The Israel-Diaspora Relationship

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Sigmund Freud points out one of the great contradictions of civilization: the people to whom we are most similar are the people we tend to dislike and distrust the most. Coining the term “narcissism of the small difference,” Freud noted that “it is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.”

The theme of this year’s GA in Tel Aviv was, “We Need to Talk,” with the assumption that Jewish North Americans and Israelis are divided in an unprecedented way. Freud’s term reverberated throughout my head at every session. “Are we really that different?” I kept thinking to myself. The truth is that the divide between Jewish Americans and Israelis has become particularly pronounced over the last two decades. Whereas after the euphoria of the 1967 Six Day War, Israel’s meaning for American Jews was more symbolic, and Theodore Sasson notes that most American Jews “regarded Israel as the embodiment of progressive American values.” With few exceptions, American Jews were enamored with Israel, proudly viewing Israel as self-sufficient and “scrappy.” American Jews looked in the mirror and essentially saw (more attractive versions of) themselves. If so, two questions lurk:

  1. What happens when American Jews look in the mirror and don’t see themselves? Does that mean their emotional attachment to Israel should wane?
  2. If the American Jewish community previously felt provisionally attached to Israel because of these shared “progressive values,” what might that tell us about the conditionality of our relationship?

Far be it from me to argue with Freud’s understanding of human psychology, but I prefer to think in aspirational rather than clinical terms. That we contain an embedded psychology does not mean that we are destined to obey the force of its gravitational pull. I believe that as we constantly strive to rise above our baser instincts, we can move beyond our narcissistic tendencies and see value in the other, even, and perhaps specifically, when we don’t see ourselves.

In the dust of the GA, let’s commit to a renewed and reinvigorated relationship.  

The Narcissism of the Small Difference? We Need to Talk

What Happened?

On Monday-Wednesday this week, the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly convened in Tel Aviv with the slogan, “We Need to Talk.” Each year, the General Assembly (GA) convenes thousands of premiere communal “Jewish changemakers.” According to the GA’s website, the convention was a cross-section of leaders from Israeli and North American society, and specifically, “Leaders who are committed to tackling the challenges of the Israel-Diaspora relationship. Together.”

The Assembly’s program featured dozens of high-profile Israeli and North American leaders with the goal of addressing the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. Some of the headliners included President Reuven Rivlin, who spoke about the need to not just talk, but “to listen,” and he harkened back to the Blaustein-Ben Gurion exchange in the early 1950’s, calling for a renewed agreement between the two communities. One of his suggestions was to create a reverse Birthright trip where Israelis would encounter North American Jews. Jewish Agency Head, Isaac “Boogie” Herzog did not mince any words, describing the tension between the communities as an “existential threat.” The former leader of the opposition in the Israeli government pointed out the irony that when the external existential threats have decreased, “we ourselves are endangering our own existence.” In his closing speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his greatest worry and a call to action, pleading to ensure “that every Jewish child in the world knows how proud they should be to be Jews.”

Why Does This Matter?

  1. Israel-Diaspora relationship – The premise of the GA, given its name, “We Need to Talk,” is that there are significant differences between the Israeli and North American Jewish communities. Jewish leaders are taking this opportunity to discuss various issues of mutual concern and strengthen ties (or are they, asks Gidi Grinstein). In one of the sessions, a presenter asked to describe the relationship between Israelis and Americans. Whereas 59% (!) of the audience described the relationship between the two as wounded, only 7% (!) said that the relationship was thriving.
  2. New Ideas to bridge the divide – On the first day of the Assembly, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin put some of the onus on the Israeli community and stated, “We must increase their exposure to your schools, camps and communities… I support the idea of creating a ‘Reverse Birthright’ trip for young Israelis, to get to know Jewish communities worldwide.” Gil Troy and Natan Sharansky suggested having a Jewish people’s council to represent the diaspora community to the Israeli government.
  3. Ties between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Communities – Tensions have been rising between Israel’s Ortho-centric leadership and American Conservative and Reform leaders. In fact, last week a delegation of 20 congregational rabbis (mostly non-Orthodox) was flown to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu in order to heal ties without involving either movement’s official leaders. The GA includes lay and professional leaders from all streams of Jewry.

