Can American Jewry influence Israeli politics?

Unequivocally, Israel belongs to all Jews.

American and Israeli flags (photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
American and Israeli flags
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
With the Thanksgiving weekend behind us and Hanukka just around the corner, family drama is high in Jewish homes. As adult kids visit parents and siblings get together, the relationships play out on the stage of the holiday table. Social psychology often closely mimics personal psychology, and these experiences can give us a glimpse into the current crisis in the greater Jewish “family” – the unfolding drama of Diaspora-Israel relations playing out at the Western Wall.
Imagine a family where almost all the siblings move out of the parents’ house and make a life for themselves in other places. One sibling stays behind to live with or near the parents. She is the one driving the now-aging mom and dad to their doctors’ appointments, supervising the caregivers and turning the house upside down in search of dad’s often-misplaced glasses.
And then the holidays arrive and her siblings come to visit. This being their childhood home they have every right to feel at home. Yet basic human decency would require that they show sensitivity, realizing that it is their sister who carries all of the responsibility that preserves the childhood home for them to be able to visit in the first place. Their short visit is just that and in a couple of days they will go back to their lives. But for this sister, this is her life. And with things happening in the house every day, she has made some executive decisions based on events that her siblings might not even know about.
All too often, if a visiting sibling feels uncomfortable, he will put his needs on equal footing with the stay-home sibling’s. If his wishes are not met, he will style himself the victim of the “controlling” sister and complain to all other relatives about being mistreated. He will rarely take the time to look at the situation from her point of view or show appreciation for all her hard work.
Unfortunately, this is the dynamic we are witnessing between American liberal leaders and the Israeli government these days. Unequivocally, Israel belongs to all Jews. It’s their ancestral homeland and they must feel welcomed. Yet basic human dignity and humility would suggest that as a visitor you do not get to dictate how this country is run. Diaspora Jews have every right to voice respectful opinions, lobby, and use diplomacy to get their needs met. Yet right now we are witnessing a small group of American Jewish leaders doing things they simply do not get to do.
They do not get, as a group of Reform leaders led by Rabbi Rick Jacobs had done, to break through security with Torah scrolls into the main Western Wall plaza (after holding a service at the section of the Wall designated for liberal worship). They do not get to then hold a mixed sing-and-dance at the Wall, flaunting 2,000 years of established tradition, the legislation prohibiting outside Torah scrolls being brought in (for fear of theft), and the feelings of thousands of regular worshipers, the men and women who come to pray at the Wall every day.
They do not get to play the victimhood card for being “roughed up” at the incident. The new term was the only way Jewish media could spin the story from the liberal perspective, without deviating from truth, seeing as how Reform leadership clearly instigating the incident.
They don’t get to attack deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely’s statement about the different levels of responsibility for Jewish survival undertaken by Israeli and American Jews. They certainly do not get to do so after Hillel caved in to boycott pressure and canceled her appearance, while the rest of American Jewish leadership failed to stand up for her.
They do not get to misrepresent themselves as speaking for the Diaspora Jewry and spin the events as a “crisis” between Israel and the Diaspora. By their own admission, the Reform and Conservative movements represent approximately 2.8 million Jews around the world. While an important minority, this is just 18% of world Jewry and less than a third of the Diaspora. Out of these, two million are located in North America. Besides American leaders, no other Diaspora community has any skin in the game or has voiced an opinion. So while American Reform leaders may feel slighted, they do not get to speak for the entire family.
They do not get to make demands on Israel, when over half (60% of Reform and 44% of Conservative) American Jews have never taken the time to visit Israel even once.
While it is easy to blame Israel for the break in relations, numbers show otherwise. When the Pew study was conducted in 2013, long before the current “crisis,” just under a quarter of Reform Jews and less than half of Conservative reported a strong emotional attachment to Israel.
Just about one half considered caring about Israel to be essential to Jewish identity.
They do not get to put their needs and wishes above the needs and wishes of their fellow Jews.
Have you asked yourself why in all the years of Israel’s history we have never witnessed a protest of French, Russian, or UK Jews demanding that Israel change its policies? Here’s the answer: while American Jews have been shaped by two centuries of exceptionalism, to the extent that it is rare for Americans to even consider learning a foreign language, these communities have enough intercultural sensitivity and understanding to appreciate and respect Israeli society’s right to its own mentality and practices.
They do not get to strong-arm Israelis into doing their bidding by threatening to cut off donations to Israel.
Using money and threats to control the actions of others has a name – it’s called financial bullying (and is a common sign of domestic abuse). As much as Israel appreciates the involvement of Jews from around the world, its policy is not up for sale. And another thing. Gone are the days when Israel relied on foreign assistance. As always, active involvement in Israeli causes serves as a source of Jewish identity and an important benefit to the donors too. Of course, each person and community is free to allocate their resources as they see fit. Just please do not pressure Israel with money.
And finally, and most importantly, they do not get to throw a bad-mannered PR fit at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when they don’t like his decisions. Especially not after siding with Obama’s Iran plan and abandoning Israel on a vitally important issue of Jewish survival.
So how can Diaspora Jewry affect Israeli policy? The Lubavitcher Rebbe provided a poignant example during his 40 years of leadership. The Rebbe was often emphatically opposed to Israel’s policy on critical issues, such as “Who is a Jew” and land for peace. Yet he always staunchly supported Israel in every international arena.
And he never made this support conditional on Israel accepting his views.
He always showed respect for the Israeli democratic process and for Israel’s elected leaders. He wrote letters, sent messengers, used diplomacy and PR. He encouraged his emissaries to sway public opinion. Yet he never orchestrated protests, used violence, threatened, or stirred crisis.
Whatever influence the Rebbe had acquired, he did so by practicing humility and respect.
If American Jewish leaders want to be taken seriously by Israel, Israelis, and the Israeli government, they would do well to find some of that humility and respect first. From there, there is a whole arsenal of negotiation strategies they can use to advance their causes.
And they can do so without ruining the relationship.
We are one family after all.
The author is co-founder of Women for the Wall. She holds an MA in organizational psychology.