At GA in Tel Aviv, much talk about talking

President Reuven Rivlin greets North American guests in Jerusalem on Oct. 21.
Photo by Eyal Warshavsky/JFNA

TEL AVIV — On Sunday, a day before thousands of American Jews descended on this Israeli city to air their differences with the nation’s government, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin had a listening session.
Rivlin invited a select group of about 100 American Jews to his official residence in Jerusalem. While he sat in the center of the room, in a cushioned chair, three leaders of the Diaspora’s largest Jewish community explained their issues with the Jewish state.

“The Jewish identity of many young American Jews is reflected through the lens of tikkun olam, social justice values,” said Eric Goldstein, the CEO of New York’s UJA-Federation. “And they experience a mental discomfort when they use that lens to look at many current Israeli government policies: settlement policy, nation-state law, treatment of asylum seekers, marriage equality and marriage rights — more broadly, the monopoly that the Orthodox has over religion and state in Israel.”

That laundry list of grievances — everything from how Israel treats the Palestinians to whose marriages it recognizes — is what lies behind the theme of this year’s General Assembly, the annual conference of the Jewish Federations of North America, which is took place here from Monday to Wednesday.

This year’s conference, which brought together the leaders of the American Jewish establishment for a mixture of sentimental speeches, panel discussions on pressing issues and lots of schmoozing over weak coffee, was titled “We Need to Talk.” The explicit message is that American and Israeli Jews have grown further apart and need some relationship counseling.

Around the conference hall in North Tel Aviv, signs displaying a series of statistics showed that the world’s two largest Jewish populations don’t think alike: Sixty percent of American Jews believe in the possibility of a Palestinian state, versus 40 percent of Israeli Jews. Half of American Jews are liberal. Israeli Jews? Eight percent.

“Israel-Diaspora relations at the moment are all over the map,” said Gary Berman, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, who attended the GA. “I believe American Jews need to listen to Israelis to better understand their unique perspectives, and Israelis, in turn, need an opportunity to experience Jewish life in the U.S.”

And the past couple of years, Israel-wise, have been especially rough for American Jews with liberal proclivities: American Jewish leaders had negotiated for years to expand a non-Orthodox prayer section at the Western Wall. Last year, the Israeli government scrapped the compromise. The government has also moved to give the haredi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate more power over Jewish conversion. This year, Israeli police detained a Conservative rabbi for the crime of performing a non-Orthodox wedding.

Also this year, Israel passed a law defining itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Recent months have seen a series of Americans, mostly left-wing activists, detained and questioned at
Israel’s border. A two-state solution seems nowhere in sight. President Donald Trump, reviled by American Jewish liberals and never-Trump Republicans, gets high marks among Israelis.

Israelis, meanwhile, have chafed at anti-Israel activism among some corners of American Jewry, as well as criticism from its leaders. Government representatives say they make policies according to their security and political realities, and consider the will of the voters who actually live in their country.

If the two sides “need to talk,” though, it would be far from the first conversation. American Jewish bigwigs have been negotiating, cajoling, criticizing and appealing to the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for years. The Western Wall negotiations took an arduous 33 months, and the deal was frozen anyway. Organizations sent any number of strongly worded statements on a nation-state law perceived by many as anti-democratic and another law barring supporters of an Israel boycott from entering the country.

Those attending this year’s conference could also be forgiven for having some deja vu: Issues of Israeli religious policy also figured prominently at the last GA to take place in Israel — five years ago.

Asked to what degree is the Netanyahu government responsible for the growing rift, Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said to call relations a rift is simplistic.

“No one individual or entity is solely responsible for creating the current dynamic,” he said. “There are strong ties and deep connections that exist between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, and … there are there differences between Israel and the Diaspora.”

More than anything, the question of what to do about the gaps between Israeli and American Jewry loomed over the gathering. On that, participants had some answers. Rivlin, opening the conference, called for a “reverse Birthright” that would bring Israeli Jews to see American Jewry firsthand. He also called for a coalition of Israeli and Diaspora Jews to jointly aid the developing world.

Turns out, both those initiatives are already (kind of) happening.

In his speech to the GA Tuesday, Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog did not even mention the Western Wall. Instead he struck a more conciliatory note and called for Israel to fund Hebrew language education for Diaspora Jews.

“These are two different communities,” Herzog said. “But we must honor our brotherhood as Jews by understanding that there’s a dialogue amid differences.”

Staff Writer Jared Foretek contributed to this article.

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