Shariv’s parting shots

There is a widening gap between Israel and American Jewry, and it’s not the Israelis’ fault, says outgoing NY Consul Asaf Shariv.

Asaf Shariv 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Asaf Shariv 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘In my opinion, the story that caused us the most damage in the past few years was that Israel didn’t allow iPads to be brought in,” departing Consul-General in New York Asaf Shariv tells me on a hot, rainy Thursday in August. “That did more damage than either the flotilla or the war.”
We’re sitting in his office on Second Avenue.
It’s only a few days before Shariv is set to go home, ending his term as consul-general. In a suit and tie, he sits in an armchair next to a rocket shell. Most visitors, he tells me, think it’s an ashtray. It’s going to stay in the office for his as-yet unnamed successor, like the portraits of Yitzhak Rabin and Binyamin Netanyahu, and the tattered American flag recovered from Staten Island’s dumps among the horrible detritus of September 11.
Surrounded by all this history, Shariv sits back and explains his stance.
“The flotilla operation and all the great PR we produce from our daily effort to keep Israel safe hurts us mainly with the people who are not our biggest fans, and I feel are a little more secure in going and attacking us – in other words, it causes people to be more explicit in their criticism of Israel.”
Stories like Israel keeping the iPad out, in contrast, “make Israel look like Iran,” or “like Saudi Arabia with the BlackBerry, or North Korea and Facebook. As long as we’re pushing the idea that we’re a ‘start-up nation,’ and all these stories of innovation, you get one story like that and it just kills us.”
Our hour-long conversation is sprinkled with tidbits like this one, gleaned from his time here. Over the course of the conversation, Shariv seems happy – if not happy to be leaving New York, then at least pleased to be going back to Israel with his family. At 38, the youngest person to ever hold the post, he has a degree of insouciance that doesn’t fit in with the somewhat foreboding nature of the geopolitical climate: There’s a last-day-of-school feeling to our conversation. Perhaps, one might think, the diplomat is being more cavalier than diplomatic. Because, really? Between Operation Cast Lead and the flotilla, a diplomat based here would say that the story that did the greatest damage to Israeli-American relations was the iPad? Yes, Shariv reasserts, underscoring the point.
“We’re trying to reach normal average Americans who in the best-case scenario lean toward Israel, but don’t know a lot about it,” he says.
“It causes problems with that audience – those young American Jews who don’t remember the Holocaust or the Six Day War. You know, the ones who get their news from [political satirist] Jon Stewart or blogs. They’re not so politically savvy. And it makes it that Israel is not something you want to connect or relate to. And that’s a big problem.”
It’s that youth quotient, the 35-and-unders, that concerns Shariv: “The gap is just growing wider and wider.”
Despite his emphasis on the iPad, he is quick to note that the flotilla gave critics of Israeli policy “a very good reason to complain about our PR again. It took the State of Israel way too many hours to get the story out, and then to reach all the people we wanted to reach.
“Israel never goes to war, in my opinion, without provocation, and usually we convince the world,” Shariv says. “Cast Lead, the Second Lebanon War, even Defensive Shield, everyone understood. But after seven to 10 days, after that, people forget why we started the war.”
The flotilla, he says, was different: “The first day was the worst, but every day after that became much better. There was more information, more footage, showing that it was completely different from the other operations.
The first day, [New York] Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg came out and supported Israel, and that was amazing. But others took some time before they heard the story.”
ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES in the tri-state area, though, Shariv says, “we don’t have a problem.”
He notes that this is not “the most popular answer,” but states that Israel’s PR among college students is no worse than it was at the end of the 1970s.
“When you’re at an American college, 99.9 percent of the kids there don’t care about Israel,” Shariv says. “I have a guess that most American college students never even heard of the flotilla. They’re busy! They’re on Facebook! They’re more interested in [singer] Justin Bieber, sports, parties and maybe schoolwork – they’re not into politics in the first place, and certainly not into Israeli politics.”
