collage Jewish American leaders by the Forward

15 American-Jewish Leaders on how to bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora

Last Tuesday, the Israeli Knesset held a special hearing of the Knesset Education Committee for what it designated as “Diaspora Day,” an event to “bring the voices and experiences of world Jewry into the halls of the Knesset and Israeli society.” It got us thinking: What do we wish Israelis interested in bridging the divide with the Diaspora would learn from our leaders and influencers?

We reached out to Jewish American professors, rabbis, and activists across the ideological spectrum for their thoughts. 15 wrote back. Here’s what they had to say:

Rabbi Mira Rivera, Associate Rabbi at Romemu in New York, NY

Come and see how we live as Jews in America. It was, and still is after all, a Goldene Medina for many of our elders. In the same way that the gap year in Israel has been formative in the lives of many young adult Jews, spend a gap year with us. Get curious and fill the “gap” in your understanding. Work in a social justice initiative, a camp, yes, even a synagogue. Stand alongside those of us who are working for racial and economic justice. We are not less Jewish because we also strive for the betterment of an America that is trying to regain its soul.

Seth Mandel, executive editor of the Washington Examiner Magazine: The Israeli government is quite proficient at coordinating with official representatives of Diaspora Jews, and that should continue. We are lucky to have these organizations. But it is not sufficient: American Jewry is increasingly disconnected from these umbrella groups, for example. American conservatives have popularized the idea that, in order to better know their constituents, some federal agencies should be relocated from Washington to where they can be more accessible to the people they serve — and the people to them. It makes sense. So here’s my modest proposal: The Israeli minister of Diaspora affairs should live in the Diaspora for his or her term in office.

Libby Lenkinski, Vice President, New Israel Fund: When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, he surrounded himself with bona fide white nationalists. American Jews were horrified. Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters celebrated. In Trump’s America, Jews were cast as masterminds behind movements for social change that “threaten” white America. This conspiracy theory drove the deadliest pogrom in American history in Pittsburgh. When Netanyahu came to America to block Obama’s Iran deal, he claimed to represent Jewish people everywhere — that empowered Trump to accuse American Jews of dual loyalty, a classic antisemitic claim. I wish Israelis understood how the politics of fear, here and there, have endangered American Jews, Israelis and Palestinians—not kept us safe.

Jonathan Sarna, Professor of Jewish Studies at Brandeis University: The one thing Israelis could do to bridge the divide between Israel and American Jews is to introduce the study of American Jewish history and life into Israeli high school and college curricula, and then to bring Israeli youngsters to America to reinforce those lessons. American Jews today learn much more about Israel than Israelis learn about America and American Jewry. When that changes, the divide between Israel and American Jewry will narrow.

Ruth Messinger, Global Ambassador and former President of the American Jewish World Service: This should be a mutual endeavor. Israelis and American Jews must each learn to listen to the other, to understand our similarities and our differences, to see how our cultures, societies and politics have grown each in their own way. We have much to gain by knowing each other better, learning to appreciate the diversity and the different perspectives as well as the shared elements of our faith and our humanity.

Jonathan Boyarin, Professor of Jewish Studies at Cornell University: Try to get over thinking that we’re in exile and you’re not. For now, we’re all in exile, “in Israel and around the world,” as the Federation used to say. And you don’t have to pretend any longer that you’re there to ensure our security. Take care of yourselves and the people around you. When you say “Israeli society,” remember that you’re not just talking about Jews. We may find we have a lot in common. And we’re all still waiting for redemption.

Rabbi Andrea London, Senior Rabbi at Beth Emet in Evanston, IL: I wish that Israeli Jews would learn more about the different streams of Judaism and that it’s possible to observe Judaism in different ways. Many Israeli Jews who consider themselves “secular” have Shabbat dinners, go to Passover seders, and light Chanukah candles. Because Judaism is the dominant religions of the state, however, they see these observances as national holidays, not religious ones. If Israelis would learn contemporary Jewish teachings and practices, many more would find Judaism relevant and engaging. This would also help them to understand and connect better with the majority of Jews in the world who are not Orthodox.

Hadar Susskind, President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now: American Jews overwhelmingly support Israel, believing deeply in the idea of a Jewish and democratic state. They also overwhelmingly oppose endless occupation, annexation, and the apartheid-like reality that annexation would bring. Unfortunately, recent Israeli governments have doubled down on occupation and raised the specter of annexation, while at the same time weakening Israeli democracy through the passage of the Nation State Law. To bridge the divide between Israel and American Jews, Israeli leaders must recommit to the long neglected “democratic” nature of Israel, showing that it is as important as the “Jewish” character.

