The General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is symbolically held in Israel once every four years. Although this is a significant event for the American Jewish establishment, for Israelis, it is extremely marginal and nearly makes the news. However, this year was different. Weeks before the conference’s opening, a message began circulating in protest groups against legal reform: “Let’s together show our brothers and sisters from American Jewry the strength of the struggle for Israeli democracy.” The protest organizers aimed to bring the controversy of Israeli society to the doorstep of American Jews, who they believe can no longer watch what is happening from the sidelines.
This year’s conference was planned to coincide with Israel’s 75th celebrations, with the aim of being a high point of joint celebration rather than controversy. However, the understanding that this year’s conference would not be a “normal” event was received with mixed feelings by the Jewish communities. While some welcomed the opportunity to speak out against the legal reform and saw it as a symbol of relevance and approval, others preferred maintaining a neutral atmosphere. In fact, some delegations even reduced their participation in response to the expected protests, hoping to avoid controversy.
Despite the significant tension surrounding the conference, it took place as planned, with a record number of participants in attendance. As expected, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his speech at the opening event. However, this did not stop the organizers of the protest from holding a demonstration of thousands at the entrance to the exhibition grounds. The demonstration featured Israeli flags alongside American flags. The contrast between the noise from the protesters outside and the polite atmosphere in the main plenary caused a sense of discomfort and excitement among attendees. Board Members of the federations tried to navigate the tension in their speeches. However, only Julie Platt, Chair of the Board of Trustees, delivered a clear message that was met with applause. She said, “To the demonstrators outside who are expressing their democratic right, we see you, we hear you, and we are inspired by your love for Israel.”
Apart from some minor incidents, including a riot at a panel featuring MK Simcha Rothman, the conference passed peacefully. However, it marked a watershed moment in the already complex relationship between Israel and the largest Jewish diaspora in the world.
Since the beginning of the protest, the Jewish community in the United States has been in a state of great uncertainty and confusion. Traditionally, the Jewish establishment has echoed the messages from Israel and stood by the country on almost every issue, despite occasional points of disagreement. While there have been disagreements around the conflict and issues of religion and state, there has always been a basic assumption that allowed for the continuation of close relations – that Israel is a prosperous democratic state. However, the legal reform poses a significant challenge because it is not an external security issue that is difficult to judge, but rather an internal process that Israel is undertaking and which undermines the most fundamental foundation of the relationship between the two countries – shared democratic values.
In the face of the crisis in Israel, the Jewish establishment has become divided. Some want to continue with business as usual and echo vague messages of support for the democratic process, while others choose to “get into the action” and understand that the relationship with Israel will never be the same again. Earlier this month, opposition leader Yair Lapid visited the United States, met with heads of the Jewish community, and addressed those in attendance: “This is not the time to be neutral because this is one of the most critical moments in the history of the State of Israel. You have to express a position.” From my conversations with people who were in the room, it is clear that some participants were uncomfortable with Lapid’s demand, while others felt that they were finally getting official permission to speak out.
It is interesting to note how the relationship between Israel and American Jewry has evolved over the years. In the past, American Jewry was not in a position to meet the kind of demand that Yair Lapid is making today. As an example, back in 1992, during a visit to the United States, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin criticized the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for its support of Likud policies and even challenged American Jewry to engage in open and frank discussions with Israel. However, the response from the American Jewish community was not supportive. Ruth Popkin, the former president of the Hadassah organization, responded that “We are unable to do that. Our job here is to protect you.” indicating a lack of willingness to engage in disagreement with Israel.
In the past, American Jewry was not ready for a relationship with Israel that included open discussions and different perspectives. Since the establishment of the state, and particularly after the Six-Day War, Israel has been a powerful tool for strengthening Jewish identity in the United States. The main challenge for American Jews has been to maintain their Jewish identity without isolating themselves from the larger society and to embrace their American identity without assimilating. Support for Israel served as the ideal bridge between these two identities.
The relationship between Israel and American Jewry has undergone significant changes in recent years, and Israel is no longer the unifying factor it once was. In fact, it has become a divisive factor, which many in the Jewish establishment have been slow to acknowledge. Instead of recognizing this new reality, many have continued to pursue strategies aimed at “bringing American Jewry closer to Israel” and “narrowing the gap.” However, what is needed is not an attempt to narrow a gap, but rather a recognition that the relationship between Israel and American Jewry needs to be fundamentally re-evaluated and changed.
Even the staunchest supporters of Israel are starting to realize that we have reached a turning point. Jerry Nadler, the sole Jewish member of Congress from New York, recently remarked in a discussion with Jewish lawmakers in Washington, “Israel has always been a democracy and has faced every challenge. Now Israel faces probably the greatest challenge it has ever faced — an internal challenge, an internal challenge to its own democracy,” Nadler said. “Will democracy survive in Israel? That is not at all certain right now.”
The internal crisis within Israeli society is fundamentally undermining the accepted relationship with the Diaspora. There is a growing concern that many within American Jewry will seek to distance themselves from Israel because, with the loss of its democratic character, it will no longer be able to function as a unifying factor for the Jewish community.
That is why the crisis should be viewed as an opportunity to reshape the relationship, rather than preserve the existing one. This is the only way to ensure a continued significant connection between the two parts of the Jewish people. American Jews must decide whether they are willing to let go of their idealized image of Israel and develop an independent and robust narrative. The two largest Jewish communities in the world are at a crucial junction of identity. Similar to a successful marriage, only if each party discovers its own identity can a shared and prosperous future for the entire Jewish people be envisioned.