Yom Ha’Atzmaut: American Jews’ Voice and Responsibility in This Defining Moment

Federation CEO, Gil Preuss (L), shakes hands with Israel's President, Isaac Herzog.
Federation CEO, Gil Preuss (L), shakes hands with Israel's President, Isaac Herzog.

As Jews around the world celebrated Israel’s milestone 75th Yom Ha’atzmaut, the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty and growth came amid significant challenges and changes within Israeli society and between American Jewry and Israel.

As we celebrate this milestone, we were also called upon to understand and confront the challenges Israel is facing about the future of its society and democracy and the implications it has for American Jews’ identity and relationship with Israel.

This is particularly striking as American Jewish leaders, many of whom had previously been hesitant to engage in “domestic” Israeli matters publicly, are now speaking out to make their opinions known.

These changes reflect a continued shift in the relationship between American Jews and Israel. An increasing number of Israeli and American Jews believe that if Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, then Jewish people throughout the world must engage with it as active shapers of its future. We are impacted by its vibrancy and growth as well as its politics and policies. American Jews may not have a VOTE in Israeli politics, but we have a VOICE.

As we navigate these new challenges, it is also incumbent upon American Jewish organizations to effectively engage in the conversation. At The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, we are seeking to do this through four mechanisms.

First, we are working to bring in people and voices who have historically felt excluded. We cannot simply represent or reflect traditional “organized” Jewish life. We must build a communal culture where people holding diverse ideas and identities feel that they truly belong. Our voice and perspective must be broad.

Second, as an American Jewish community, we must engage and build relationships with a wide range of people who make up Israeli society — secular Jews, national religious Orthodox Jews, ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews, Arabs, and people from across the political spectrum. We cannot only meet with those who reflect our own ideas, opinions, or historical perspectives. Instead, we need to engage with people of different backgrounds and views who reflect the diverse composition of Israel today. This is vital if we truly want to be seen as partners in building the Jewish homeland.

Third, we need to strengthen American Jewish life without defining Israel at its core. The future of the global Jewish community rests on having a strong, vibrant American Jewish community as well as a strong and vibrant Israel. Our continued need to strengthen the American Jewish community is vital to effectively participating in the global discourse about our collective future.

Finally, we, as American Jewish leaders, must also be open to learning from Israel. There is much that we can gain through thoughtful engagement and learning, and our ability to come together and talk thoughtfully with each other will be critical to our future.

The current moment is leading us to rethink and redefine a relationship based on the need for both Jewish communities to deeply engage with the other as part of a global Jewish people. The relationship between American Jews and Israelis must be mutual: we need each other to shape both the Jewish and democratic Israel and the vibrancy of American Jewish life. The steps that we take within each community and how we come together will determine whether we grow stronger as two communities together or farther apart and diminished.

About the Author
Gil Preuss has been the Chief Executive Officer of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington since 2017. Prior to his work at Federation, he served as the Executive Vice President at Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) of Greater Boston.
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