Stop discounting US Jewry at Israel’s expense

Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett recently contended that “assimilation and growing indifference of Jews overseas... is the entire story” of this crisis.

American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As we look to 2019, let’s commit to curing the crisis in Israeli-American Jewish relations, and not merely explaining it away or dulling the pain.
Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett recently contended that “assimilation and growing indifference of Jews overseas... is the entire story” of this crisis. The underlying premise of his remarks – as Diaspora affairs minister, no less – that Israeli leaders need not reconsider their own words and actions, is a slap across the face to Israel’s own national security priorities.
A recent study by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation, shows that American Jewry continues to be indispensable to Israel’s national security, but its capacity is threatened as much by Israeli policies as by demographic and political changes within the United States.
On the plus side, American Jews continue to shape the conversation and are instrumental to ensuring US support for Israel. On the negative side, any drop in motivation or clout by American Jews can impact Israel in a substantive, strategic way.
In my words, whoever hurts Israel’s relationship with US Jewry risks undermining Israel’s national security by weakening its strategic relationship with the United States. As much as American Jews love Israel, and as much as Israel has been a catalyst for American Jewish identity, Israelis should consider whether they don’t need American Jews even more.
Contrary to Bennett’s claim that the fault lies with assimilation, there is no shortage of ways each side can improve the relationship. The true crisis is much deeper than American Jewish lack of interest, and the solution must go well beyond finger-pointing or his recommendation for more Jewish or Israel-oriented programs to reach American Jews.
The unpleasant reality of assimilation is no excuse for Israelis to ignore legitimate Diaspora concerns. And any thought of somehow bypassing American Jews as a pillar of the US-Israel bilateral equation – or safely ignoring their concerns – would be a dangerous illusion.
According to the INSS study, Israeli practices such as settlement expansion, restricting non-Orthodox access to the Western Wall and the Knesset’s recent adoption of the “Nation-State Law” are beginning to alienate American Jews who have been devoted to promoting Israel’s security needs and US-Israel relations.
The study also details the political gap between the heavily Democratic/liberal American Jewish community and the Israeli right-wing government’s unusually close relationship to President Donald Trump. Even though the bulk of American Jews remain committed to the pro-Israel agenda, promoting that agenda becomes harder as US-Israel relations are seen as Likud-Republican rather than as an unbreakable, bipartisan, nation-to-nation bond.
There are no quick fixes to this crisis. But no solution is even conceivable unless Israeli and American Jewish voices are able to speak and be heard by each other in a spirit of common cause and mutual appreciation.
One important step will be for Israeli decision-makers and opinion-leaders to realize that the bond with American Jews is not merely “nice to have” or a central ethic of Zionist thought, which it is. However much Israel fulfills the aspirations of American Jews, the Diaspora role is critical to Israel’s national security.
The study, led by a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, finds that most Israelis do not know – or, sadly, don’t care – about their country’s relationship with American Jewry. As a result, Israel’s elected leadership and decision-makers have scant political incentive to consider what implications their actions might have on this relationship. This worries me two-fold, since I view Israel as the home of the Jewish people and I believe in the vibrancy of the American Jewish community. However worried I may be, I am also hopeful. While there is still a long way to go, the discourse in Israel is changing. People care more today than they once did. A decade ago, it was unimaginable that people outside the professional Jewish world, let alone Israelis focused on national security and strategic challenges, would write a policy paper on this subject.
I hope this report, along with other developments, signifies a strategic shift in the way Israelis view their conversation with the American Jewish community. It is unlikely we will solve all our disagreements in the near future, but maybe we can change the conversation between Israel and US Jewry so it is informed, respectful, and constructive.
Jay Ruderman is the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.