American Jewish power play? Just not in Jerusalem..

The only other time I remember participating in anything similar to the JFNA/GA event in Jerusalem this week was about 25 years ago at an AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. – there, for the first time I saw the meaning of raw unbridled focussed Jewish political power in action. When the chairperson ran down the exact voting record on Israel of each and every US senator up for reelection and accordingly recommended to support him (or her) or not, quoting the required financial effort in detail, down to the last digit, I was in awe. This was hardball politics. That’s what it was then and still is today. In Washington D.C.

An AIPAC conference is an American event, predominantly Jewish, primarily geared to shore up political support for the State of Israel among US politicians. That having been said, Israel is there, not only behind the scenes, communicating with AIPAC to make sure everybody is on message with regard to Israel’s policy objectives. The two largest Jewish communities, Israel and North America, cooperate closely to help one of them politically.

Fast forward to the GA, 2013 in Jerusalem. A community event ostensibly, not a political one. “JFNA is 153 Federations and 300 communities taking responsibility for each other, according to Jewish principles”. That’s what it says on the website. Them and us, the world’s two largest Jewish communities together, celebrating, deliberating, kvetching. The objective is not political as that of an AIPAC conference. Why the hell is it not?

The GA just as well, is a display of Jewish vitality and power. But unbridled and focussed ? Hardly, not in Jerusalem. Why is there no session on policy objectives vis-a-vis the Israeli political establishment, Israeli political parties and politicians? In American Jewish politics, lobbying is intensely personal and local politicians are evaluated round the clock according to their performance according to very clear criteria, mainly their voting records on Israel and other prominent Jewish causes like civil liberties and pluralism. Here in Israel, in the only Jewish state in the world, JFNA doesn’t hold politicians to such high standards. Israeli politicians need not worry. Representatives of Jewish communities, not only from the US, will swoon over them, seek their presence at the events, soft-pedal their media interviews and give them valuable airtime to practice their English. Poignant questions or political criticism directed at local politicans? A close look at voting records ? Not here, not during the conference, not in the open, not now. That, if at all, is presumably reserved for private meetings. Hardball politics? Not a chance. Not at JFNA/GA, not in Jerusalem.

Numerous prominent Israeli politicians have their US donors who are apparently not influenced by JFNA. The pols get their donations personally even if their policies are not to the benefit of American or World Jewry, even if they support policies that inspire anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism all over the world. When they abstain in votes in favor of religious pluralism or even vote against and when they look aside while the Middle East Peace Process goes awry or when they cast their vote in support of settlements in the territories, JFNA will look away. Quiet, we are having a community conference. Oh yes, there is plenty of criticism in the sessions which deal with Israel’s deficient civil society, restrictive marriage laws and inequitable social system. The territories and the occupation, needless to say, are off limits. We don’t want to spoil the consensus, do we? How to deal with delegitimization is discussed aplenty but not a word about Israel’s policies which feed it, incessantly.

It’s a situation. It came about. Nobody’s fault. That’s the way it is in Israel…What can we do about it? All that raw focussed unbridled Jewish power which makes US Senators and Congressmen jump to attention, scour in fear (well, some), and eventually vote overwhelmingly the right way, our way, where is it ?  PM Netanyahu can call on his pals at AIPAC and in the US congress and literally bring the house down on the US administration to force its hands. Will we see JFNA play hardball in Israel to bring local politicians to change their policies to support the interests of the community?

When we are dealing with our own we are very very tolerant. When we are dealing with our own there need not be reciprocity. Israeli pols do not have to sign off on their actual record on civil liberties, pluralism or efforts on the peace process or position on the occupation and settlements, crucial issues that impact not only the Jewish community in the US but in the whole world. Israel’s pols get a free ride, all expenses paid.

Open sessions at the GA are deliberately (or so it seems) kept non-confrontational and politicians are rarely challenged. The Prime Minister, cabinet members and the leader of the opposition give speeches on topics that are general and in consensus but aren’t called to the floor or evaluated according to their actual performance over time and not challenged on their future plans. When Prime Minister Netanyahu calls for continued close bonds between Israel and the North American Jewish Community while at the same time damaging the Israeli-US relationship by riding roughshod over critical US policy objectives, what kind of bonds is he talking about? When Netanyahu calls on JFNA to stand up and speak up does he mean only things that are of common concern as defined by Israel? When Minister Naftali Bennett, the man whose party is about to scuttle the peace talks with the Palestinians says that Israel-Diaspora relations are a two-way street, what exactly does he mean?

For the Jewish community, taking responsibility for each other must mean, at critical times, playing hardball politics. Not only in Washington D.C. but especially in Jerusalem. All that raw unbridled and focussed Jewish power from North America must be put to political use in Israel as well, not only back home. The future of the Jewish people depends on it.

About the Author
The author served in the Prime Minister’s Office as a member of the intelligence community, is a member of the Council for Peace and Security and was a candidate in Labor’s 2012 primary election for the Knesset list