Israeli Americans as Game Changers
Estimates vary, but it is believed that anywhere from 500,000 to one million Israelis live in the United States. For decades, this population was surprisingly silent and inactive on issues related to Israel — despite consistent efforts to engage them.
In 2007, this began to change when Adam Milstein, Shawn Evenhaim, Danny Alpert, Naty Saidoff, Shoham Nicolet and a few other Israeli-born philanthropists created what is now known as the Israeli-American Council (IAC). Now, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Americans have been mobilized to strengthen the US-Israel relationship, energize their peers, build coalitions and educate Americans about their homeland.
The catalyst for the creation of the organization occurred in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, when the consul general in Los Angeles organized a rally to support Israel. Thousands of Jewish Americans came out to show their support, but the consul noticed that only a small number of Israelis participated. He asked Milstein and some other Israeli business leaders for help. Unlike so many in the Jewish community who spend more time talking than acting, Milstein and his fellow organizers actually took quick, rapid action.
“We had no established action plan,” recalls Milstein, today the chair of the IAC. “We just jumped into the water and ran things like it was a startup. Our mission was to ensure that future generations of Israeli-Americans had a Jewish and Israeli identity. We wanted to create ambassadors for Israel here in America, to find ways to connect with the broader Jewish community and to create future leaders.”
A turning point for the organization, according to Milstein, was when the group decided in 2012 to change its name from the Israeli Leadership Council to the IAC — and to shift its focus from primarily an Israeli identification to one of Americans of Israeli descent.
“We were shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Milstein. “Israelis said we weren’t really Israelis because we had left our Jewish homeland. Our kids wanted to be Americans. By identifying ourselves as Israeli Americans, we created an identification and purpose that allowed us to feel good about ourselves and support Israel from here.”
What makes Israeli Americans distinctive, Milstein said, is their hybrid identity. “We’re proud of our heritage, our land, our language, our values, and our religion,” Milstein relates. “We have a unique identification — Israelites — that connects us to our Jewish heritage and to Israel.”
The stated mission of the IAC “is to build an engaged and united Israeli-American community that strengthens the Israeli and Jewish identity of the next generation, the American Jewish community, and the bond between the peoples of the United States and the State of Israel.”
While most American Jewish membership organizations have been shrinking, the IAC has been growing rapidly. Supported primarily by charitable donations, the group claims 250,000 active participants. One indication of their growth is the size of their national convention, which was first held three years ago with 650 people in attendance. Last year, more than 2,000 showed up, and this year, the group has rented the Washington, DC Convention Center in anticipation of a crowd of more than 3,000 Israeli Americans and their supporters.
The transformation from a local Los Angeles-based group to a national organization was fueled by the vision and the underwriting of Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, who promoted IAC’s nationwide expansion in 2013. Today, the IAC has a budget of more than $20 million, and a full-time staff of 70 — with 15 regional councils based in major cities such as Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The IAC also has a 501(c)(4) lobbying arm — the American Israeli Coalition for Action (IAC for Action) – which promotes anti-BDS legislation on the state level and adds an Israeli voice to the lobbying efforts of AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations educating members of Congress.
The IAC is effective because the issues it champions are personal for Israeli Americans. They can speak about their families back in Israel and their experience in the Israeli army. As immigrants, they are also natural coalition partners with other immigrant communities.
Given the cliche of two Jews, three opinions, four synagogues and five political parties, I asked Milstein how it was possible to get so many Israelis to work together. “It isn’t perfect,” he replied, “but we stick to the consensus and don’t take positions on Israeli policy. We support the democratically elected government and trust our brothers and sisters in Israel to determine their leaders and the policies they should pursue.” Simultaneously, Milstein says, “we don’t compromise regarding support for Israel.” The group remains bipartisan on both American and Israeli policy, and focuses on the shared political and cultural heritage of the two peoples.
To accomplish its mission, the IAC has an astounding array of projects. These include:
Keshet and Keshet Sfarim: A Hebrew-learning community for families with children 12 and under, which is designed to cultivate a connection to Israel, its culture and Jewish values through the Hebrew language, in part by giving children books by Israeli authors.
Eitanim: A leadership and entrepreneurship program led by Israeli mentors that brings together Israeli and Jewish American teenagers for weeklong innovation seminars.
Mishelanu: A pro-Israel college campus program designed to strengthen Israeli and Jewish identity through culture, language and networking.
Shishi Israeli: A program for Israeli and Jewish Americans to share traditions at Shabbat dinners and celebrations of other Jewish festivals.
Gvanim: A leadership program that explores the hybrid identities of Israeli-Americans.
Lead and Dor Chadash: Young leadership programs aimed at building a network of young Israeli-American professionals and connecting them to their Jewish identity and Israel.
Bina: A program connecting Israeli-American and Jewish young professionals.
Merkaz: The IAC has opened centers in Florida, Boston and New Jersey for Israeli Americans to meet for education programs, lectures, Torah study and other activities to reinforce their Jewish and Israeli identities.
ACT.IL: This joint project of the IAC and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya’s Public Diplomacy Center was created to improve Israel’s image using social media.
IAC for Action recently achieved a major success in convincing Nevada to adopt anti-boycott legislation. One of the catalysts of the Nevada legislation was Lieutenant Governor Mark Hutchison, who visited Israel and came back inspired to do something about BDS — proof once again of the value of taking legislators to Israel.
According to Dillon Hosier, IAC for Action’s national director of state government affairs, the lobbying effort has succeeded because Israeli Americans frame the issue in terms of protecting minorities from discrimination, while the boycotters try to make it about freedom of speech. The IAC argues that if Israelis are discriminated against today, other minorities could be the targets tomorrow. The IAC also explains that the boycott is a local concern, not just a foreign policy issue. “A lot of Israeli companies are setting up shop in Nevada in fields such as water and cybersecurity,” noted Hosier, “and we made the point that they feel threatened by the BDS campaign. … [W]e let legislators know their constituents are effected.”
The IAC has also taken the lead in working with states on the implementation of anti-BDS legislation by providing them with information about companies that are potentially violating the law by boycotting Israel.
In sum, Milstein and the IAC want to reach the low-hanging fruit in the Jewish community.
“We can’t stop assimilation in the entire Jewish community in the United States, so we are devoting our limited resources to the roughly five million Jews who say they are proud to be Jewish,” Milstein says, adding, “We can be a game changer by stopping the alienation toward Israel.”
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.