In the past five years, a number of surveys have indicated a growing rift between Israel and American Jews. Last year, a joint survey of the Ruderman Family Foundation commissioned with the Israeli polling firm Dialog, found the following telling statistics: 53% of Israelis think MKs should consider American Jews in their legislative work, 86% of Israelis think MKs should get to know and be in touch with the American Jewish community and 40% of Israelis think that the relationship with American Jewry is weakening.
As such, The Ruderman Family Foundation is trying to improve or even reverse this trend through an innovative program that takes Israeli political leadership on a mission to the United States.
On the Knesset Mission, launched in 2011, Knesset members dialogue not only with US Jewish leaders but with the American Jewish people. The hope is that through study, community events and educational tours, MKs will commit to strengthening the relationship between Israel and American Jews on a practical and even legislative level.
More than 25 MKs from over a dozen political parties have participated in five missions, including the most recent one, which took place in March 2017. The trips are unique in that rather than the MKs representing or teaching about Israel, they become like students, learning about the American Jewish community.
“The impact is in the opportunity to meet the people,” MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid, mission ’16) tells The Jerusalem Report. “We had the opportunity to sit with people from a range of perspectives and it gave us a panoramic view of American Jewry.”
MK Avi Dichter (Likud, mission ’11) expresses similar sentiments.
Both he and Lavie had spent time in the US before. However, Dichter says that the Ruderman Foundation ensured that MKs met with people from all religious and political perspectives, opening their eyes to what the phrase “Jewish community” really means in the United States. He says he was not sure he would learn anything new on the trip, but he left the mission with a better understanding of the fact that while American Jews might be referred to as “American Jews” or the “Jewish people,” they have many voices.
For instance, one of the most eye-opening moments for Dichter was when he discovered the sizable discrepancies in estimates of the number of Jews in America, depending on who you talk to – anywhere from 5.7 million to 6.8 million.
“The reason is the answer to ‘Who is a Jew?’ is very different between the different streams,” says Dichter.
MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union, Mission ’17) says she does not view this discrepancy as a negative.
Rather, she tells the Report, that Israel could take a lesson from American Jews about Jewish identity. If in Israel people are Jewish just because they live in the Jewish state, “Jewish identity is being defined in America and we need to embrace that.”
She notes that the mission served as a reminder of the need to actively work on the American-Jewish connection, which can sometimes be lost in the daily Knesset grind.
“I am going to make a point of being more involved,” says Nahmias-Verbin.
She says she hopes to engage more with Israel-US relations and proposes exploring options for creating a Birthright-like experience for bar- and bat-mitzva age Jewish youth. She also proposes more effectively leveraging new technologies and social media to connect young American Jews with Jews in Israel.
MK Shulamit “Shuli” Moalem-Refaeli (Bayit Yehudi, Mission ’14) says she learned about the variant streams of Judaism through colleagues or visitors to the Knesset in Israel. However, as an Orthodox Israeli, the mission was “eye-opening.”
“In Israel, we just don’t understand the different streams,” she says. “In Israel, it is either Orthodox or secular.”
In recent years, liberal American streams have been flexing their muscles in Israel, largely through their role as members of the board of the Jewish Agency. Liberal leaders pressured Israel to allow for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, resulting in legislation that would require the southern portion (around Robinson’s Arch) to be dedicated to prayer that is not in accordance with traditional Jewish Law, following the customs of non-Orthodox streams. Representatives will participate in the committee overseeing the southern expanse. The Kotel plan has yet to be implemented. There is also an effort to force the Israeli rabbinate to accept weddings and conversions conducted by non-Orthodox rabbis and to pay for the service of liberal rabbinic leaders, as is customary for Orthodox community rabbis in Israel.
Lavie is passionate about issues of religion and state. Even before entering the Knesset and founding the People, Religion and State Caucus, she served as social activist for such causes and authored a number of books on the subject. However, she says certain visits on the Ruderman Knesset Mission showed her just how acute the clash over issues of religion and state has become for Diaspora Jews.
During her mission, Lavie attended a meeting at a prominent Conservative synagogue in Newton, Massachusetts. After the official ceremony, she was chatting with the congregation’s assistant rabbi, who informed her that the head rabbi no longer speaks about Israel from the pulpit. In shock, Lavie sought out the rabbi for answers.
“I was told that he finds that Israel makes a lot of noise and mess and that people are fighting about Israel and everyone has his own opinion,” says Lavie. “He says Israel has become a trigger and he wants people to come to synagogue to listen and be together and have a community. He found that when he speaks about Israel, it results in the opposite of what he wants.”
