Examining Israel-Diaspora Relations at the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly
JNS.org – JERUSALEM—The changing nature of the American Jewish community has been a much-debated topic ever since the release of the recent Pew Research Center survey, whose findings revealed rising assimilation and intermarriage rates. The Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) annual General Assembly, which took place in Jerusalem this year, provided a chance to place that debate within the context of Israel-Diaspora relations.
“We are now undergoing a real historical change,” Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said in an interview. “Israel’s government must take more responsibility for strengthening Jewish identity and to do that our lawmakers must understand the uniqueness of the American Jewish community, its problems, and its challenges.”
Sharansky spoke with JNS.org at a pre-GA event hosted by the Ruderman Family Foundation. The Jerusalem setting for this year’s GA couldn’t have been more ideal for the foundation, which among other work prioritizes the strengthening the bonds between Israeli leaders and the American Jewish community.
Before the start of the gathering JFNA bills as the “signature event of North American Jewry,” the Ruderman Family Foundation’s pre-GA reception had the goal “to bring together Israeli leaders—philanthropists, business persons, journalists, government officials, and Knesset members—and begin to build a connection between them and the leadership of Jewish communities across North America,” said Jay Ruderman, the foundation’s president.
Originally from the Boston area, Ruderman—a former American Israel Public Affairs Committee staffer in both New England and Jerusalem—made aliyah with his family seven years ago. Through his work in both countries, he told the reception, he “came to the realization that Israeli leaders lack an in-depth understanding of the evolving and diverse American Jewish community… a meaningful understanding of how the American Jewish community helps Israel strategically and secures her future.”
To promote this understanding, the Ruderman Family Foundation in 2011 and 2012 brought groups of Israeli Knesset members to the U.S. to get to know Americans and the challenges they face, and last June established a Knesset caucus to further raise Israeli lawmakers’ awareness in that area. The foundation has also partnered with the University of Haifa to establish Israel’s first academic program on the American Jewish community.
Also known for its support of initiatives designed to improve the lives of people with disabilities, the Ruderman foundation at its pre-GA reception focused on its priority to build bridges between the world’s two largest Jewish populations. Featured speaker Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and longtime advisor to a succession of Israeli prime ministers, spoke of the “strategic importance of Israel’s relationship with Jewish Diaspora.”
But Gold could not avoid the dominant topic of the day, saying, “Today we can’t escape the subject of international security—the issue of Iran.” In a foretaste of what GA attendees would hear from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu minutes later, Gold told the reception’s 300 attendees that the supposedly kinder, gentler new Iranian government of President Hassan Rouhani remains “a regime prepared to engage in mass murder right over our border.” He noted a recent parade that showed off a new Iranian missile bearing a sign reading “Israel must be wiped off the map,” and another missile festooned with one proclaiming, “Israel must cease to exist.”
“Does everybody reveal their intentions in such a clear-cut way?” Gold asked. He added that when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there certainly are disputes among Israelis, but “on this issue of Iran I need to tell you that Israelis are united.”
“[Iran] is an evil regime and that is why it must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. This is one of those generational challenges like the ones our fathers and grandfathers faced,” Gold said.
After Gold stepped off the dais, Jay Ruderman shifted the discussion back to Israel-Diaspora relation, telling JNS.org, “The influence that American Jews can have on their own government has a great impact historically and in the future.”
“In fact, it is vital to Israel’s security. This is why Israeli lawmakers must understand in a more nuanced manner the changes going on in the American Jewish community,” he said.
Member of Knesset Nachman Shai (Labor) said he sees an “almost ignorance with most of my colleagues when it comes to American Jewry.”
“Just a generation or two ago, the connections were natural between us, but no longer. We have to get to know each other all over again and values need to be discussed and understood. If we fail to educate the new generations, they—and we—are lost,” Shai said.
Deeper understanding between America and Israel must be a two-way street, said leading Israeli philanthropist Avi Noar, who expressed that he is “aware of and deeply concerned about” the findings of the recent Pew study of American Jewry, particularly as they relate to young adults.
“These young Jews—Israelis and Americans—need to know each other better if they hope to work together for a strong future,” Noar said.