President Isaac Herzog announced the launch of a new initiative to bridge the gap between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, at the opening ceremony of the annual Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly on Sunday.
The venture, “Kol Ha’am – Voice of the People: The President’s Initiative for Worldwide Jewish Dialogue,” is between the president, the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization.
“Its vision is to launch a first-of-its-kind global council for Jewish dialogue; a Jewish ‘Davos,’” the president told the 3,000 Jewish audience members who gathered from around the world in Tel Aviv last night.
“Nonpartisan and apolitical, Voice of the People will be a collaborative forum. One that can hold and reflect the full and diverse range of Jewish voices. It will be a place where we can engage in serious, sensitive and strategic discussions on the most complex and pressing issues facing our people. A place where we formulate concrete proposals and action items to address them. But, most importantly, a place to cultivate the next generation of Jewish leaders.”
He added that he sees “we need our best and our brightest to show up on the front lines for our people. To pool their resources of vision, courage and capability to help position our nation to survive and thrive. These are the building blocks on which our future world depends. And we cannot afford to neglect them.”
The president added that over the next months, a broad consultation process will begin “so that this new platform will be optimally equipped to serve its purpose. We are delighted that prominent philanthropic actors have seen the potential in this project. And will be bringing their capabilities and resources to the table as well.”
Regarding the current turmoil and wedge between Jewish communities around the world and Israel, Herzog said “the gaps between us are growing wider. On some of the most essential questions, we are unable to agree. But, more concerning, often, we are unable even to discuss. That critical web of connectedness – the sense of shared purpose and destiny that has sustained our people for millennia – seems to be loosening. Growing numbers of Jews are choosing either stricter affiliations, or no affiliations at all. And for many in the next generation, Israel has not been as accessible as the binding thread that has united our people through the turbulent changes of the last century.”
WZO chair Yaakov Hagoel said that “The situation in Israeli society requires us all to remember that we are brothers and sisters, no matter where we came from. Good things happen when we are all together.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu's participation
JFNA chair Julie Platt added that “recent events also emphasize how robust Israeli democracy is. This debate did not stay in Israel, but traveled throughout the total Jewish community. Regardless of the different positions and opinions we may have. What is clear is how passionate we all are about Israel and how central Israel is to our lives.
Its struggles are our struggles. Its success is our success and its debates are our debates with the leaders of Israel, including those attending tonight. We stand united and our support of dialogue and broad consensus based on mutual respect.”
Chairman of the Jewish Agency Doron Almog said: “We have all been engulfed in the important and passionate public debate about Israel’s very structure that has brought us all the way back to the Declaration of Independence 75 years ago. These debates exposed how fragile our unity can be and how hard one needs to work to maintain it.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his participation in the event. Massive protests were planned inside and outside of the Expo Tel Aviv convention center where the event was held.
The organizers said: “We thank Netanyahu for his message of friendship between our communities and his acknowledgment of the important role North American Jewry has played in building and developing the state of Israel.”
Demonstrations broke out during a session at the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Tel Aviv on Sunday while Religious Zionist Party MK Simcha Rothman spoke. Rothman is the chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which has been at the center of judicial reform debates.
“It’s no coincidence that Rothman was whisked out of the World Zionist Congress through a back door. It’s not a coincidence that he was received with incessant boos by members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors. The protests across the Jewish world are wide, intensive and authentic. The current government has seriously harmed Israel’s bond with the Jewish world. Rothman is the symbol of the regime change legislation. He managed his committee’s deliberations in the most undemocratic manner possible, and now he’s offended he receives exactly the same treatment?” said Yizhar Hess, a member of the Jewish Agency executive.
Daryl Messinger, chair of ARZA, the Zionist arm of the Reform Movement and past chair of the Reform Movement in North America (URJ) said: “Contrary to the falsehoods that the far Right spreads, we love Israel, we are Zionists and we want Israel to be Jewish, democratic and secure for all its inhabitants.... This is my homeland too.”
She added: “You say you want Jewish unity, but to me and my movement of millions of Jews, I hear that you only want Jewish unity for those who conform to your worldview. You are hijacking the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state for all Jews.
“You are literally canceling millions of Jews – Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox – that live here and in the Diaspora. You question my commitment to Jewish peoplehood but you do not see me and my family as Jewish. You claim that this judicial overhaul is democratic but it will destroy democracy, because there is no democracy without checks and balances and a means to protect minorities and those who are marginalized by the majority.”
Rothman said that “unfortunately, there are irresponsible parties who have dragged the IDF and the bereaved families, as well as Remembrance Day and Independence Day, into the political fray in an attempt to undermine national unity.
“There are others, in the same context, who wish to undermine the sacred connection between the Jewish Diaspora and the State of Israel and the Israeli people, by spreading disinformation against the Israeli government and its various policies.”
David Barak-Gorodetsky, head of the Ruderman Program for American-Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa and an expert in US Jewry, told The Jerusalem Post that “throughout the years, American Jewish organizations have managed to work across the aisle in Israel.”
He added that it is “important to keep the American Jewish relationship with Israel bipartisan and not have the American Jewish community be identified with just one side of the political discussion in Israel. To that end, the JFNA announcement is commendable, but the current situation presents unprecedented challenges. Let’s hope unity will prevail.”
Anna Kislanski, CEO of The Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism said, “It would be better if from the beginning [the organizers] would understand [our sentiments]” regarding inviting Netanyahu. She added that his “submission to extreme groups Jewish groups, who have been bullying [progressive Judaism] for years, has been alienating them from Israel and signaling the deepest rift between Israel and the Diaspora.”