OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Israel and American Jewry: A call for unity and dialogue

The better we understand one another, our concerns and aspirations, the more we can narrow the divide and strengthen our bond.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the 2018 AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the 2018 AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.
Vladimir Sloutsker

Charles Dickens had it right. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Seventy-one years following its independence, the Jewish state continues to astound with both a lengthy list of accomplishments that defy its young age and the daunting challenges of a nation born in the world’s most unstable region.

On the one hand, good times never seemed so good. The economy is powering ahead, tourism is at record highs, and there is an ever-growing list of diplomatic achievements, including the warming of ties with our Arab neighbors and the Persian Gulf states.

At the same time, there is no question that these are also challenging times with a number of dark clouds on the horizon.

First and foremost are, of course, Israel’s uniquely ubiquitous security challenges—from Hamas in the south to Hezbollah in the north, and their primary sponsor, Iran, ever-present and ramping up its belligerence of late.

I have no doubt that Israel, including our very able military, can and will overcome the security threats. That doesn’t keep me awake at night.

What does give me great level of concern is how we go about healing the rift and reinforcing the bond between Israel as the Jewish state, and our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, especially the United States, being the largest and most influential Jewish community outside Israel.

There can be no “beating around the bush:” The current state of relations between Israel and American Jewry is strained, in part due to the polarizing and increasingly partisan nature of politics (both in America and Israel), but also due to a lack of dialogue and communication between us.

As president and co-founder of the Israeli-Jewish Congress (IJC), I have devoted our Israel-based organization to strengthening this special bond and serving as a bridge between the Jewish state and the Jewish people by creating opportunities for meaningful engagement and dialogue.

The better we understand one another, our concerns and our aspirations, the more we can narrow the divide and strengthen our bond.

Whether it is the insidious BDS movement or rising anti-Semitism, including violent attacks against Jews in their places of worship, or whether it is the Iran nuclear deal or Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these are—or ought to be—matters of concern affecting, albeit to varying degrees, both the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

At the same time, we also have some incredibly complex, multifaceted and urgent “internal issues” to grapple with, including the acceptance of different streams of Judaism and the different backgrounds of Jews, in addition to assimilation, conversions and the role of Jewish holy sites like the Western Wall.

To many American Jews, Israel can seem dismissive of their legitimate concerns, which are, without doubt, born from a love of Israel, commitment to Zionism and desire to strengthen their own Jewish identity.

At the same time, to many Israelis, Jews in the Diaspora can appear dismissive of their (very real) security concerns and democratic processes, where at the end of the day, it’s Israelis who must live with the consequences of any “risks for peace,” and make decisions first and foremost as a sovereign and independent state.

We seem to be perennially at odds these days, continuously disappointing one another. Acknowledging this reality is the first step towards breaking the cycle. There is so much that ties us together as a Jewish people across the globe and the millennia.

I do not profess to have a magic answer to all the concerns, challenges and hurdles that lie before us. I do, however, firmly believe that in order to move forward and reinforce this special bond, we must be guided by the sacrosanct talmudic principle of Kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh—all Jews are responsible for one another.

As a Jewish state—indeed, a state of all the Jewish people—we have not only a duty, but a responsibility to care about the welfare of Jews in the Diaspora, especially the next generation, to ensure that they are not only proud of their Jewish identity but have a real connection with Israel.

At the end of the day, in order to have a strong and thriving Jewish state at its maximum potential, we need a strong and thriving Diaspora; this applies vice versa as well.

The reality is that the Jewish people and Jewish state are intertwined by an inextricable bond, grounded in a shared history, faith and united by a common destiny.

Instead of talking at or over each other, we must be talk to one another.

Instead of engaging in lectures or ultimatums, we must focus on creating dialogue, conversation and unity.

And, above all, we must listen to each other—to our respective concerns, hopes and aspirations.

The work before us is daunting and must be a top priority for the next Israeli government, as well as for the leadership of the American Jewish community.

As much as we are bound by a common past, we share a common future. Let us make sure that it is a bright one that we hold together.

Vladimir Sloutsker is the president and co-founder of the Israeli-Jewish Congress (IJC).

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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