice to hold the GA elsewhere comes off as political and as a snub to the Trump administration, the current Israeli government and the city of Jerusalem.
On their website and in other materials promoting the conference, the JFNA emphasizes the differences between Israeli and American Jews. It notes that 43% of Israeli Jews and 61% of American Jews think Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist.
First, that’s not even such a big difference. But even if the discrepancy disturbs you, consider the fact that Israelis live in Israel and American Jews don’t. That alone is enough to explain the results.
About half (49%) of Israelis are fine with non-Orthodox rabbis officiating at Jewish weddings in Israel, as opposed to 80% of Americans. Considering that only 13% of Israelis actually identify as Reform or Conservative, that is a lot of Israelis who are open-minded toward their American brothers and sisters – who don’t seem to be rushing to hold their weddings in Israel anyway.
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And then there’s the statistic that 8% of Israelis and 50% of Americans identify as liberal. “Liberal” is not a term used often in Israeli politics, where the spectrum of ideologies hews closer to the European model than the American one. The Likud’s election ticket, Mahal, is an acronym that includes the word “liberal,” implying support for a free market, whereas the Left in Israel call themselves social democrats, and even socialists. A truer indication of shared ideals between Israeli and American Jews would have been a poll that asks about those specific values – perhaps freedom of expression – rather than a political buzzword that means different things in different places.
The list of speakers also shows that even if the JFNA leadership says they need to talk to Israelis, they’re not quite acting on that. Despite the statistic quoted above, a panel on the two-state solution only features its proponents. As for another statistic: The panel on religious pluralism only features supporters, not a representative of the other half of the population that is opposed.
At the event itself, attendees were greeted with an outdoor billboard from the Reform movement in Israel, with Netanyahu’s face highlighted in red calling for him to change the Nation-State Law, which polling shows most Israelis support. Inside, there is a booth run by the New Israel Fund, J Street and Truah rabbis telling American Jews to hold MKs who supported the Nation-State Law to account and “demand answers.”
What that means is unclear. The way to hold lawmakers accountable in democracies is through elections, but the booth was not encouraging North American Jews to make aliyah.
Imagine a group of Israeli organizations putting up a booth at the GA in Washington, DC, calling on Israelis and US Jews to hold congressmen accountable and demand answers for what they perceive as anti-Israeli legislation. That wouldn’t go over well with so-called liberal US Jews.
This newspaper advocates strongly for religious pluralism in Israel, and it believes the Netanyahu government has been negligent in its handling of Diaspora-related issues, primarily regarding the Western Wall and conversion.
But while the JFNA may say “we need to talk,” true dialogue requires listening and recognizing differences in opinions. Cutting out parts of the discourse is not the way to bridge the current divide. We need to recognize our differences and the reasons behind them. That is the true way to advance our people.
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