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February 21, 2020 10:29 am

Family Ties: Israeli and American Leaders Assemble in Jerusalem to Mend Fences, Build Bridges

avatar by Eliana Rudee / JNS.org

Participants in the Jerusalem conference “Keeping It in the Family: Strengthening the Israel-Diaspora Relationship,” aimed to explore the common bond between Israel and the Diaspora, Feb. 12, 2020. Photo: Mark Neyman/GPO.

JNS.org – Israeli President Reuven Rivlin hosted at his residence a Feb. 12 conference titled “Keeping It in the Family: Strengthening the Israel-Diaspora Relationship,” aimed at exploring the common bond between Israel and the Diaspora.

In partnership with the Gesher Leadership Institute, the Ruderman Family Foundation and Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, the meeting featured prominent thought leaders in Israel and the United States from diverse fields, including academia and economics, sports and culture, diplomacy, civil society and business, who spoke about the importance of strengthening Israel’s relationship with the American Jewish community and the Jewish Diaspora.

“As a result of tensions between Israel and American Jewry in recent years, many individuals and organizations have become interested in the relationship between the two,” posed conference organizers. “Yet despite the new players into the arena, the conversation remains outdated—limited to a small group of organizations and activists, with almost no impact on society at large. It is time for a fresh initiative that will bring new voices into this conversation, thus making it possible to reach new audiences that have relevant ideas to offer and to achieve real progress.”

The conference occurred in the backdrop of facts released last week from a poll by the Ruderman Family Foundation—the results of which have not yet been fully published—revealing that the vast majority of American Jews (80 percent) are connected to Israel, though consider politics and institutional conduct between the sides a cause for concern.

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“Despite the headlines we hear every day, most American Jews feel connected to Israel,” said Shira Ruderman, executive director of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “When asked how American Jews feel about Israel today compared to five years ago, 72 percent said their relationship is the same or stronger.”

“The crisis is not as strong as we think,” she continued. “There is a gap between the public discourse and the feeling that people have on the ground.”

“We are one big family, living in tribes,” Rivlin said at the conference. “We are Arabs, secular Jews, national religious Jews and haredim, and all together, we are the State of Israel,” he said. “Really, we are one big family, living in five tribes,” he continued, the fifth being “Jewish communities all over the world.”

Echoing a popular Hebrew dictum, he added: “We are all responsible for one another.”

‘Forge ahead towards a brighter future’

During one panel, LGBTQ activist and CEO of Wider Bridge Tyler Gregory, and activist and social entrepreneur Erin Schrode spoke of the challenges facing them as American Jews. Gregory said in the context of “delegitimization, BDS and bans of Jewish stars at pride parades,” it is “harder to be Jewish in the LGBTQ community than LGBTQ in the Jewish community.”

However, continued Gregory, the struggle is not one he must surmount alone. “This is also Israel’s fight, and we are doing it together,” he emphasized.

“The LGBTQ community has critical lessons to share as we seek to strengthen the Israeli-Diaspora relationship,” he told JNS. “Like Jewry, the LGBTQ community is also global, spanning every nationality, ethnicity and culture on the planet. LGBTQ people understand they have inherent connections and shared experiences with one another across all borders—something Jewish leaders must impart to our communities to strengthen one another. LGBTQ people, and LGBTQ Jews, in particular, know how to build these bridges and can serve as a cornerstone in this most pressing project for the future of our people.”

During the panel, Schrode referred to being “outed as a Jew” while running for US Congress, and being faced with a barrage of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Though she didn’t know it at the time, the importance her family placed on tzedakah, climate and environmental change, in addition to racial injustice, was “intrinsically backed” by her Jewish peoplehood and faith.

In an atmosphere of rising antisemitism across America (and after she said she became the target of vicious, unrelenting antisemitic attacks), she told JNS that “the existence of the State of Israel has never been more important to me—not only as a literal safe haven and refuge for me, American Jews and Jews from diverse backgrounds the world over, but also in safeguarding traditions, culture, heritage, identity, values and homeland.”

“I recognize that my ability to live freely and safely as an American Jew in the Diaspora is only possible because of Israel’s existence, strength and prosperity—as a thriving, complex democracy and fountain of innovation where I see my values in action, and with which I can, want to and am encouraged to engage,” she said. “A rich, robust, social-political-economic-far-reaching relationship in which both the American Jewish community and Israel are invested plays a vital role in protecting, promoting and preserving all we hold dear, reflecting on common history, sharing paradigm-shifting ideas, building multifaceted bridges, ensuring mutual security and engaging my generation and all generation, such that we can forge ahead towards a brighter future for our people.”

Former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who addressed the conference by video recording, said, “The relationship between Israel and American Jewry is one of the best partnerships in all of history. What we need now is a monumental effort to depoliticize the relationship.

“My connection with Israel isn’t about politics,” he continued. “Israel is my home. Much more importantly, Israel is where Judaism finds its fullest expression. Jews have lived in every country, but only in Israel have we been able to do what our faith tells us to do: build a society based on justice, compassion and sanctity of life.”

Sacks compared the relationship between Israel and American Jewry to “a marriage, not a divorce.”

In a marriage, he said, “the individuals are entitled to disagree but they are enlarged, not diminished, by difference.”

He suggested of Israel and American Jewry: “Renew the marriage.”

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