Knesset - Michal Fattal - 28102011
The Israeli Knesset. Photo by Michal Fattal
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Tamar Geva
Jay Ruderman Photo by Tamar Geva

A newly conceived Israel-America Jewish Knesset Caucus - aimed at enhancing Israeli legislators' knowledge and understanding of U.S. Jewry - will attempt to get a handle on a vital community that some observers say is in a state of transition. But the caucus' scope could be quite broad and ultimately lead it nowhere, according to some seasoned political observers.

"This caucus has a lot of work to do," says Eytan Gilboa, a specialist on U.S.-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University, who tied its prospects for success to questions of knowledge and policy. "Visiting and even talking is not necessarily knowing," he cautions.

MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima) inaugurated the caucus last week, nearly a year after an eye-opening fact-finding mission to the United States shattered several of her long-held, preconceived notions about Americans and their loyalty to Israel.

"I wanted to put this on the agenda," Tirosh said of the caucus, adding that she will also reach out to Knesset committees and lobbies. "This must serve as a platform to discuss and debate key issues."

Precisely what will be discussed, by whom, and how often, is in the planning stages, says Tirosh.

"There is a whole generation of Israelis who don't know anything about American Jews. This is terrible and unacceptable," says MK Nachman Shai (Kadima ), a former senior vice president of United Jewish Communities, known today as the Jewish Federations of North America. Shai says this "ignorance" extends both to Israeli legislators and to members of the media. "There is so much to teach, to show and to learn - from the American Jewish community's various religious streams to the different political positions," says Shai.

True to the Knesset's reputation as an oft-divided legislative house, the caucus' opening meeting, in the presence of 12 MKs, featured sharp exchanges between some of its members last week. A summary protocol provided to Haaretz notes a heated exchange between MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ) and MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ) over the contentious issue of 'who is a Jew.'

"If the MKs will discuss 'Who is a Jew,' then this caucus will go nowhere," says Gilboa. The Bar-Ilan professor adds that from his own experience with Israeli legislators, "They don't know enough about the U.S. in general and American Jewry in particular."

Jay Ruderman, a U.S.-born philanthropist, says he is offering to facilitate meetings between visiting Jewish leaders and caucus members, whom he sees as "ministers in future governments." Ruderman, a 45-year-old Boston native, runs a family foundation that helped sponsor Tirosh's mission to the United States together with five other MKs.

A recent immigrant who worked as an assistant district attorney for the U.S. state of Massachusetts, Ruderman sees the caucus' mandate in strategic terms. "MKs have to have their finger on the pulse of the American Jewish community, and that's not happening right now," says Ruderman, former deputy director of AIPAC in New England. Speaking of an American Jewish community "in flux," Ruderman warns that years-long, seemingly unconditional support for Israel "could change."

According to a press statement released by the Ruderman Family Foundation - which has offices in Boston and Israel's central city of Rehovot - a recent Teleseker (TNS ) poll sponsored by the foundation found that 78.2 percent of the Israeli public "believes that the establishment of the Knesset Caucus to educate MK's about the American-Jewish community and be a bridge between the Knesset and this community is an important initiative."

The poll also found that 87.5 percent of Israelis believe "that the American Jewish community is important to the future and security of the State of Israel," according the statement. "The situation behooves members of Knesset to understand the complexities of this community in the United States," contends Ruderman. "The caucus can have that impact."