This week, in Tel Aviv, Jewish American lay and professional leaders will convene with hundreds of Israelis for the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). It stands to be a pivotal gathering for what may or may not be said in it. And I am worried.
I am a fan. I believe that the community institutions of American Jewry, with the Federation system as its crown jewel, are the backbone of the most successful Jewish community in history. Its legacy is remarkable and so is its destiny. It is dynamic and permanently evolving to grapple with challenges and seize opportunities. The JFNA, as its keystone organization, has been and will continue to be vital.
But I am a worried fan. I am worried because the context within which American Jewry thrives is fundamentally changing. The cancellation of the Kotel Compromise in June 2017 exposed deep rifts between Israel and world Jewry. During Israel’s 70th year, at a moment of unprecedented prosperity and power, formidable forces from within are driving us apart. Some of these forces are unfortunately coming out of Israel.
This is no time to mince words. Indeed, the slogan of the coming 2018 GA is We Need to Talk, but the question is who will be talking to whom and what will they be talking about. The GA in Tel Aviv can be a watershed moment for twenty first century Zionism or just another conference, depending on what will be discussed and what won’t.
The structural constraints the GA faces are clear. Its organizers can only design a conference that addresses the broadest possible consensus that will make all key stakeholders – Federations executives, the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel, Israel’s leading politicians and JFNA’s Israeli partners – happy. This makes for a recipe of a big kumbaya and a lot of hand-holding and self-congratulating.
The challenge is that the consensual issues are not significant and the significant issues are not consensual. Yes, it is always nice to speak about how Israeli innovation contributes to humanity. But will that discussion help address the growing rift between Israel and World Jewry? Probably unlikely.
So, where can the balance be found? Clearly, there are limits to what can be said on stage and in formal plenaries and discussions. But there is no limit to what can be discussed in the informal conversations in corridors and over meals.
This year’s GA is an opportunity for hundreds of American leaders to convey to hundreds of Israeli leaders a wakeup call and a call for action. Every Israeli that shows up in the halls of the GA is already sold on the importance of World Jewry. The question is, what will they be speaking about on the day after? In other words, at this point in time, an honest conversation is not a luxury. It is a necessity. These Israelis must leave with some serious food for thought.
First, it is no longer a consensus that Israel is the nation state of the entire Jewish People. Many Israelis reject this notion, and so do many among world Jewry. In fact, those of us that still uphold this idea must realize that we are a faction that must fight for its place in every community and in Israel. Consequently, the real divide is not between Israel and the Diaspora, but between those, both in Israel and around the world, that believe in Israel’s mission as the nation state of all Jews, and those that don’t.
Second, there must be an honest conversation about the negation of the Diaspora that is all too prevalent in Israel. This outlook, which has been dominant in Israel for decades, held that Diaspora Jewry is destined to disappear due to assimilation and intermarriage or antisemitism. It has bred a toxic combination within Israeli society of arrogance toward world Jewry and ignorance about it. Diaspora Jews must be able to stand for a simple truth: a vibrant Diaspora is a Zionist imperative. GA-going Israelis should meet proud leaders of world Jewry that are not apologetic about where they live but proud of their contribution to the Jewish People.
Third, there must also be a candid conversation about national security. Israelis must understand the extent to which the close alliance with the USA is an outcome of massive mobilization of American Jewry, both Republicans and Democrat, and not just an outcome of shared values and interests. In recent years, powerful forces in Israel are driving Israel to become a wedge issue within American politics. This process has massive negative implications for American Jewry and for Israel, which can even prove existential. Some say that this is the single biggest threat to both.
Fourth, there should be an honest conversation about legislation and policy-making by the Knesset and the Government of Israel that affects world Jewry. Yes, Israel is a sovereign nation whose legislature and executive represent and act on behalf of its citizens. But Israel is also the self-proclaimed nation-state of all Jews, half of whom live outside of Israel. This makes Israel exceptional, and that exceptionality must also be reflected in the process of designing laws and policies on matters that affect all Jews.
These four conversations are just examples of dozens of topics that can and should be discussed. Here are a few more questions that may come up around dinner tables: who owns the Kotel and how should it be managed? What should Israeli leaders and public officials know about world Jewry and to what extent this is a part of their training? Should Diaspora Jews voice their opinion on or get involved with Israeli-Palestinian relations, and if yes, how? And what about other issues such as refugees, Israel’s Arab minority, or religious pluralism?
These conversations are not just about practicalities, but also about ideologies. They will help identify the fault lines between those who believe in Jewish Peoplehood and those that don’t; those who believe in Israel credibly remaining the nation state of all Jews and those that don’t; those who respect world Jewry and those that don’t.
When there is a crisis, people in position of authority naturally tend to calm things down. In the language of leadership, they want to lower the temperature with the hope of protecting their institutions. But, if they succeed too much, their institution may also be rendered irrelevant. Meanwhile, those who want change always desire to raise the temperature, sometimes at the cost of doing away with the existing institutions. This dynamic is prevailing around the GA of 2018. But there is a middle ground that seeks an honest and constructive conversation, which questions some long-held truths with passion for change while respecting what exists.
The past year has shown many Israelis and Diaspora Jews that Israel’s stature as the nation state of all Jews cannot be taken for granted. It has to be fought for. If the cancelling of the Kotel Compromise was the wakeup call, my wish for the coming GA is that it will be the moment when we got out of bed.