She was also struck by a group of young students at Brandeis University who told her, “For years, you did not come to us,” and expressed feelings of abandonment by the Jewish state.
Lavie makes a point of seeking out non-Orthodox Jewish community leaders and constituents when she visits the US each year. She wants to give them an Israeli audience – something from which she thinks most of her colleagues shy away. She understands why.
“They [American liberal Jews] have so many complaints and it is not easy for us to hear this,” says Lavie. “But I know it is not easy for them, either.”
She tries to bring the voice of the American liberal Jew to her colleagues in the Knesset and even to the ear of the prime minister.
She says she knows her voters are in Israel and not the US, but she hopes she can play a role in representing Diaspora Jewry in Israel.
“Someone has to do it and I don’t see other leaders stepping up,” she says. “Not everything can be about politics; sometimes it needs to be about the people.”
Moalem-Refaeli says she learned that the American Jewish community has struggles beyond Israel that she was not aware of before. “There are complications we know nothing about,” she tells the Report.
“It is forbidden for us to cut Israel off from Jews abroad, because doing so will cause greater confusion and lead to us losing more Jews,” says Moalem-Refaeli. “Israel owes something to Jews, even when they are not here [in Israel].”
“Some Knesset members are willing to give up on those Jews living abroad,” Nahmias-Verbin adds. “That is not my opinion.”
Nahmias-Verbin notes that it is also important to think about how to work with Israeli-Americans, those Israelis who moved to the States and plan to stay there.
“America needs us to show them we feel they are part of us,” says Nahmias-Verbin. “I think if we take even small steps, we will immediately see results.”
Dichter reminds that while there are around six million Jews in Israel and six million the US, there is another group of six million Jews – the six million who perished in the Holocaust.
“That needs to be a reference for us. When we are not united, not trying to widen the common denominator, we risk not being the home for the Jewish people,” says Dichter.
“Israel needs to remain strong and big and stable so we can absorb Jews from any diaspora that feels there are problems, whether it is the former Soviet Union, Arab countries, South America or whatever.”
In 2011, Dichter proposed the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People bill, which seeks to determine the nature of the state of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. The bill has not passed a preliminary reading. He says such a law would send a message to Jews and non-Jews everywhere that Israel will not become a binational state, but that rather the right to self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people. He hopes Jews in the Diaspora will express support for this legislation.
Israel needs American Jews, too – for political and security reasons, says MK Nachman Shai (Labor, Mission ’14). Shai, who believes “as many MKs as possible should be part of the link between Israel and Diaspora,” runs the Caucus on Israel-US Relations and spent several years in the States, first as press secretary for the Israeli delegation to the United Nations in New York, and then as press consultant to Israel’s Washington embassy, among other roles. He says there is a strategic triangle between Israel, the US administration and the American Jewish community that cannot be taken for granted. He says the US Jewish community has the ear of the US administration.
“We must get to know the American Jewish community, because this is the most important strategic aspect Israel can have,” Shai said in a video explaining the caucus.
The caucus, established in coordination with the Ruderman Family Foundation in 2013 keeps MKs abreast of “US-related policy issues, the American Jewish community agenda and its strategic importance in securing the U.S.-Israel relationship,” the Ruderman website explains.
Last year, to mark 100 years of American Jewish contributions to the state of Israel, a formal ceremony and extensive exhibition was held at the Knesset. In attendance were Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and other dignitaries.
For Dichter, he does not deny that Israel has become a strong country in its own right and that it is the Start-Up Nation coined by Dan Senor and Saul Singer. However, he cautions that Israelis should not consider themselves a superpower, with its only 13,670 square miles of land and constant threats from its neighbors. He says the US has been Israel’s only consistent military supporter since 1967 and it is essential that Israel remain a bi-partisan issue for the States. To do so, requires dialogue with American Jews, who have the right to disagree with Israel and its government.
“If the state of Israel gets into problems with major powers around the world, be they Arab countries or Russia or key countries in Europe or the United Nations, we want to know there is one country, the real superpower, that understands our needs,” says Dichter. “The main speakers for the State of Israel and the sounding board for the US administration are the Jewish people there.
“They do not vote for our leadership, but their voices and views are important for us to know.”
Lavie continues the sentiment: “With half of the Jewish world out of Israel, we have to think about them and the ramifications of our decisions, including our legislation, on them. In the end, we are one nation.”