Gil Preuss

American Jews & Israel: Embracing an Evolving Relationship

Participants in conversation at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s and Shalom Hartman Institute’s Shared Destiny | Separate Paths: A Leadership Forum on American Jewry & Israel, March 2023. Photo by Avi Gerver.

As American Jews, we have the opportunity—truly the responsibility—to help build a strong and vibrant Israel. More than just a modern state, Israel encompasses a vibrant and diverse society, centuries of Jewish aspirations, and the beating heart of global Jewish life. It’s our job, especially in this time of immense complexity, to stay in conversation with Israel’s many facets and cultivate our relationship.

Of course, participating in shaping Israel’s future is nothing new. For decades, American Jewry and the “organized Jewish community” have been funding programs and giving to issues that directly affect Israeli society. What we haven’t done is wade publicly into political issues at a time when those same issues are causing deep society-wide divisions.

The thinking used to be that as the country was finding its bearings in the family of nations, it was up to American Jews to support Israel, and its government, unequivocally. What’s more, people felt that to get involved in Israel’s internal affairs was to overstep. If we were not subject to the outcome of a decision, who were we to weigh in?

These days, that thinking has changed. Given the ongoing debate about Israel’s future as both a Jewish and democratic state, more and more American Jews are urging Jewish organizations to take a stand when it comes to Israeli domestic politics.

Today’s questions go to the heart and soul of the country and, by extension, the Jewish people. The debates feel personal. What will the Jewish homeland stand for in this age of shifting social and political paradigms? What are the potential implications for global Jewry?

It’s no wonder that US Jewish leaders are being pressed to rethink the role of American Jewry and American Jewish organizations in shaping Israeli society. Every day, I hear from community members urging us to engage directly and publicly with what’s going on in Israel. At the same time, I also receive many calls imploring me to avoid commenting at all costs. There are many in our community who still view any public criticism of the Israeli government or its policies as a betrayal.

The question of what role American Jews should play in Israel’s “internal” affairs is fraught, as is the idea of using our voices in this space. But it’s also clear to me that Jewish leaders cannot simply label the issue as complex and move on. We owe it to the communities we serve to provide frameworks and pathways for evolving our relationship with Israel in ways that are proactive, inclusive, and reflective of the aspirations we hold for Israel and American Jewry.

I offer three principles that will help us maintain an unshakeable bond with Israel while also allowing the relationship the flexibility to evolve.

  1. Stay Committed. Much like how we might treat a family member, we need to stay committed to our relationship with Israel, regardless of the issue. Even as the relationship becomes more complex, and, at times, experiences significant tension, we cannot walk away. What would the impact on American Jewish life be if it was defined solely as a religion or culture and not as a people with a homeland? A thriving American Jewish community is inexorably linked to a a thriving Israel and the reverse is true as well.

To ensure we’re able to maintain and deepen this vital relationship, we should support and expand immersive experiences that strengthen ties and deepen personal bonds across both communities. Meaningful individual connections are key to fueling an enduring collective commitment.

  1. Make space for differences and discourse. American and Israeli Jews live in different circumstances with distinct conditions, challenges, and aspirations. At times, we may struggle to understand each other’s perspectives. Moreover, no country has a singular view of the world. Both Israel and the U.S. are full of internal tensions and differences. President Rivlin underscored this idea when he spoke about the Four Tribes of Israel. Just as we learn to honor and explore differences across our two countries, we must also learn to build conversation and understanding around our internal differences as well.

As such, we must include more and a greater variety of voices in our own Jewish communal discourse. Our relationships are stronger when we understand the hopes, dreams, and challenges the other holds, and our communities are stronger when we invite people with a broad range of backgrounds, viewpoints, and perspectives to shape those aspirations in the first place.

  1. Trust in our relevance. Although American Jews do not have a vote in Israel, we do have a role. Israel is an independent country, and as the Jewish homeland, it also belongs to all Jews. Our voices as members of the largest non-Israeli Jewish community are relevant and justified. We must feel comfortable using them. Israel and Israelis also have the right to engage with American Jews about our trajectory and weigh in on our country’s decision making too. Just as we have a stake in their future, they have a stake in ours.

Therefore, I say let’s lean into and facilitate engagement on these topics. There are too few mechanisms that allow American Jews and Israelis to come together to consider our collective goals and the effect we have on each other’s communities. I believe we can do more to hear from Israelis when it comes to making decisions about what work to support. In the same vein, it is crucial that we find the words to articulate the impact of Israeli government actions on American Jewish life and Jewish identity.

Rather than shy away from involving ourselves, we need to support the open exchange of thoughts and ideas that will benefit us both. There are real, urgent challenges facing American Jewish life and facing Israel. We need each other’s voices and perspectives to find our way through.

Stay committed. Make space for differences and discourse. Trust in our relevance. All three ventures will take resolve and a good deal of patience, but I believe wholeheartedly we are up to the task. This is a turning point for the relationship between American Jews and Israel, and though we are in the thick of navigating what we mean to each other, we have an unparalleled opportunity to emerge closer than ever and ready for whatever our shared future may hold.

About the Author
Gil Preuss has been the Chief Executive Officer of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington since 2017. Prior to his work at Federation, he served as the Executive Vice President at Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) of Greater Boston.
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