Israel's delicate ties with Diaspora Jews highlighted in New York

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: The Jerusalem Post Conference and the parade, as well as the entire situation in the US, demonstrated the complexity of Israel-Diaspora ties.

 MARCHERS PARTICIPATE in the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York on Sunday.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
MARCHERS PARTICIPATE in the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York on Sunday.

NEW YORK – Even though there are so many pressing issues that the Jewish world has to deal with, the issue of judicial reform usually dominates media attention at almost every event that has to do with Israel.

That was also the case this week, where the Israeli media obsessively followed every small or large demonstration against the many Israeli ministers as and MKs who were in New York for the Celebrate Israel Parade, The Jerusalem Post Annual New York Conference and other Jewish events.

At the parade, even though there were 40,000 people marching, the Israeli media focused only on a group of no more than 200 protesters against the ministers and MKs, even though most of the participants of the parade hadn’t even noticed that these Israeli officials were there.

Add to that a viral photo of Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli during the parade, where it seems as though he is holding up the middle finger, and the context was understood to have been that he was cursing the demonstrators.

Chikli was crushed. The situation was actually different. One of the people on the march told the minister that he should “smile,” he put his hands on his face, as if pulling his cheeks into a smile. Yet in the current political environment, the damage has been done, and many believe he actually acted in an abusive way toward the protesters, even though he wasn’t actually doing so. He actually referenced the photo on stage at the Post’s conference and joked that he’s happy he was able to “make everyone smile.”

 DIASPORA AFFAIRS MINISTER Amichai Chikli arrives for a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. The state must include Diaspora-Israel ties in the curriculum of every Jewish student in the country, says the writer.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
DIASPORA AFFAIRS MINISTER Amichai Chikli arrives for a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. The state must include Diaspora-Israel ties in the curriculum of every Jewish student in the country, says the writer. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

There were only a number of anti-reform demonstrators who protested inside the Post conference, and they were asked to leave after they wouldn’t let Economy Minister Nir Barkat speak and declined to abide by the rules of the conference.

But there were also other issues at the conference that were far more significant. Whatever differences exist between the various political factions in Israel, the issue of antisemitism in the US far outstrips their urgency.

Three speakers at the conference – a minister, the head of a senior Israeli official institution, and a prominent American Jewish leader – commended the White House for publishing its new strategy on combating antisemitism, but added that there are two flaws in this plan.

“It is important that they say that this is the most important and central definition,” Chikli said of the recognition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism in the White House plan, but he was disappointed with the fact that an additional definition of antisemitism was included that is more progressive and doesn’t see anti-Zionism as antisemitism.

“It is bad that they opened the door for irrelevant definitions,” he said, noting that the White House also added an “irrelevant organization like the anti-Israel, antisemitic CAIR [Council on American-Islamic Relations] to be part of this program.”

He said that “poor Jewish education makes it difficult to combat antisemitism.”

Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan said that in order to fight antisemitism in America, it is very important to focus on anti-Zionism. “I am very afraid of definitions of antisemitism that exclude one of its most important manifestations,” he said.

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Avi Mayer that the strategy is “a historic document that elevates fighting antisemitism to a federal priority like combating climate change or creating economic opportunities.” But even Greenblatt, a former Obama administration official, said that he would have preferred to see it taking place a bit differently.

According to Greenblatt, although the plan isn’t perfect, it presents a blueprint largely shaped by ADL. He said that American Jews should feel “energized about how we are going to hold the White House... local government, businesses and civil society accountable.”

He explained that the ADL holds that only the IHRA definition is what defines antisemitism and fought in order for it to be the only definition to be mentioned, since it defines anti-Zionism as antisemitism. “Zionism is essential to Judaism. Zionism isn’t 125 years old; it is 2,000 years old. When protesters say that Zionism is racism, they’re not attacking members of the Israeli government, they’re attacking the entire Jewish community. Full stop.”