During his years as consul-general, Shariv visited almost 60 universities and colleges. “We got some rough questions, we gave interviews to campus newspapers, but we never saw violence or anything more problematic than that.”
Shariv notes that in the past few years, people have been “more explicit” in their criticism of Israel. “We got grace of a few years because of 9/11, not because of us per se, but rather because no one was very enthusiastic about supporting the Muslim community. As much as I hate it – I don’t think it should be a zerosum game – but there is a feeling of Jews versus Muslims, even here.”
The Birthright program, Shariv says, “is perfect.
People are coming for 10 days, they hear great stories about how much fun it is, how great Israeli soldiers are, how beautiful Israeli women are.”
Yes, he says, Birthright does good work in covering gaps in identification with Israel. But Shariv also says that he’s seen a lot of people who returned to Israel after Birthright, only to be disappointed.
“The Israel they’ve been taught about is not the same country as the reality. People tell me all the time – the people are too rude, too vocal, it’s impossible to drive. There’s all kinds of conflict that doesn’t belong to ‘the conflict.’” But most importantly, Shariv says, “American Jews are very liberal, and they think Israel is not as liberal as they’d expect it to be.”
Shariv says in his tenure as consul-general, he has seen a “growing gap between Israel and American Jewry,” and attributes it to the liberalism of American Jews. “When they look on the Zionist movement, they see that Israel has become more and more conservative, and the original Zionism that they thought would be liberal is now conservative.”
At the same time, Shariv is quick to point out that American Jews who demonstrate against Israeli combat operations don’t demonstrate against the US and its policies. “They have expectations of us, as the Jewish state – no one has expectations of Iran, for example,” he says.
“It’s good that they have expectations of us, the idea that this is not the Jewish way, this is not how it’s supposed to be. And that causes a lot of problems.”
In terms of Israeli political corruption alienating the American Jewish community, Shariv says corrupt politicians “learned from the best,” referencing the political turmoil during his tenure stateside.
For many people, settlements are the biggest issue, Shariv says, but that comes more from people who are not actively informed about Israel. He says he was pleasantly surprised, if somewhat intimidated, by the informed element of the Jewish community.
“Jews would ask me why this guy was appointed to be this commander, an ambassador going to Romania... day-to-day issues in Israel!” Shariv laughs. “They all read the Web sites. They’re involved. Everyone has friends and family in Israel. It surprised me, how many of them have strong feelings for Israel and how involved they are. Sometimes they’re more concerned with things the Israelis take for granted.”
WHAT OF THE CONVERSION debate triggered by the Rotem bill earlier this summer? Yes, Shariv says, it was “a big story,” but he notes that members of the Reform and Conservative movements had fought against the bill from the beginning, and that their support of Israel is significant. He estimates that 85% of the members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations are Reform and Conservative.
“I don’t think this bill will be implemented,” he notes.
Of more concern to Shariv is the increased politicization of the Israel discussion among Jews. He notes that according to polls, Republican support for Israel is stronger than that of Democrats, but he doesn’t put too much stock in the findings. Rather, Shariv cites “new forces” in the US who are more connected to the Democratic Party, specifically Latino voters.
“Israel should put more emphasis on reaching out to these groups, and not only our supporters,” Shariv says. “There are expanding communities that will emerge as powerful groups in 15 years. I don’t think they have a special connection to Israel right now.
“I don’t think we have a problem with Hispanics, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the same connection to Israel that other groups have. We should try to do more mutual projects with them. I don’t think we have a problem now, but if I look at where things are going, I’d be worried. We should pay attention to the situation to make sure we’re not helping it by only playing with one side of the aisle.”
When Shariv entered the world of diplomacy in 2002, working for former prime minister Ariel Sharon as senior adviser to his chief of staff, the political world was a different place, even among Jewish organizations.
While Shariv doesn’t think any of the Jewish organizations are less influential now, he commented on the birth of the left-leaning J Street as indicative of the change in the political climate.
