While I waited along with an audience of some 3,000 Jewish activists of all ages and backgrounds for the main plenary session of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America to begin, my phone buzzed incessantly with news updates from half a world away. The situation was almost surreal as I watched with growing concern and read the reports after multiple terror attacks across Israel, reminding us of an era defined by terror we had all hoped- yet never truly believed- had been left behind.
The speaker we were waiting for was US Vice President Joe Biden, who sought to assure the audience that despite recent reports of tension between DC and Jerusalem, the US-Israel relationship was as strong as ever.
In those moments as I switched back and forth in focus between the drama playing out on my phone screen and that in the room in front of me, I felt two competing emotions.
On the one hand, I felt that the room’s residents were largely detached from the reality taking place in Tel Aviv, Gush Etzion and all over Israel where we would again be forced to confront fear nearly every time we extend too far past our homes. Perhaps I was being judgmental and prejudiced, but I sensed that the minds of most in the room were not being overwhelmed with those thoughts in the way mine was.
That sense was compounded when the Vice President’s speech failed to directly address the growing tide of terror – which had claimed multiple US citizens among its victims in recent weeks. Predictably he spoke of the need for resolve in the continued path towards a solution of the conflict and his continued belief that full co-existence remained possible if the parties would act responsibly.
Perhaps his omission of the most recent developments could be blamed on simply lacking news updates — but that is not an excusable error for the second highest figure in the most powerful nation on earth.
Yet my competing emotion was one of appreciation, rallied by the sense of solidarity with Israel and a stronger Jewish future that existed in that room. Perhaps they didn’t share my practical concerns over Israel’s growing security dilemma and I can’t blame anyone for failing to be as much of a news hound as I am. But the concern and love for Israel was apparent.
Within the Israeli political environment in which I live we often lose sight, and certainly lose appreciation, for the passion which exists in the Diaspora. All too often we fall victim to the elitist view that “we are here and they are not” so “their” voice shouldn’t really matter. On certain practical matters, I would contend that this position has value but by resorting to it in all cases, people do little other than invalidate the impact which Diaspora Jewry can and should have.
The GA again revealed for me the potential that exists if we can properly harness the influence of Diaspora Jewry and how we must do everything possible not to alienate them. Skeptics dismiss the import of Jews living outside of Israel and view them as nothing more than a bank account. Certainly the financial value which comes in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars of generosity each year from Diaspora Jews should not be overlooked. But there are plenty of Jews living outside of Israel who have much to contribute far beyond just donor dollars.
Organizations like the JFNA are at their core funding organizations and that will always be how they are viewed. But if we dismiss the role that they play as activist organizations with strong pro-Israel messages beyond just financial support then we will be doing the Jewish State a great disservice.
Over the three days I spent at the GA, I heard a unanimous voice of support for Israel and emotional expressions of solidarity, particularly in response to presentations focused on Israel’s recent war with Hamas.
I came away from the conference reminded that the remarkable distance that exists between Israel and the rest of the Jewish world is certainly not simply an issue of geography but there are fundamental differences that exist in how we look at our world, and particularly our country.
But I was also reminded that there is no wrong or right in this equation. The Jewish Diaspora must be recognized and applauded for the role they play in Israel’s continued development — a role that goes far beyond money.