Despite occasional media warnings of a “distancing” between American Jews and Israel, there is nothing like actually visiting the Jewish state to feel the close connections between the world’s two largest Jewish communities.
And what better time to come and experience that bond than right after national elections in both countries and as Israel’s 65th anniversary fast approaches? With all the hype we have been hearing about an Arab Spring that would magically transform the Middle East, Israel remains the region’s sole American-style democracy, where universal suffrage, the strength of civil society and peaceful transfers of power empower citizens to choose their government at the ballot box.
I am here with a large delegation of American Jewish Committee (AJC) board members.
For more than a century, AJC, whose main mission is global advocacy, has fought for the rights and security of Jews around the world. Since 1948, we have sought to help Israel by energetically arguing its case in the halls of power, diplomatic chancelleries and the mass media.
Over 50 years ago, AJC was the first American Jewish organization to open a permanent office in the Jewish state.
Through our innovative Project Interchange program, more than six thousand influential non-Jews from the US, Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America have visited Israel for week-long educational seminars, enabling these leaders to see for themselves the challenges the country faces and the accomplishments it has achieved.
Our itinerary this week reflects our priority concerns.
On the existential threat that an Iran with nuclear weapons capability would pose not only to Israel, but to regional and global security, we are meeting with President Shimon Peres, top government officials, Iran experts and foreign ambassadors posted to Israel. Their perspectives on this key issue will help us immeasurably in our ongoing advocacy with the Obama administration, Congress, and other governments, as we continue to urge additional tightening of sanctions and political isolation against Teheran.
We are meeting with Israeli and Palestinian opinion leaders on how it might be possible to reenergize prospects for peace. To be sure, AJC is not a group of starry-eyed optimists.
Though we have long favored a negotiated two-state solution, we are well aware that Palestinian recalcitrance has been the longtime barrier to negotiations – whether in the form of Hamas rejectionism and violence, or Fatah’s refusal to talk face-to-face and its resorting instead to unilateral action at the UN.
In solidarity with the people of southern Israel, we are visiting Sderot, which experienced the brunt of the rocket attacks from Gaza that necessitated Israel’s recent Operation Pillar of Defense. Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon received a large AJC gift to strengthen its emergency facilities that were strained to capacity during the fighting.
We also are exploring, on this trip, as always, Israel’s intergroup challenge. Israel has long faced the daunting and complex task of integrating Jews, Christians and Muslims, not to speak of a plethora of ethnic groups, into a common citizenship.
And within the Jewish people itself, the problems posed by different definitions of Jewish identity plague both our communities, but are especially acute in Israel with issues surrounding, for instance, the chief rabbinate and personal status questions, access to the Western Wall, and funding for religious institutions. Thus, meeting with representatives of the various streams of Judaism in Israel is an essential component of our visit.
After all, the global Jewish people are, and must remain, one. Any rupture in Jewish solidarity, whether in Israel, the US or elsewhere, affects us all as a people and, yes, potentially undermines Israel’s national security.
Above all, we are here to emphasize the link between two extraordinarily successful Jewish communities. It is surely no accident that they thrive in two of the world’s greatest democracies.
Robert Elman is president of the American Jewish Committee. This column originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.