The state of relations between Israel and the Diaspora communities is reflected by the abrupt cancellation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the opening of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) in Tel Aviv, just hours before it took place.
The event was hosted in cooperation with the Jewish Agency, World Zionist Organization and United Israel Appeal, and therefore represented not only North American Jewry but all of the organized pro-Israel Jewish organizations around the globe.
Heads of these organizations ran many simulations about what would happen when Netanyahu began speaking at the opening ceremony. The best-case scenario they could expect was that hundreds of participants from around the world would turn their back to the prime minister or even hold up protest signs. But in the worst-case scenario, there might have been yelling at him, things thrown in his direction or even a riot.
But Netanyahu never made it to this anticipated event. On Sunday morning, just hours before the event, he canceled his participation. There were those who saw this cancellation as a success; others were relieved that there wouldn’t be any unnecessary tensions. But there were also those of the Center and Right who had hoped to hear Netanyahu, or that he would explain his government’s decisions and statements.
But there were also those who were depressed by the fact that the prime minister cannot have a conversation with Diaspora Jews because many of them are just too angry at this government, but also because the government and even the Prime Minister’s Office lack sufficient understanding of Diaspora communities and of their importance.
Netanyahu's canceled participation
Netanyahu’s advisers canceled his participation since the protests against him could have been very ugly and humiliating. But why didn’t they create a video message for the 3,000 participants at the event?
Demonstrations took place mainly outside of the two-day conference at Expo Tel Aviv, even though Netanyahu hasn’t participated. Demonstrations took place during the entire conference and could be heard in the lobby but also, at times, in the main hall. Protesters held signs in English, geared to the participants and the leadership of the organizations. “Save Israeli Democracy” was a popular chant and sign, but there were many types of other messaging against the government and against the JFNA and other organizations for hosting Netanyahu – even though he didn’t arrive – and MK Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionist Party), chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee at the Knesset, who participated on a panel.
“OUR DETERMINATION to welcome both government officials and respectful protests is, I believe, the only way that we can find our way through a dark time and into a bright future,” JFNA president and CEO Eric Fingerhut said at the closing plenary of the general assembly.
“We cannot build flourishing Jewish communities... if we cannot come together across differences and work together for the common good,” Fingerhut said. During the conference “we had enough drama to last us for the whole year,” he said, hinting at the demonstrations, outside and inside the conference center, against the judicial reforms and the participation of Rothman.
He was also hinting at a lot of drama behind the scenes. The JFNA leadership was insistent on inviting the prime minister to speak, even though it knew it would be difficult to manage the rage among many of those in the audience. It was pressured immensely to cancel the invitation but wouldn’t do so, since it sees itself as a representative body that has always and hopes to always interact with the Israeli government, even though that isn’t easy. It also invited a group from the protester movement to participate in a panel and explain the movement’s concerns.
But during the panel, in which Rothman participated, the true sense of what American Jews feel nowadays surfaced: Tens of participants yelled at Rothman, made noise when he spoke and told him that he “is ruining Israel.”
“Whenever someone calls me, asking me to speak with them, I come to talk,” Rothman said. “We don’t always have to agree. Unfortunately, some people do not believe in dialogue.”
The panel was stopped a few times, and the organizers tried to calm everyone down. A senior Jewish Federation leader said that “these violent and disrespectful demonstrations while Rothman spoke made the protest movement lose many points from us Jews in North America.... We really wanted to hear Rothman, especially since most of us have issues with judicial reform.”
A head of an Israeli nonprofit that participated in the conference said that she was “disappointed that Netanyahu didn’t come to the conference.”
“I wish he would see what Diaspora Jews think about him and this government,” she said.
A different Israeli, who works with Diaspora Jews, was disappointed as well, but for other reasons: “Netanyahu is the senior Israeli elected prime minister, who heads the largest political party. If he can’t speak to Diaspora Jews, then, Jerusalem, we have a problem,” he said.
The divide between Israel and North American Jews has become very physical this week. This was the first general assembly that anyone can remember, in decades, without a speech by an Israeli prime minister. There weren’t any ministers speaking with the audience, and there was just one Knesset member.
Both sides, Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities, are to blame for this disconnect.
There aren’t any senior advisers advising the prime minister about the Jewish communities outside of Israel. He also hasn’t met the heads of these representative Jewish communities yet, even though they tried to meet with him. Since being reelected a few months ago, he has met with AIPAC leadership a few times but not with heads of Jewish organizations. That is a major problem for the relationship, which will affect both sides.
One last word about Rothman: He is a very opinionated politician who isn’t the best at dialogue, but he made an effort to participate in at least three gatherings of Diaspora Jews in Israel within less than a week. He was bashed and threatened during a few of these events, but he showed up, spoke nicely and respectfully.
How many other MKs could speak in English and see the importance of this type of dialogue? Not enough.