Fixing Israel’s Relationship with American Jews

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin had some interesting and important observations to make recently on the need to reset the relationship between his country and the American Jewish community.

As reported by Times of Israel, Rivlin spoke “against the backdrop of an ongoing crisis between the government of Israel and much of world Jewry.” He said that relations should no longer be limited to “philanthropy on the one hand and blind admiration on the other” but should instead reflect a shared commitment to justice and an openness to listen to the other.

“It is time for a renewed alliance, for a common language, between Israel and the Diaspora, before it is too late,” the president said during a speech in Sde Boker in the Negev, in memory of Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

“The (American Jewish) community longs for a connection with Israel, but wants a relationship between equals — not of philanthropy on the one hand and blind admiration on the other.”

“Therefore, we must embark on a new path: no longer a relationship of charity, but a shared commitment to justice, to Jewish and human mutual responsibility,” Rivlin urged. “No longer with the silencing of mutual criticism, but with courageous and sincere openness. No longer with idealization, but with a true partnership based on really knowing each other, and on agreed-upon institutions to solving problems, and to establish a common policy.”

American Jews who dare to speak their minds on Israel are often falsely accused of “telling Israelis what to do.”

Those who voice this criticism believe, no doubt sincerely, that since we don’t live in Israel and share the dangers and responsibilities that go with that experience, our role as American Jews is to offer unequivocal, unconditional support to whatever the Israeli government decides to do.

If the Israeli government continues to build settlements, deepens the Occupation and engages in creeping annexation of the West Bank while refusing to engage seriously in peace talks with the Palestinians, we are supposed to support them – or at least keep our mouths shut.

If the Israeli government opposes a nuclear agreement with Iran that many Israeli military experts believe makes them and the whole world safer, we are also supposed to oppose said agreement, or at least keep our mouths shut.

If the Israeli government denies the legitimacy of the Reform and Conservative Judaism, the two biggest denominations of American Jewry by far, we are supposed to swallow the affront in silence. If they deny our conversions, we are supposed to accept this.

As Rivlin noted, this approach has led to a widening divide between Israel and the world’s next largest Jewish community characterized by a growing lack of empathy and respect on both sides.

We bring up our children to question everything – and yet when the subject turns to Israel we have nothing to say. We raise them with certain values inherited from our tradition, handed down from generation to generation – and yet when Israel appears to violate these same values, we are supposed to keep silent.

A dynamic in which one side stifles its opinions in the name of preserving a false unanimity of views is not healthy. What we need is dialogue based on true give and take between the two communities. We have lost the ability to speak honestly and to listen carefully to one another. We need to restore that as the foundation of a healthy relationship.

Partly because of our self-imposed silence, a lack of respect for American Jews has grown in some sectors of Israeli politics which has permeated even the Israeli government. This attitude was summed up by remarks last week by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely.

“Most of the Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines, going to Afghanistan or to Iraq,” she said in relation to the US Jewish community. “Most of them are having quite a convenient life. They don’t feel how it feels to be attacked by rockets and I think part of it is to actually experience what Israel is dealing with on a daily basis.”

Of course, we must acknowledge that most of us here in the United States have no idea what it is like to face incoming rocket fire. And because we have an all-volunteer military, our sons and daughters are not conscripted for military service. We know that the right to elect the Israeli government is reserved for citizens of Israel – just as we as Americans elect our leaders.

Nobody is advocating that either side tell the other what to do or what to think. But if there is to be any kind of enduring relationship, we need an honest dialogue. We need to be able to talk to each other honestly – and to listen.

We should be grateful to President Rivlin for realizing this. Now, we all have to make it happen.

About the Author
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters journalist and author, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. He is the author of four books including two novels. Elsner is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who lives in Rockville Maryland. His posts at Reuters included Jerusalem correspondent, Chief Nordic Correspondent, State Dept. correspondent, chief U.S. political correspondent and U.S. national correspondent.
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