The American Jewish Committee – one of the most veteran American Jewish advocacy organizations, with 22 regional offices in the United States and partnerships with Jewish communal institutions throughout the world – is this week holding its Global Forum in Jerusalem. This is the first time the organization has convened in the nation’s capital, a decision that was prompted by the celebration this year of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel.
Some 200 Global Forum leaders met on Sunday with President Reuven Rivlin at his official residence. Rivlin, in a reference to what he calls the four (divided) tribes of Israel, characterized Diaspora Jewry (particularly those in America), as the fifth tribe. In stressing the need for unity, Rivlin declared “We are all one great family, despite differences in opinion from time to time.”
Looking back nearly 70 years to the agreement between Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion and then-AJC president Jacob Blaustein, Rivlin said there had been strong disputes between them, which eventually led to an agreement affirming the bonds between American Jewry and the State of Israel and the integrity of each.
Blaustein had feared that the nascent Jewish state would demand that all Jews make aliya. But in the agreement, it was stated that Jews of the United States as a community and as individuals had only one political attachment and that is to the United States of America; they owed no political allegiance to Israel; American Jewish communities could offer advice, cooperation and help, but should not attempt to speak in the name of Israel or other communities or in any way interfere in their internal affairs.
Concurring that it would be the free choice of American Jews whether to come temporarily to Israel or to settle permanently, Ben-Gurion said that Israel needed their technical knowledge, their unrivaled experience, their spirit of enterprise, their bold vision and their know-how.
While lavishing praise on American Jews and the US for what they have done for Israel individually and collectively, Rivlin suggested that even though the AJC is dedicated to protecting and advancing the interests of the Jewish people and the State of Israel all over the world, the agreement should be reviewed and revised. “We need a new agreement” he said, hinting at surveys that indicate a disturbing disconnect between American Jews and Israel.
“You are our fifth tribe, part of Israel – our flesh and our soul,” he declared.
Rivlin lamented that Israeli children know so little about Diaspora Jews. “We need to find ways to change that,” he said.
When he attended the GA Jewish Federations of North America convention in Los Angeles last year, Rivlin said he spoke with many American Jewish leaders who expressed the feeling that Israel refuses to listen to them.
“We need to communicate more and find ways to work together in a more creative manner,” he said. “We do good, but we can do better if we do it together.”
Rivlin was careful not to mention the specific complaints that he had heard in Los Angeles, but during a Q&A session on Sunday, he was asked about the growing tensions on issues of religious pluralism, and what could be done so that all Jews would feel welcome and inalienably connected to Israel.
Rivlin, who earlier on had described himself as “secular Orthodox,” following what he had learned in his father’s house, avoided a direct answer and said, “Every one of us on both sides has to remember that you are part of family – and that it’s not a burden.”
At the outset of his address, Rivlin had pointed to his recent visit to Ethiopia with Israeli and non-Israeli business people who wanted to work together in trying to solve Ethiopia’s most urgent agricultural and technological problems. Rivlin said that future missions of this kind should be undertaken by joint delegations from Israel and the Diaspora, but he had no solution that he cared to voice about how to deal with the problem of religious pluralism in Israel.
The best that he could come up with was an acknowledgment that Israel has not dealt “efficiently” with religious differences.