These words are being written from the 8th annual Israeli American Council (IAC) National Summit in Austin, Texas. Approximately 2,800 Israeli Americans descended on the town for the event—quite an irregular sight.
The IAC, regarded as one of the fastest growing Jewish organizations in America, manages to convene the largest bipartisan, pro-Israel gatherings in the country. The theme of this year’s summit, “Israel at heart,” certainly warms mine, observing, as a representative of Israel, such a display of unconditional support and love.
The gathering is a big tent, including Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and progressives, supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and of opposition leader Yair Lapid, Orthodox to Reform. Many may criticize the policies of the state of Israel, but they unconditionally support Israel.
In gathering my impressions from this event, the first that comes to mind is that this gathering refutes the claim that Israelis living in North America choose not to be involved, and suffer from indifference or apathy. A valid question, however, is how to connect the energy and activism of the Israelis to that of the Jewish American community at large. There is energy in both camps, but of a different nature, and there is a lack of unity and synthesis.
There is an opportunity for Israelis to participate more in the activities of the local Jewish communities and federations, just as there is an opportunity for local Jewish communities to more fully embrace Israelis by facilitating programs in Hebrew and participating in the events organized by Israeli Americans.
The second point is that Israel, as a state, really cares about American Jewry. Four high-level officials flew in from Israel especially for the event, one of them the newly appointed Israeli minister of diaspora affairs. In addition, six heads of mission from around the continent participated: Israel’s ambassador to Canada, and consuls general of Israel located in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Boston and Houston. This is testimony to the importance attributed by the State of Israel to preserving Jewish and Israeli identity in diaspora communities.
Throughout the gathering, Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs Amichai Chikli (as well as all Israeli representatives) fielded questions from the crowd about the new government and its various policies. The minister reassured listeners that, policy wise, with regard to most issues there will be no dramatic changes to the status quo. He also added that part of the reason for his attendance at the event was to learn the issues, listen to the concerns and then convey them to Israel.
This was not a brash Israeli who came to preach. As an immigrant to Israel myself, living in Israel for the past 40 years, I was deeply impressed by the modesty and attentiveness of the Israeli minister.
Israel has matured in many ways. Israel has evolved its mindset, and now supports the diaspora communities in many ways, including as a financial partner to Birthright, Masa and other initiatives. The respect and support must be mutual. There is also a dynamic in Israel, which has its own energy. As much as possible, Jewish communities should respect the democratic process in Israel. It’s more productive and useful when delicate issues of impact on the communities are discussed intimately, rather than in public accusative letters.
Governor Greg Abbott of Texas addressed the plenary. It was refreshing and inspiring to hear the unequivocal proud support of Israel, based on values, common sense and clear-cut strategic interests. Sometimes it is necessary to repeat the obvious.
Israel has no better friend and ally than America, and America has no better friend and ally than Israel. The support extended to Israel by the United States is crucial. This is a two-way relationship that is also extremely beneficial to the United States. Israel defends the values of the United States on the front lines, with boots on the ground, against common enemies. Israeli vigilance, determination and presence saves the deployment of U.S. troops. The United States knows that it can always depend on Israel, in the face of any need that may arise. The Iron Dome air defense system is deployed in the United States to save American lives. How many countries deliver such benefit to the US?
Yet, it is of concern that there are members of Congress who try to defame Israel and speak up against the relationship. Other members of Congress sometimes lower their profile in relation to their support of Israel, due to fear that they will lose points with some constituents.
A key issue in most of the panels at the conference was the rise in antisemitism and anti-Zionism. There was general agreement that there are two fronts: The physical front, which attacks Israel and Jews alike; and the battle for hearts and minds, which tries to delegitimize the right of Israel’s existence, and gradually infects the minds of innocent people swept up in these untruths, chipping at the legitimacy of being a Jew or supporting Israel.
The distinction between criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism is clear. It is time that we demand that anti-Zionism be recognized as a clear manifestation of Anti-Semitism and the IHRA definition be embraced by all. Jews on campuses and elsewhere are entitled to the same rights of identity as any other minority group, whether it be Identifying as Jews or as Zionists.
One of the practical results of this conference was the operative plan to set up a mechanism for joint leadership sessions, shared by leaders from Israel and from the Israeli American community, to address these issues in a consistent and effective manner.
Most of the participants live by the slogan “Living in America, Feeling Israel.” The reverse of “Living in Israel, feeling America” is also one Israelis adopted many years ago. We must stand together to prevail.
Hillel Newman is the Consul General of The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.