Two prominent American Jewish leaders on Sunday criticized Israeli officials for not paying attention to American Jews’ liberal views of Israeli actions.
Jonathan Kessler, the director of strategic initiatives at the leading Israel lobby group, AIPAC, said Israeli leaders’ ignorance about American politics is “dangerous.”
Eric Goldstein, the head of the Jewish Federation in New York, the leading charity organization for US Jews, said Israeli leaders were oblivious to American Jewish concerns on such matters as egalitarian prayer at the western wall, because Israelis see American Jewish religious practices as “almost deviant.” And meanwhile liberal American Jews cannot support rightwing Israeli policies– including the “taking of Palestinian land.”
Both men spoke at the Israeli American Council conference in Washington, in panels on the growing schism between American Jews and Israelis.
Kessler said that rift is “not a crisis today, it will be a crisis in 10 years.” Saying he spoke not for AIPAC but as a Jewish leader, Kessler said, “I can confidently predict that in 10 years it will be virtually insurmountable” unless measures are taken to bridge the two communities.
He pointed to the “dangerous phenomenon of Israelis not knowing America, not knowing American Jewry, not knowing American politics, and the most dangerous phenomenon of them all, Israelis who know nothing about Congress assuming they do understand the intricacies.”
There was once a time, when Israel had leaders that had such intimate relationships with American Jewish leaders that they really knew this community. I mean [the late Jerusalem mayor] Teddy Kollek knew this community in a way that nobody on the scene knew this community. I’m talking prime ministers, ambassadors, just generically. They just don’t know– and they think they know. And it’s very, very disconcerting. Fortunately, ministers that I have dealt with lately who don’t speak English particularly well have admitted that they are bewildered by Congress and the political process in the United States. That’s good. That’s a good starting point.
Goldstein described the sea change in American Jewish attitudes about Israel:
For many, many years the glue that connected the American Jewish community… was a common case about Israel, aliyah… state-building, pioneering, and it was a hugely unifying source of pride. Today, regrettably, I would say that Israel is the single most divisive issue in the American community, pitting American Jew against American Jew, not unlike the differences that exist in Israel, Israeli against Israeli, over what is the right way forward. You have two vastly different narratives, very, very difficult to bridge them, and one believes that the other is leading to the ultimate destruction of the state, and the other one believes it just as intently.
Both men warned that young American Jews are turning against the Israel story.
Kessler slammed the recent decision by Birthright, the program that takes young American Jews to Israel, to reconsider meetings that the young visitors get with Israeli Palestinians.
When I hear that Birthright is reconsidering showing some of the communities that are less familiar, it’s breaking my heart. Because nothing will estrange our children faster than them realizing, you’re not presenting the whole thing.
Goldstein also cited Jews under 30:
Their attitudes toward Israel are much much more negative than they were even five years ago…. I think the political questions are very, very significant. American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal and democratic. They see an Israel that is turning again for reasons they don’t fully understand– there needs to be greater education both ways– but American Jewry sees Israel moving rightward, the NGO bills [laws targeting human rights organizations] and various other– taking of Palestinian land for dollars– and the result is a continuing erosion of the relationship American Jews and Israel.
The Israeli cluelessness was especially apparent when Goldstein was in the country last summer, he said, and the Israeli government brushed aside the rage of American Jewish leaders about two rightwing religious decisions: not to implement a plan for greater access by non-orthodox Jews to prayer at the western wall, along with the decision to allow the chief rabbis in Israel to decide who can convert to Judaism.
What was amazing to the Americans who were there was just how uninterested the Israelis were …. They were amazed at our anger… There was a complete disconnect on both issues. Conservative and Reform [Jewish] life in America, while it is changing, is still normative and vibrant and strong. In Israel it’s nascent. They don’t understand Reform and conservative. Many of them have never been to a Reform or conservative synagogue, it’s almost deviant.
An Israeli diplomat who spoke at the conference Sunday downplayed the differences between the two communities. But Sam Grundwerg, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, said he does find himself “begging the Israel leadership” to take into account the impact its decisions have on U.S. Jews.
Many speakers at the conference said that these issues demonstrate the tension between a country that puts itself forward as “the nation state of the Jewish people” and the large community of American Jews who often don’t feel represented by that country.
An Israeli-American leader called on American Jews not to air these disagreements publicly. Jacky Teplitzky, a realtor in New York who is a board member of the Israeli American Council, said she was “stunned” when Conservative and Reform rabbis condemned the Israeli government’s religious decisions from their pulpits on the high holidays in September.
That’s not right. Think about the damage you can do. Let’s talk about it; I am not saying you have to agree. But you don’t have to put more oil into the fire…. I do understand that everyone is angry. But you can’t go and put it on the media and put it everywhere and then get all the Israelis against you. Why? Don’t we have enough problems?
Teplitzky said that the lack of separation between church and state makes Israel special, and U.S. Jews need to respect that.
I hear from a lot of my Israeli friends: When in Rome do as Romans do. Why is it that American Jewry feel that when they come to Israel, they have to change things? And we have to change things to accommodate you. You guys did not serve in the IDF [Israeli army]. I did…. Our kids go to the IDF….We are here doing the quote unquote dirty job, and you come and visit and stay in the nice hotels, and go to our great restaurants. You donate a lot of money… But there is something about respecting the laws and the status quo in Israel.
Of course all these differences are consistent with the fact that the U.S. and Israel are more than 5000 miles apart on different continents with different languages and ways of life. I wanted to ask, why not just let the communities grow apart? But I was not called on; and the speakers all took it as a premise that the intimacy between the two Jewish communities is necessary to preserve the Israel lobby, and the special political relationship between Israel and the United States, in which the U.S. consistently backs Israel’s actions. Allowing that relationship to erode is “dangerous,” as Kessler put it.