Characterizing J Street as being “mainly for American Jews who are more liberal than AIPAC’s membership,” he says “they are players in Washington, definitely – but I’m not sure they’re players around the country. It’s not an organization that we feel in our work. I’m not saying bad things about them, but as an organization mobilizing people – well, they’re not yet there in the tri-state area.”
J Street’s power, Shariv says, is most indicated by the rift its creation exemplified, if not caused: “The fights between J Street and AIPAC show that Israel is becoming more and more a partisan issue in the United States. That’s the biggest risk we have right now.”
He is quick to point out that similar problems existed in the US Jewish community in the mid-1970s, but that this situation is different.
“J Street really tries to show that it is the lobby of the Democratic Party, and I don’t think it’s true,” Shariv says. “I definitely don’t think it’s true. There’s a difference between Republican voters, the way the Republicans support Israel and the way the Democrats support Israel, and Jewish organizations have something to do with it. But they’re playing that card, and I don’t think that’s a good thing – not good for Israel, and not good for the Jewish community. And I don’t even think it’s good for AIPAC or J Street.”
And what of those who would counter that the real problem isn’t political infighting, but rather the depiction of Israel in the American media? “I’ll give you the very unpopular answer – I think they were fair,” Shariv says. “My friends in the Jewish community won’t like that answer, but I don’t think the American media are less fair than the Israeli media, or less supportive of Israel than the Israeli media.
“I’ve met the heads of the Daily News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fox, CNN – they’re not against Israel. It’s ridiculous to say they’re against Israel. I think we have more supporters here than in Europe – I don’t think we have anti-Semites in the American media, not even on CNN.
The New York Times has more Jews working for it than any media organization, including Haaretz. I’m joking, but there’s not a newspaper or a TV channel biased against Israel as a decision that came from a publisher.” National Public Radio, he notes, “is not Al Jazeera.”
Shariv admits that he doesn’t think a government should control the media, but “all I need is for somebody to be fair.” Bias, he says, is much more blatant on blogs and Web sites that are part of the new citizen media movement, and there is little recourse.
Citing a “terrible” story on Israel in the Village Voice two years ago, Shariv recounts, “I called the editor, they agreed to have a meeting with us and we gave him our side.
That’s all I want.”
WHAT DOES SHARIV want now? Along with his office materials, he’s taking back the two main things he learned during his time in the US, he says. He is concerned that there is no “culture of philanthropy” in Israel like that of the US.
“I’m not talking only about money – talking about volunteers,” he says. “It’s not as developed as it is here, and it would make Israel a better country. We can’t always look at the rich uncle of the United States, and not look at the very real growing wealthy community in Israel. After 62 years, I think we should have more Israelis supporting more in the Israeli community.”
Shariv returned to Israel with Nefesh B’Nefesh, a group he credits with doing a “great job at making it easier and less terrifying to go to Israel.” He speculates about future programs that would make a difference in the American perception of Israel. “If we could have Birthright for Christians, that would have a huge impact,” he says.
His second lesson from his American experience, he says, is one he never expected: He “rediscovered Judaism.”
“In Israel, you sometimes take Judaism for granted, and you think that Judaism is just the Orthodox, that to be Jewish is to be haredi from Mea She’arim,” he says. “That’s a big problem for us as a country. There’s a lot of ignorance inside Israel among the most brilliant young people regarding Judaism.”
In the last two years, Shariv says, he went to synagogue “more than I ever did in my entire life in Israel. Here, there are millions of people who have never visited Israel, and they’re proud Jews. They’re Jewish because it’s a beautiful thing.”
Upon his return to Israel, Shariv says, he’ll attempt to replicate his Jewish experience in the US. “I don’t think I can have any influence on the Orthodox parties,” he said, referring to the widening gap between secular and religious Israelis as a “big danger.”
“But my secular friends will have to make kiddush with me on Friday night,” he says.
“You wouldn’t hear me say it two years ago, but being Jewish is great.”