Israeli Knesset members get an education in American Jewry

By Rachel Marder/JNS.org 

Israeli Member of Knesset Nachman Shai (Labor), who studied and worked in the U.S. for years, says he had no idea how much the 25-year-old prayer rights group Women of the Wall mattered to North American Jews—until he went there on a recent outreach trip.

Click photo to download. Caption: Ruderman Family Foundation President Jay Ruderman (left) and Member of Knesset Nachman Shai, a member of the Labor party, are pictured on June 18, the day a new Israeli Knesset caucus was launched with the goal of enhancing U.S.-Israel relations. Shai chairs the caucus and partners with the Ruderman foundation on the initiative. Credit: Yissachar Ruas.
 

“We were shocked to see how important women praying at the Kotel was,” Shai says in an interview with JNS.org. “For average Israelis it’s not such a big issue.” 

“Wherever we went [in North America] we heard about the Kotel as if it was the center of the world,” he adds.

The Labor lawmaker is now chairing a caucus in the Knesset to strengthen ties between U.S. and Israeli Jews, and between American and Israeli lawmakers. He says he now realizes the misconceptions Israelis have about American Jews, the changing perceptions Americans have of Israel, and the harm that both factors can have on the countries’ relationship.

The caucus, launched in June, is working to recruit a cohort of Members of Knesset (MKs) to participate in its third delegation to the U.S., a five-day trip to Boston and New York City in March sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation and Brandeis University. The trips, which previously took place in 2011 and 2012, are designed to give MKs a crash course in American Jews and their relationship to Israel, and to strengthen Congress’s ties to the Jewish state.

Previous visits have included meetings with politicians like Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, members of Congress, Brandeis academics, rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, and American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and J Street leaders. In previous trips, MKs have discussed such thorny subjects with American lawmakers as whether the $3 billion in aid Israel receives from the U.S. each year is always guaranteed.

The idea behind the initiative, Ruderman Family Foundation President Jay Ruderman says, is to show Israelis the diversity that exists in American Jewry and that community’s unique challenges when it comes to issues like intermarriage, conversion, and creating space for both criticizing and supporting Israel.  

In particular, Israelis, Ruderman says, should learn how to connect with this conflicted generation of American Jews, which is different from previous ones.

“If Israel turns off that community, strategically they’re going to be in real tough shape,” says Ruderman, a former deputy director of AIPAC who made aliyah in 2005.  

“When I moved to Israel and I worked for AIPAC here, I got to know MKs and ministers personally. I realized that they did not have not only the same understanding of the American Jewish community and its role, but they didn’t really have an interest in it,” he says.

Shai, who served as press secretary for the Israeli delegation to the U.N. in 1979 and was named press consultant to the Israeli Embassy in Washington in 1981, says the U.S.-Israel relationship cannot be taken for granted. He hopes the Knesset caucus will create a bridge between Congress and the Israeli legislature, since no official parliamentary friendship group for dialogue between the two bodies exists, as it does for 100 other nations and Congress.

The caucus opened in June in conjunction with the release of poll results in which 31.9 percent of Israeli respondents said their leaders should not take into account the positions of American Jews on the peace process at all, while 33.6 percent said U.S. Jewry’s views should be considered to a small extent. Only 21.6 percent called for those views to be taken into account to a great extent, and 9.4 percent said the views should be considered to a very great extent. The poll was conducted by Teleseker and commissioned by the Ruderman Foundation.

Regarding conversion and the Israeli government’s relationship with the Conservative and Reform movements, 24 percent of Israelis opposed taking U.S. Jewry’s positions into account, while 30.6 percent said they should be considered to a small extent. Meanwhile, 25.1 percent supported the government considering U.S. Jewry’s views to a great extent.

Israeli Jews still value the lobbying efforts by American Jews on behalf of Israel, according to the poll, which found that 66.3 percent see the Jewish community in the U.S. as having a very or somewhat positive influence on Israel’s national security. Unlike Shai and Ruderman, who say American Jewry’s support for Israel is changing and in need of work, 76 percent of Israelis polled believe support for Israel in the future will remain at the level it is today or even grow stronger. But they are not optimistic about U.S. Jewry’s personal connection to the Jewish state, with 51 percent responding that half or less than half of U.S. Jews feel a meaningful connection.    

Prof. Steven Cohen, a researcher of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, believes the poll “speaks to the lack of understanding by Israelis of American Jews, but it’s an understandable lack of understanding.”

“Those Israelis who reject American Jewish participation in various decisions of national importance tend to believe that such decisions are best left in the hands of Israelis alone—either Israelis have exclusive standing, or they have better information,” Cohen writes in an email to JNS.org.

Cohen posits that attitudes would be changed by increased travel by American Jews to Israel, and by Israelis to American Jewish settings. He also suggests that Israeli policymakers inject greater sensitivity into areas of political importance to American Jews, such as the treatment of non-Orthodox rabbis, raising the status of women, extending better government services to non-Jews, and addressing Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

“All would work to improve Israel’s image among non-Orthodox Jews, but they also risk alienating Orthodox American Jews. The choices are difficult for sure,” Cohen writes.

Ruderman is more optimistic about the poll’s results. “What I take away from that poll is actually that the Israeli public is pretty sophisticated in terms of the American Jewish community. They may not know it that well but they certainly understand its importance,” he says.

Yet Ruderman worries about the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship in light of the different trajectories the Jewish communities have taken, as well as Israelis’ lack of knowledge when it comes to their American brethren. While projects like Taglit-Birthright Israel address Israeli-Diaspora ties by connecting young American Jews to Israel, and Israel’s Foreign Ministry sends Israeli officials to the U.S. to discuss the Jewish state’s security challenges, Ruderman says no one was educating Israeli leaders on American Jews before his foundation undertook the project.

“The American Jewish community should have been doing it all along,” he says. “It’s a huge oversight by the leadership of our community.”

Israeli leaders “who represent the only Jewish country in the world” should understand the American Jewish community, which has “undue influence in ensuring [Israel’s] future existence,” Ruderman adds.

The foundation is banking on the outcome that the MKs it sends to the U.S. will become real decision-makers—ministers, or even the prime minister—in the future. But that is “a little bit of a risk,” Ruderman acknowledges. Of the 11 MKs who went on the two trips sponsored by the foundation, only six remain in the Knesset.

“We are hoping [the trip] will make a difference in their careers,” he says.

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Posted on September 9, 2013 and filed under Features, Israel.