Israeli elections: an opportunity for Israel-Diaspora understanding

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Benny Gantz flank Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the president's residence in Jerusalem, Sept. 23, 2019. (Photo/Haim Zach-Israeli Government Press Office)

While the process for determining Israel’s next coalition government remains in flux, much attention focuses on American Jewry’s continued quest to understand Israeli politics and decision-making — and most importantly, to understand and assess the values and direction of the Jewish nation and people.

Pew Research Center studies conducted in recent years show that American Jewish sympathy for Israel is suffering, particularly among members of the Millennial generation, who show significantly less support for Israel compared to their parents and grandparents.

Several public opinion polls from this year also reinforce the disturbing notion of a growing rift between Israel and American Jewry. A Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) report documenting seven decades of Israel-Diaspora relations found that 57 percent of American and Israeli Jews perceive a “distancing” between their communities.

A rift can also be witnessed through differences in opinions of Israel’s policies toward religion and state. According to an American Jewish Committee study released last year, far more American Jews than Israeli Jews support egalitarian prayer space near the Western Wall (73 percent of Americans versus 42 percent of Israelis) as well as non-Orthodox rabbis officiating weddings, divorces and conversions (80 percent compared to 49 percent). Additionally, while 85 percent of Israeli Jews supported the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, only 46 percent of the survey’s American respondents agreed.

Unfortunately, decreasing support and disagreement in policy does not represent the end of this growing rift. Though Israel benefits from American support, most Israeli Jews believe their government should not consider the views of American Jews when deciding on issues relating to religious pluralism and Israeli politics. According to a UJA-Federation of New York survey published in 2018, a majority of respondents said U.S. Jewry’s opinions should be taken into account “not much” or “hardly at all” regarding the status of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel (55 percent), prayer at the Western Wall (57 percent) and the regulation of conversion to Judaism (54 percent).

As Israelis continue to debate over their country’s future as the coalition-building process hangs in the balance, this period can and should become an opportunity for Israel to also engage with the Diaspora, seeking mutual understanding. As myriad deliberations surrounding Israeli elections also represent points of tension that distance American Jewry from Israel — including on topics of religion and state, religious pluralism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — now is a vital time to renew dialogue. Engaging on topics about the Jewish people and the state’s identity carries the potential to bring us closer together as we seek to understand one another.

Various projects within the Jewish Diaspora exist to strengthen its attachment to Israel through person-to-person engagement — Taglit-Birthright Israel, Masa Israel Journey and the The Jewish Agency’s Shlichim (Israeli emissaries), to name a few. Indeed, as the JPPI report states, contact between American and Israeli Jews creates true bonds between their communities and “contributes to a feeling of a shared fate.”

But mutual understanding goes both ways. Israeli Jews have much to learn about the American Jewish landscape, particularly when it comes to religious pluralism as well as the landscape and opinions of American Jewry. The State of Israel and the Israeli people should not take American Jewish support for granted, especially during this sensitive time. For Israelis, showing appreciation for their country’s greatest friend in the international arena must include making an effort to actually understand American Jewry.

The University of Haifa’s Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies accomplishes that objective, with a master’s program in the Department of Israel Studies that covers a range of issues pertaining to American Jewish life, American society and the U.S.-Israel relationship. Highlights of the program include courses focusing on American history, U.S. presidents and Zionism, sociology of American Jews and politics between Israel and the U.S., and a 10-day field trip to the U.S. During the trip, students meet American Jewish students and Jewish leaders, visit various museums and attend lectures by prominent members of local Jewish communities.

It is clear that this program, as well as additional initiatives in academia and other sectors that offer unique mechanisms for mutual understanding, are needed now more than ever to heal the rifts between Israel and the Diaspora. Israeli Jews should not only continue to see and study the American Jewish landscape, but should include them in their discourse during election time.

Mutual understanding will necessarily bring the State of Israel closer to its vision and goals, and toward a stronger and more united future not just for Israelis, but for the entire Jewish people.

About the Author
Karen L. Berman is CEO of the American Society of the University of Haifa.
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