GA largely ignored by Hebrew-speaking press

Organizers: Media disdain just shows ignorance; Israelis can learn a lot from us, participants say.

olmert looking at crowd good one 248 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
olmert looking at crowd good one 248 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
All but ignored by the Hebrew-speaking press as they gathered in Jerusalem this week, American Jewish professionals and activists have lashed out at the Israeli media and society for failing to notice - and learn from - another Jewish community nearly as large as their own. Coverage in the Hebrew media of the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body that represents billions of dollars of annual charity donations from hundreds of thousands of North American Jewish households, was generally limited to policy speeches given at the conference by Israeli politicians. Speaking to journalism students this week, Ma'ariv Diaspora affairs reporter Eli Berdenstein admitted he did not know a great deal about American Jewry, but in any case rejected the idea that US Jews who claim they are "Jews by choice" are authentically Jewish. Danny Ababa, Diaspora reporter for Israel's largest daily, Yediot Aharonot, told The Jerusalem Post that "this whole business [the GA] is one big kiss-up to rich people. American Jews are not authentic; they're obsessed with money; there's something annoying about them." "Can you imagine such arrogant statements about a convention of social workers from Africa?" responded an irate American Jewish official who asked to remain anonymous. "American Jews are obsessed with money? This is a fund-raising organization gathered in a professional conference. The Israeli journalists don't even understand where they are. It's like walking into an art museum and complaining the art isn't edible. These are the people the Israeli media put in the nexus where Israelis meet American Jewry?" he asked. Israel's English-language press devoted extensive coverage to the gathering of one of the largest charitable networks in the world. The Post and the English-language edition of Haaretz both devoted a supplement and ran many news and opinion articles about American Jewish society and philanthropy this week. Yet at the same time, Haaretz's Hebrew edition almost failed to note the conference's existence. A glance at the papers' Web sites also showed the same disparity in coverage. "They don't understand the community, the day-to-day work of charity and volunteering, people devoting their whole lives to these things," agreed Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "The Israeli media's disdain is not new. It's responsible for a lot of the gap in knowledge about American Jewry [among Israelis]." According to Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, even "Israeli reporters who come to the United States generally don't take the time to learn about American Jewry. They just cover politics." The disdain may be hindering Israelis' ability to learn a great deal from their American counterparts, many at the conference said. American Jews may respect Israelis, says Howard Wohl, chairman of the executive of BBYO, the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, but they "see Israel itself as a corrupt country with an unstable government where every group looks out for itself. Israel is not a light unto the nations." First and foremost, Israelis could learn from Americans about religious education and pluralism, GA participants said. "Israelis speak Hebrew, but many live lives devoid of Judaism. Just closing your schools on Shavuot is not the totality of Judaism," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "Israelis can learn from us about giving to Israel itself," insisted Judy Shereck, national vice president of Hadassah. "Some Israeli kids who come to our summer camps say they learned more about Israel at our camp than they did growing up in Israel. They have to come to America to want to 'make aliya.'" In religious terms, "American Jews don't understand why there are so many secular Israelis," Shereck said. "Israeli kids attending our camps are often upset and surprised that we require them to join Shabbat prayers." Participants said Israelis could also learn from the Americans' commitment to giving to charitable causes. "Together with [Americans'] sharp individualism, you have to appreciate their social involvement, their idea of a community - something we don't have," said UJC senior vice president Nahman Shai, who recently announced he would run for a Kadima Knesset slot. "They also know how it feels to be a minority, so they take care of each other. Even though our situation as a small people is similar, we don't understand how to do this," added Shai. "Israelis are sort of blasé about philanthropy," said a participant from New England who wondered whether "the GA should include sessions where Israelis talk about how they can start solving social problems in their own communities." Lastly, participants pointed to a sense of Jewish unity, or "peoplehood," which they believed was stronger among American Jews than among Israelis. "We're living in a time of grace - American Jewry finally understands that the connection to Israel is part of a modern Jewish identity," said Dr. Shlomi Ravid, the director of the International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies at Beth Hatefutsoth in Tel Aviv and founder of the Israel Center in San Francisco. "Just now, when they're turning toward us [Israelis], we're stuck in a model that can't see them as anything but a source of money and manpower. In the moment when American Jews want real dialogue, we're shown to be weak," Ravid said. Few Israelis attended the conference, but one of them, highly respected former education minister Aharon Yadlin, defended Israelis' contribution to their society. "Israelis pay one of the highest tax rates in the world, serve in the army, go on yearlong national service projects to help immigrants and the elderly," Yadlin said. "Also, there is some Israeli philanthropy, even if it's not enough. After all, many Israeli nonprofits raise much of their money from Israelis. "Even so, the main point is that Israelis have to begin to understand that the Jews in Israel are part of a larger Jewish people. We should teach the young generation in Israel to see itself first as Jewish before it is Israeli," he said. Until that happens, the Israeli media's failure to report seriously on American Jewry will mar the relationship, said a participant from New York. "The media here seems to be too boorish and closed-minded to see under their noses a charity that takes care of hundreds of thousands of people," he complained. "Worse, the Israeli public holds these opinions because nobody in a position of responsibility knows the truth about American Jewry. They're stuck with these primitive, half-baked excuses for commentary."