All gone to look for America – Part I

Why were 6 Knesset members sent to the US last week to learn about the America-Jewish community and how it feels about Israel?

This past week, a group of six Knesset members wrapped up a trip to New York and Boston designed to educate them about the American Jewish community. The initiative came from Brandeis University and the Ruderman Family Foundation. The foundation – a noteworthy Jewish organization from the Boston area – does excellent work providing scholarships, assisting individuals with special needs and boosting Israel-Diaspora relations. The MKs were there not to explain the positions of the Israeli government, but to learn about how Jews in the United States feel about Israel and its policies.
I guess it could be defined as reverse hasbara. Everywhere you look, there are reports about the decline in American Jewry’s support of Israel. Brandeis and the Ruderman Foundation probably decided it was high time to do something about it, and while I applaud this effort to bring a delegation to get a crash course on American Jewry (and reportedly there will be more), there are many things wrong with the initiative.
The question that must be dealt with first is why a delegation like this is necessary to begin with. It was expressed very well by Jonathan Sarna, who teaches American Jewish history at Brandeis and helped plan the delegation’s itinerary. He told the JTA that during a sabbatical in Israel, he had been struck by Israeli ignorance of American Jewry and how “even the leading figures in Israel do not feel they understand American Jewry appropriately.”
It’s from realizations such as these that the need for a delegation program was born. If Sarna’s perceptions are correct, and they probably are, the blame falls squarely on our Foreign Ministry, which hasn’t been able to get across to our lawmakers just how important American Jews are to this country, and what the causes are for their growing discontent with Israel. Aren’t our diplomats supposed to be the ones in touch with Jewish communities in the US and the ones to bring any issues that may arise to the government?
The Foreign Ministry is doubly to blame. If such delegations are indeed necessary, shouldn’t it be the ministry’s job to organize them? Why does Israel have to wait until an American-Jewish organization steps up to do an outreach program?
I’m sure there are many reasons, but at least part of the answer is politics. The foreign minister has to approve any delegation that’s supposed to be representing the country. It’s unlikely the minister would allow anyone from the opposition (or even from a coalition party) to take part in such an undertaking.
ANOTHER QUESTION that popped into my mind had to do with the Knesset members who did take part in the delegation. It was made up of Eitan Cabel and Daniel Ben-Simon from Labor, Avi Dichter and Ronit Tirosh from Kadima, and Tzipi Hotovely and Carmel Shama-Hacohen from the Likud. I wondered why other factions were not represented. I looked up who had chosen them for the trip, and quickly understood.
The committee that made the recommendations consisted of members from Labor (Isaac Herzog), Kadima (Dichter) and Likud (Gilad Erdan).
So what do we have here? A group of Knesset members, two from the main opposition party, two from another opposition party that has all but disintegrated, and two from the lower end of the Likud list.
Not to take anything away from these MKs, but this list in and of itself shows how deep the rift is between Israel and US Jewry. If this issue is so important to the Knesset, why not send an acting minister or a senior member of the ruling party? Perhaps a top member of the coalition? Maybe it would have been wise to send representatives from the religious parties – those that fall outside the general consensus. In case it’s a mystery to anyone, Jewish religion and its implementation in Israel happens to be one of the key sticking points with US Jewry. The government must start forming projects like this on its own, get top representatives to participate, and make sure everyone takes them seriously.
I highly commend the Ruderman Foundation and Brandeis for putting this program together. Every lawmaker must understand that Israel has an inseparable bond with Diaspora Jews, and when that bond starts to weaken, we must act to repair it. We need to wake up and not wait until we reach the point when more Jews in the US will either be indifferent to our fate or not support us altogether.
The writer is an independent media consultant and a former producer at the Fox News Channel in New York.

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