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Israel Finding New Ways to Make Its Case to the American Left

avatar by Ira Stoll

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The Boston skyline. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

BOSTON — The conventional wisdom about the US-Israel relationship in recent years is that if Israel has strong support on the political right and among Christian conservatives, it has a harder time with the left and liberal academia.

Yehuda Yaakov, wrapping up a four-and-a-half year stint as the Israeli government’s top diplomat in predominantly liberal New England, may have found the answer to that problem. In a farewell interview with The Algemeiner, the consul general to New England spoke about some of the new ways he has told Israel’s story.

He regularly repeats the story of how the Israeli government has brought thousands of Syrians wounded in Syria’s civil war to Israel for treatment in Israeli hospitals, and he twice hosted in Boston an Israeli Druze doctor, Salman Zarka, who is a leading figure in that work.

“This is Israeli consensus, to do the right thing for a neighbor in need,” Yaakov says. “Okay, we have a right of center government. Does that mean we don’t have compassion?”

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The Israeli consulate here this year formally participated for the first time in the Boston gay pride parade. The attorney general of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, a Democrat and who is a lesbian and had her own contingent in the parade, took a break to don an “I’m a proud Israeli” t-shirt and take a photo with the Israeli group, which she then tweeted out with a positive message (“honored to join you IsraelinBoston”). Yaakov says he was “touched” and “overwhelmed” by the reception.

The consulate also brought to New England the 2016 winner of the Miss Trans Israel pageant, Talleen Abu Hanna, an Israeli Arab. When she spoke at Tufts University, even anti-Israel students joined the applause at the end of the talk, Yaakov says.

Yaakov has also made a point of connecting with African Americans, describing Israel as a “country of color,” with its population that includes Jewish immigrants from Arab lands, Arab Israelis, and Ethiopian Jews.

“I think the mainstream here gets it, and we just need to engage,” Yaakov says. “I don’t think the sky is falling, but we have to work hard to make sure that people understand our issues.”

New England residents may lean left of center, but Yaakov says, they are also “reasonable people with open minds.”

I gently press back and ask how he would respond to those who reject such efforts as “pinkwashing,” or as propaganda efforts to distract from Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian Arabs. He’s dismissive of the IfNotNow protesters who chained themselves to his office building’s front door a few months ago to protest Israel’s actions at its border with Gaza. “They are not going to be interlocutors,” he says.

As for the Palestinian issue overall, he says, “You can’t pretend there isn’t an impasse on the Palestinian track.” But he points out that Israel’s relations with the Arab world seem to be warming up regardless. And a political impasse doesn’t have to mean the end of people-to-people contact. Massachusetts institutions such as MIT, Brandeis, and MassChallenge have backed Our Generation Speaks, a summer fellowship program and incubator for Israelis and Palestinians aged 21 to 30.

Even high-level academic leaders are realizing, he says, that when it comes to education about the Middle East, if they expect parents to pay $60,000 or $70,000 a year, they need to provide a product relevant to 2018, not the Cold War or the 1980s.

“Academia is like a battleship. It turns around really slowly. It’s at the beginning of a change,” Yaakov says. He recalls an appearance at Harvard by the Jordanian ambassador to the US, who referred a question from the audience to Yaakov, who was also in the audience. Israel’s Arab neighbors may be adjusting to reality more quickly than some of the American academics.

Yaakov has taken a similarly bold and unconventional approach to the American Jewish community. He says that when he first arrived in Boston, people told him to avoid certain synagogues.

“Some of those places that they told me not to go were actually ready. They were just waiting for someone to go through their door,” Yaakov says. In some cases, temples that didn’t have an Israeli flag at the front of their sanctuary or didn’t have congregational trips to Israel have since added them.

“We need each other,” Yaakov, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., says about American Jews and Israel.

He’s effusive in his praise of Boston’s Jewish community, crediting the Combined Jewish Philanthropies — Boston’s federation — with having “figured out some things way before I showed up.” He congratulates the CJP for having formally opposed the Iran nuclear deal — “they made the right decision,” one he says has been vindicated by subsequent events. He mentions how the community united to quash a recent initiative to get the City Council in Cambridge, Mass., to participate in the movement to boycott, sanction, or divest from Israel. And he recalls being at a packed Rosh Hashanah service at Temple Beth Elohim, a booming Reform congregation in suburban Wellesley, where everyone who had visited Israel in the past year was called up to the Torah. Those few who remained seated were the ones who had been there the previous year.

As for young people — another demographic group that is the subject of frequent communal handwringing about supposedly eroding connection with Israel — Yaakov also refrains from pessimism. “Young people should ask questions. We have good answers to most of their questions,” he says.

He allows that the question of “synagogue and state” in Israel may be one where the answers are less good. “Nobody gets it more than I do,” says Yaakov. His “temple of choice” in Israel was the Reform Kehillat Mevasseret Zion, and he grew up attending Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Queens. He also has two “frum” brothers and many other family members who are “baalei tshuva,” returnees to stringent religious observance.

“It goes both ways,” he says. “Inclusion means including everybody….Israel is still a work in progress, a very successful work in progress.”

The same — “a very successful work in progress” — could be said of Israel’s efforts to make a values-based case to Americans. It has not come at the expense of traditional diplomatic and economic development work — Yaakov has helped get more Israeli wines on the menus of Massachusetts restaurants and, with warm support from Republican Governor Charlie Baker, has nursed high-tech trade ties between Israel and Massachusetts in growth areas such as cybersecurity. But the approach is attracting favorable attention across the political spectrum, even among those on the Israeli right who appreciate the need to bolster support for Israel on the American left.

Dani Dayan, the settler-spokesman-turned Israeli consul general in New York, tweeted out a link to Yaacov’s farewell op-ed in The Boston Globe (headline: “Israel’s progressive agenda”), with the comment that it summed up Yaakov’s “very successful 4 years.”

It’s a feeling widely shared among Israel’s friends in New England.

Not all Israeli diplomats are as dynamic, creative, and relentless as Yaakov, and what works in New England may not necessarily work everywhere. But the Jewish state’s ambassadors, formal and informal, could do well by taking seriously the advice with which he concluded that Globe article: “Be optimistic. Shalom!”

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