Time for a strategic dialogue between Israel and US Jewry

In the two years since the Western Wall compromise fell through, Israel and the Jewish people – especially the American Jewish community – have been in unprecedented public disagreement.

September 4, 2019 08:27
3 minute read.
The American and the Israeli national flags can be seen outside the U.S Embassy in Tel Aviv

The American and the Israeli national flags can be seen outside the U.S Embassy in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Israeli elections are around the corner, and shortly afterwards, the new government will determine its strategic priorities. Alongside the need to defend Israel from its enemies, strengthen its economy and improve the public education and health services, the government must publicly declare its commitment to Jews living outside of Israel. However, words are not enough: we need a real and continuous dialogue between the parties. The practice of government-to-government meetings is a good model, which can be adapted to the needs of the Jewish people.

In the two years since the Western Wall compromise fell through, Israel and the Jewish people – especially the American Jewish community – have been in unprecedented public disagreement with each other. Conversations regarding Israel’s relationship with US Jewry tend to gravitate to the controversial. Strong currents are pulling us from one challenge to the next; we are not controlling the situation or planning our future. There is no magical solution to the many debates among Jews.

However, the dialogue between Israel and American Jewish leadership lacks structure and lacks respect. This is something we can change. We may not agree on everything, but we need to find ways to work together – not against each other.

Countries use government-to-government (also known as G2G) meetings to express and advance their relationship, as well as their commitment to working together on select issues. Israel, for example, has recently held G2G meetings with Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland. These meetings led to ministers exchanging professional information with each other, as well as establishing teams to advance agreed projects.

Imagine if Israel did this with the representatives of the American Jewish community. It could be branded as an I2D – Israel-to-Diaspora – talk. At the very least, it would create regular meetings and a continuous dialogue between Israeli policy-makers and American Jewish representatives.

If successful, it would also allow for serious discussions on the issues facing both sides. The sides could ask questions pertaining to Israeli recognition of overseas conversions or non-Orthodox presence at the Western Wall. At the same time, they might discuss ways for Israel to help train Hebrew teachers and Jewish educators, or think of joined projects to fight antisemitism.

This plan is not simple. Not only because some of the topics are sensitive, but also because there is a key, inherit difference between the sides: Israel has democratically elected leaders; American Jews do not. Despite this, it is doable. The Israelis would have to welcome a broad range of American Jewish representatives, embodying the diversity of US Jewry. Lay leaders and professionals, young and old, women and men of all denominations – everyone. The American Jewish community would have to acknowledge that, with all the similarities, they are still community representatives speaking to government officials.

It may take a few months, maybe a year or two, for such a gathering to take place. It will take multiple sessions to rebuild some of the trust between the sides. And, even after this happens, there will still be tensions stemming from the differences between the sides. Despite all of this, it needs to happen.

The relationship between the Jewish state and US Jewry is still based on working assumptions from its early years. The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel states it “will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles,” and calls upon “Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz Israel.” In this framework, the relationship was a one-way street. The 1952 agreement between then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion and AJC president Jacob Blaustein made this idea official: the American Jewish community would assist Israel – financially, morally and politically; Israel would not call on them to make aliyah or challenge their loyalty to the US.

Seventy-one years after Israel was established, our representatives should revisit and question these assumptions. The only way to ensure our relationship remains strong is if we communicate on a regular basis: not only about current challenges, but also about our future goals and joined values. It takes two to tango, but someone must lead. Israel’s incoming leadership has the chance to start this process. I hope it seizes the opportunity with both hands.

The writer is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which works to strengthen Israel’s relationship with the American Jewish community.

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