Omri Attar from ELNET, the European pro-Israel organization, stressed the importance of the fact that more than 30 countries in Europe have adopted the IHRA definition and said that the organization is working to convince more countries to also adopt it.

The complex and fragile ties between Israel and the Diaspora

THE POST CONFERENCE and the parade, as well as the entire situation in the US in the past week, demonstrated the complexity of the delicate relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

The Israeli anti-judicial reform protesters who demonstrated against ministers who participated in the Celebrate Israel Parade this week were expressing their opposition to the government’s proposed judicial reforms. The protesters, who were part of a network of Israeli activists called UnXeptable, believe that the proposed changes are antidemocratic. That is a legitimate opinion, and protesting is also legitimate. But some may argue that these protests weaken Israel-Diaspora relations by creating division and tension between different groups within the Jewish community. The presence of protesters shouting down Israeli cabinet ministers at a parade meant to celebrate Israel could be seen as a public display of disunity and disagreement.

However, others may see these protests as an important expression of democratic values and a necessary part of the political process.

Pressure was put on American Jewish leaders, who decided to boycott Israeli officials, something that caused even more unnecessary tensions. Chikli’s Thursday meeting in Washington with American Jewish leaders was canceled, according to Israeli media. This comes after similar meetings were canceled, such as with Barkat in Boston and with Innovation, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis in Los Angeles.

The Israeli elected officials are also to blame. Some of them have been acting in a very negative way with regard to those who have voiced sincere fear regarding these reforms. In addition, most of the Israelis who marched this week don’t really understand American Jewry. Some of them prefer to hold dialogue only with the Orthodox communities and therefore aren’t able to see the full picture.

There were also positive sides to this week’s events in the US, from an Israel-Diaspora perspective: Eight members of Knesset spent four days visiting Jewish communities in New York and New Jersey on a trip co-sponsored by Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency. The trip aimed to expose the Knesset members to the rich diversity of Jewish communal life in North America, challenges communities face, and federation initiatives to support the Israeli people. They also met with Jewish Agency emissaries to hear how they work to strengthen the next generation’s connection to Israel. Members of the Knesset mission represented a diverse group of parties from the coalition and opposition, and have asked to learn about these issues in depth.

Members of Knesset who participated in the trip included Deputy Minister of Finance Michal Woldiger (Religious Zionist Party), Evgeny Sova (Yisrael Beytenu), Yitzhak Pindrus (faction chairman, United Torah Judaism) Ohad Tal (RZP), Orit Farkash-Hacohen (National Unity Party), Sharon Nir (Yisrael Beytenu), Shalom Danino (Likud) and Vladimir Beliak (Yesh Atid). That religious-Zionist MKs, as well as an ultra-Orthodox MK, visited diverse Jewish communities in the US, quietly, without stirring commotion or looking for attention, is how our relationship with each other should be.

Sova told the Post that “I started crying during the parade; it was beautiful seeing people in wheelchairs, Americans, Jews, American military personnel, waving Israeli flags. This is a wonderful feeling; I have never felt like this before.” Sova made aliyah from Ukraine as a child.

An additional event that celebrated closer relations between Israel and American Jews was on Wednesday evening, when Park Avenue Synagogue Cantor Azi Schwartz hosted an evening celebrating the rich fabric of the Israeli people and their music. This event, at a Conservative synagogue, featured special guests such as Orthodox cantor Chaim Dovid Berson, accompanied by the synagogue’s ensemble, directed by David Enlow. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, one of the most prominent Conservative rabbis, opened the event with an inspirational speech full of love for Israel.

On the stage, an Orthodox cantor, who grew up as a haredi in Israel, joined a cantor who grew up in a Gush Etzion settlement, a female cantor and an Israeli secular singer. They all respected each other. Every one of them performed Israeli songs according to their faith and beliefs. The audience joined enthusiastically; many knew all the words of the Israeli songs. There was not one mention of the political divide, only love, joy and unity – a far cry from the feel on the ground back in Israel.