Knesset members getting an education in American Jewryby rachel marder, jns.org
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Member of Knesset Nachman Shai, who studied and worked in the U.S. for years, had no idea how much the 25-year-old prayer rights group Women of the Wall mattered to North American Jews — until the Israeli went there on a recent outreach trip.
“We were shocked to see how important women praying at the Kotel was,” he says. “For average Israelis, it’s not such a big issue.
“Wherever we went [in North America] we heard about the Kotel as if it was the center of the world,” he adds.
The caucus, launched in June, is working to recruit a cohort of MKs to participate in its third delegation to the U.S., a five-day trip to Boston and New York City in March 2014 sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation and Brandeis University. The trips are designed to give MKs a crash course in American Jews and their relationship to Israel, and to strengthen Congress’s ties to the Jewish state.
The previous visits in 2011 and 2012 included meetings with politicians such as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, members of Congress, Brandeis academics, rabbis from across the denominational spectrum and leaders of AIPAC and J Street. The MKs discussed thorny subjects with American lawmakers, such as whether the $3 billion in aid Israel receives from the U.S. each year is always guaranteed.
The idea behind the initiative, Ruderman Family Foundation President Jay Ruderman says, is to show Israelis the diversity that exists in American Jewry and the community’s unique challenges when it comes to issues like intermarriage, conversion and creating space for both criticizing and supporting Israel.
In particular, he says, Israelis should learn how to connect with this conflicted generation of American Jews.
“If Israel turns off that community, strategically they’re going to be in real tough shape,” says Ruderman, a former deputy director of AIPAC who made aliyah in 2005.
“When I moved to Israel and I worked for AIPAC here, I got to know MKs and ministers personally. I realized that not only did they not have the same understanding of the American Jewish community and its role, but they didn’t really have an interest in it,” he says.
Shai, who served as press secretary for the Israeli delegation to the U.N. in 1979 and was named press consultant to the Israeli Embassy in Washington in 1981, says the U.S.-Israel relationship cannot be taken for granted. He hopes the caucus will create a bridge between Congress and the Knesset, since no official parliamentary friendship group for dialogue between the two bodies exists, as it does for 100 other nations and Congress.
The caucus’ June launch coincided with the release of poll results in which 31.9 percent of Israeli respondents said their leaders should not take American Jewish positions on the peace process into account at all, while 33.6 percent said U.S. Jewry’s views should be considered to a small extent. Only 21.6 percent called for those views to be taken into account to a great extent, and 9.4 percent said they should be considered to a very great extent. The poll was conducted by Teleseker and commissioned by the Ruderman Foundation.
Regarding conversion and the Israeli government’s relationship with the Conservative and Reform movements, the poll showed that 24 percent of Israelis opposed taking U.S. Jewry’s positions into account on these matters, while 30.6 percent said the views should be considered to a small extent. Meanwhile, 25.1 percent said the government should consider U.S. Jewry’s views to a great extent.
Israeli Jews still value the lobbying efforts by American Jews on behalf of Israel, according to the poll, which found that 66.3 percent see the Jewish community in the U.S. as having a very or somewhat positive influence on Israel’s national security.
Professor Steven Cohen, a researcher of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, believes the poll “speaks to the lack of understanding by Israelis of American Jews, but it’s an understandable lack of understanding.
“Those Israelis who reject American Jewish participation in various decisions of national importance tend to believe that such decisions are best left in the hands of Israelis alone,” Cohen said by email.
Cohen posits that attitudes would be changed if more American Jews traveled to Israel and more Israelis traveled to American Jewish settings. He also suggests that Israeli policymakers should bring greater sensitivity to areas of political importance to American Jews, such as addressing the treatment of non-Orthodox rabbis, the status of women, government services to non-Jews and Israel’s presence in the West Bank.
Ruderman worries about the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship in light of the different trajectories the two have taken, as well as Israelis’ lack of knowledge when it comes to their American brethren. While projects like Birthright Israel address Israeli-diaspora ties by connecting young American Jews to Israel, and Israel’s Foreign Ministry sends Israeli officials to the U.S. to discuss the Jewish state’s security challenges, Ruderman says no one was educating Israeli leaders on American Jews before his foundation undertook the project.
“The American Jewish community should have been doing it all along,” he says.
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