(December 23, 2018 / JNS) For the second time in two months, the leadership of the Jewish Federation of North America has made it clear that it is fed up with the policies of Israel’s government.
According to multiple news reports, JFNA leaders told Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Relations this past week that “relations between Israel and U.S. Jewry are at their lowest point since the state of Israel was established.”
Eric Goldstein, chief executive of the UJA-Federation of New York—the only leader willing to come on record—is reported as stating that “people who, up until three years ago, were the biggest supporters of Israel now say to us they want to throw up their hands—that all of their love and labor on behalf of Israel went down the drain.”
Goldstein noted that on the top of the list of the concerns affecting American Jewry are the support that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu show U.S. President Donald Trump, who is generally loathed by American Jews and their communal leadership, as well as Israel’s inability to reach a two-state settlement with the Palestinian Authority.
“Actions taken by [Israel’s] government have a decisive role in shaping our attitude to Israel,” Goldstein is reported as saying, while noting that many UJA donors request that their dollars no longer go to Israel.
The statements come less than a week after UJA raised $31 million at a Wall Street dinner and raised an all-time high $250 million in its last fiscal year. An October interview with Goldstein notes that UJA “does little of its own programming. Instead, it funnels money to 500 other nonprofits to provide social services, bolster Jewish education and engagement, and pay some of the organizations’ overhead costs.”
JFNA’s General Assembly
In October, the JFNA held its annual General Assembly (known as the GA) in Tel Aviv under the banner of “We need to talk,” where plenary after plenary demonstrated how supportive the Federation system can be of Israeli technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, yet decidedly upset with how the country is being run in relation to certain issues they view as being inconsistent with their values.
The tone of the conference was something along the lines of: “Israel, we’ve always supported you in the past, and by support, we particularly mean funding everything you have asked us to fund. But today, we’re just not so sure that Israel fits into our progressive values set. So we have a big problem.”
Many Israelis in attendance, who have generally appreciated both the JFNA network and the GA, could not help but notice that for the first time, the tone had shifted to the negative. Many Israelis left the Tel Aviv convention center disappointed, feeling like they, too, for the first time wanted to “throw up their hands.” Even some recently retired Federation leaders expressed their disappointment with the program.
In launching its new pattern of public criticism against the Jewish state, it appears as if the Federation leadership no longer acknowledges that Israel is one of the most progressive societies in the world. Despite ongoing issues with the state-run rabbinate, Israel remains a country where individuals of every faith are recognized and can practice their religion, including Jews from all backgrounds—from Torah-observant to totally secular.
Furthermore, by venting continued frustration with Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, it appears as if the Federation leadership is buying into the rhetoric of Israel’s detractors, including those on university campuses and within the new progressive fringe of the Democratic party who view Palestinian national aspirations as a liberal cause.
While Federation leaders are quick to reject and oppose any forms of anti-Semitism at home, continued criticism of Israel’s inability to reach a long-term peace accord raises questions as to whether Federation leaders have grown tolerant of decades of Palestinian anti-Semitic incitement, and the recently exposed policy of the Palestinian Authority to pay terrorists to carry out brutal acts of murder on Israeli territory.
America’s toxic political environment
In Israel, public opinion polls demonstrate that much of the general public and political leadership on both the Israeli right and left see U.S. President Donald Trump as a key ally, who has helped strengthen the standing of the Jewish state by acting on bipartisan legislation to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, staunchly defending Israel at the United Nations and pulling out of the Iran deal that gave Iran $250 billion and access to trillions more.
And while Trump may be extremely unpopular among an American Jewish population that historically votes overwhelmingly Democratic, it would be unwise and potentially dangerous for Israel to show disdain to an American president that Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer has called “the most pro-Israel president in the history of [America towards] the Jewish state.”
As far as Israelis are concerned, Trump is the only president America has at the moment, and Israel has no choice but to work with him, whether American Jewry likes him or not—just as they had no choice but to work with former President Barack Obama, who was unpopular in Israel but supported by American Jews.
Yet today, both Trump’s supporters and detractors readily recognize that public discourse surrounding his administration has become toxic. Sadly, American Jewry may now be injecting this same venom into its political relationship with Israel.
Goldstein acknowledged as much in an exclusive interview with JNS at the General Assembly. “I think that the political situation in America is certainly a part of this, but a part. It has to be some dimension of that, of course.”
What if Israelis slew some of the ‘hard truths’?
Along the lines of the October conference, imagine if Israeli leadership would come to a GA in the United States, get up on stage and state:
“You know, we’ve always felt connected to the Jewish community in the United States, and we dearly appreciate your support for our efforts. And we believe that it actually strengthens your own Jewish identity by supporting our progress; however, we think your communal leadership is failing you.
“Your synagogue membership is declining, with institutions closing down. Your community is shrinking instead of growing. Jews now intermarry at astonishing and seemingly irreversible rates. For the billions you raise, the costs of Jewish education remain unaffordable for most families. Jewish identity is declining.
“You have failed to keep Jewish university students insulated from anti-Israel and now purely anti-Semitic activities. Your multimillion dollar Jewish-student organizations have even become breeding grounds for anti-Israel activists from amongst our own people, while you tell your donors the opposite.
“And politically, you have allowed the new guard of the Democratic Party—the party that you vote for and whose candidates you fund—to wane in support of what many consider America’s greatest democratic ally. While Israel was always a bipartisan concern, you have passed the banner of supporting Israel to evangelical Christians and the Republican Party.”
It would be an ugly day in Israeli-American Jewish relations if those and several other truths had been spoken by Israeli leaders in such unbecoming terms in public forums.
Israelis appreciate their American brethren
There is no doubt that the Federations fund many, many worthwhile causes to the tune of billions of dollars a year. Many of those causes are in Israel.
And let it be stated clearly that Israel is not resentful of the Jewish community in America, Israelis are extremely grateful for all that America’s Jewish communal groups do to make the entire world a better place. And Israel does not blame American Jewry for its numerous challenges that affect Jewish peoplehood.
The Federation is repeatedly asking for an “honest conversation.” But this “dialogue” that the Federation is starting is poisonous, and only threatens to rip Israeli and American Jewry further and further apart if it continues in this tone.
Now that the issues are on the table—and America’s Jewish leaders have stated them bluntly, and have been heard loud and clear as per their intention—let’s recognize that the strength of the Jewish people is to be united, despite geographic and cultural differences.
Israelis generally like and appreciate Jews living in America, including the more than 600,000 Israelis who have chosen to make America their home. And most American Jews have a strong connection to and appreciation for the State of Israel. These bonds need to be strengthened, and that cannot happen through continuous criticism and the harsh discourse of late.
Let’s put aside our disappointment and this newfound toxic rhetoric, and instead focus on commonalities that bring us together and make us proud of one another, as well as on constructive solutions that strengthen our people.
Together, both American Jews and Israelis should let their leaders know that they are ‘fed up’ with the tone the Federation is introducing to the relationship.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.