Jeremey Ben-Ami, President of J-Street: The lived experiences, values and politics of the two Jewish communities are extraordinarily different and the gap is growing. The importance of non-Orthodox Jewish practice in the U.S. and its deep roots in social justice can’t be overstated. While a large majority of Jewish Americans lean to the left politically, an increasing majority of Jewish Israelis lean to the right. The criticisms of Israeli policy from that liberal majority — in particular, criticism of the ongoing occupation — are not well-received in Israel. A “reverse Birthright” — Israelis spending time in the American Jewish community — could help as could other forms of engagement.

Daniel Kurtzer, former United States Ambassador to Israel: Just as American and other Diaspora Jews need to respect Israel’s sovereign decision-making responsibility on issues relating to the state and its domestic and foreign policy, Israel needs to respect the collective decision making responsibility of world Jewry on matters relating to Jewish identity and personal status — for example, who is a Jew, conversion, marriage, divorce, access to the Western Wall for all religious denominations, and the like. As challenging as it will be to find consensus on these issues, it is imperative that a serious effort be made; this has not been the case until now. If consensus cannot be achieved, then practical accommodations must be developed in concert between Israel and Diaspora communities that ensures mutual respect.

Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO StandWithUs: Many American Jews still don’t really know Israelis or understand Israel’s remarkable story. It’s mainly our responsibility in America to get better at inspiring our community to connect, but Israelis can also help bridge the divide. It starts with learning how to share their stories and connection to the Jewish people in a way that is relevant, so they can build relationships with American Jews of different ages and backgrounds. We need more inspiring exchange programs going in both directions to facilitate these relationships.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights: A more positive and productive relationship between American Jews and Israel will depend on ending the occupation, legislating the equality of all Israeli citizens, and committing to democracy. American Jews rightly take pride in Israel as a safe harbor for Jews, and in its Declaration of Independence which enshrines “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.” But we also see a country that has spent the last 53 years carrying out an occupation that violates the basic human rights of Palestinians, including the rights to self-determination, due process, protest, freedom of movement, and more. We see a country that structurally discriminates against its non-Jewish citizens, that has abandoned the two-state solution for de facto annexation, and that incites against Israeli civil society and human rights leaders. No amount of hasbara, “non-political programming,” and attacks on critics of Israeli policy will distract us from this reality. Only actual policy change can bring about a transformation in relationship.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, President & Dean of Valley Beit Midrash

There is so much that American Jews can, and must, learn from the vibrant modern phenomena emerging from Israeli Jews. There’s also so much that Israeli Jews can learn from American Jews (our universalism, pluralism, diversity of dynamic Jewish values, identities and experiences, etc.). To bridge the divide, American Jews need their confidence rebuilt that Israelis aren’t just interested in them for philanthropic funding, as pawns for Israeli advocacy, and as insider business partnerships. American Jews need to know that they aren’t viewed as sideline players to the central playing field and that they are disrespected, being viewed as a mess of liberal assimilation & intermarriage, who are Jewishly apathetic and politically naïve and confused. American Jews have authentic Jewish ideas and identities that are worth understanding and learning from. Just as Israeli Jews are so incredibly diverse, it would be generative to appreciate that American Jews are as well. This global Jewish diversity adds so much to the beautiful tapestry of Am Yisrael and our collective moral and spiritual mission.

Yonah Lieberman, Co-founder and Communications Director of IfNotNow: It’s quite simple: demand your government end the occupation and pursue a policy of equality, human rights, and democracy for all Israelis and Palestinians.

Tabby Refael is the co-founder and former executive director of 30 Years After: Israelis need to tell their stories and those of their family, even if, in true hardened Israeli style, they think no one will care. They’re right; Israeli Jews probably won’t care. But we will. American Jews don’t need statistics. We need to know about that uncle who escaped an Egyptian jail cell and went on to fight in the Haganah; or that grandmother whose Moroccan dafina was served alongside heaping spoonfuls of couscous and vibrant memories; Israelis, especially Mizrahim and Sephardim, need to tell more stories. That’s easy. Convincing them to collect those family stories is the hard part.


Zachariah Sippy is an opinion intern with The Forward. He can be reached at sippy@forward.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Authors

Zachariah Sippy

Zachariah Sippy

Zachariah Sippy is an opinion intern at the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @ZachariahSippy or send him an email: sippy@forward.com.

15 American-Jewish Leaders on how to bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora

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15 American-Jewish Leaders on how to bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora

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