Diversity of Jewish Perspectives

The GA website presents the following statistics on Israeli and American Jewish opinion (from AJC and Pew reports):

American Jews Israeli Jews
Identify as liberal 50% 8%
Think that Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist 61% 43%
Think non-Orthodox rabbis should officiate at Jewish ceremonies in Israel 80% 49%

The organizers of this conference meant to highlight the divide with these alarming statistics, but some are asking if such a divide is so unique. Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev details the elements of the deep divide. Shalev writes, “[E]ven if one interprets ‘We need to talk’ in the most positive way possible, it still denotes serious disagreements that can no longer be ignored. To drive the point home, the GA organizers underscored the urgency of the situation by highlighting the stark differences of views between Israelis and American Jews. Given that in recent years the JFNA has gone out of its way to eradicate any hint of discord and has dedicated the agendas of successive GAs to non-controversial – not to say boring – issues, such as fundraising and community organizing, this year’s GA is already a watershed event in the joint history of Israel and American Jews.” The issues aren’t new, in Shalev’s eyes, but urgent and threatening to Israel-Diaspora relations.

On the other hand, Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick claims that the issues the JFNA chose to highlight are neither new nor unbridgeable. She laments the fact the conference was in Tel Aviv as opposed to Jerusalem and wonders if the divide between the two communities is primarily due to the different outlooks each community has on President Donald Trump, saying, “Israelis are divided on many issues. But one issue unites them. Israelis love Trump.” What’s new in 2018, Glick contends, isn’t the issues at hand but the US presidency and the disdain many Jewish Americans feel about him.

Not everyone felt represented at the event, such as the “settlers, Haredim, people from the country’s periphery, Eastern Jews, traditionalists,” according to Zvika Klein of Arutz Sheva. He suggested that if the federation leaders wanted to advance conversation, they should have invited leaders who disagree with them.

Discussion Questions

  1. One of the presenters at the GA led a Kahoot where, using the metaphor of a family, the questioner asked to describe the relationship North American Jewry has to Israel as siblings, first cousins, extended family or not family. Forty-five responded with siblings, 46 responded “first cousins,” 7 said “not family” and 121 responded “extended family.” Think for a second. If the metaphor sticks, is this really a close and meaningful relationship? How much do you know about your second or third cousin? How emotionally attached are you to that person? When we say we are family, what does that really mean?
  2. To talk about division or unity? Head of Jewish Agency and former MK Isaac Herzog addressed the crowds on Tuesday: “This new unity cannot be the unity we so often spoke of in the past. We can no longer pretend we are all the same. We are not. We can no longer pretend that there are no major disagreements between us. There are…And we cannot tell our children we have no flaws. We do. What we can — and must — do is to create for our people a new ethos of a pluralistic union.” Conversation in and surrounding the Assembly is focused on differences rather than commonalities between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Why do you think this decision was made? Do you think it is wiser, perhaps, to focus on what unites us rather than divides? What is the value in addressing the differences? When Herzog refers to a “pluralistic union,” what can that look like?
  3. A noticeable divide was that whereas 39% of Israelis think Israel’s economy is the most important long-term problem, only 1% of Americans feel that way, and 66% of Americans think Israel’s most important long-term problem is security, while only 38% of Israelis feel that way. Why are Americans more concerned about Israel’s safety than Israelis, and why is there a sizable gap on perceptions of long-term problems?

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Solve: Don’t be a part of the problem; be a part of the solution! Using design thinking or other brainstorming tools, ask your students to proactively develop solutions to the divide between Americans and Israelis. Start by identifying some of the potential problems and then guide the students to develop constructive solutions (and send them to us!).
  2. Review: In 1950, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and head of AJC Jacob Blaustein met and issued an agreement regarding the relationship between Israel and Diaspora (specifically American) Jews. Have students read Blaustein’s description of what he terms “a document of historic significance.” Write down his main points. Discuss which elements, if any, are timeless, and which might need to be updated in 2018.
  3. Reach out and engage: Ask students to browse the GA’s list of speakers. Have them choose one who sounds interesting, learn more about them and send them an email voicing their opinion on a relevant topic.

Further Reading

  1. Arutz Sheva opinions piece critical of GA for not representing a full spectrum of Israeli or American Jews.
  2. Jerusalem Post opinions piece criticizing Jewish Federation leaders.

Engaging with Israel: Random but Important

  1. Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem opened a cutting-edge $10 million heart center, doubling its patient capacity.
  2. Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan. Ahead of the meeting, Netanyahu tweeted: “This is the most important visit by a Chinese leader in the last 18 years. It’s a sign of our growing friendship.”
  3. Knesset passed the Food Donation Act, which absolves food donors from liability if they follow the Ministry of Health’s food safety requirements. Gidi Kroch, CEO of Leket Israel, explained: “1.8 million Israelis suffer from food insecurity, while 2.3 million tons of food at a value of NIS 19.5 billion (5+ billion USD) is thrown away annually. The Food Donation Act opens the door to hundreds of organizations and businesses that have quality and substantial amounts of surplus food but do not currently donate out of fear from liability.”

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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