Two sensitive and potentially explosive issues have always clouded the relationship between the Jewish community in the United States and the State of Israel. The first relates to claims of “dual allegiance” to both Israel and the United States; the other concerns the pro-Israel, American “Jewish lobby.” Many of those raising such claims against American Jewry have themselves been accused of anti-Semitism.
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So it's strange that representatives of Israel’s immigrant absorption and foreign ministries have just distributed a questionnaire to tens of thousands of Israelis living in the United States and Jewish Americans, which includes problematic questions on exactly these issues, and asks them to indicate where their allegiance would lie in the case of a crisis between the two countries.
On Sunday, following the report of the story in Haaretz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directed the ministries to stop distributing the questionnaire. He also ordered that it not be promoted by any official government agency.
The survey was commissioned by the Israeli American Council, a private nonprofit group based in Los Angeles. Its mission is "to build an active and giving Israeli-American community in order to strengthen the State of Israel, our next generation, and to provide a bridge to the Jewish-American community,” according to the IAC website.
The IAC was established by Israelis living in Los Angeles in 2007, and is primarily supported by Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban, who has donated close to a million dollars in the past four years.
In September, the IAC announced plans to expand by establishing new branches throughout the United States. Conducting the survey is seen as part of this process.
According to the IAC, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has taken it upon himself to help finance the group's expansion.
Adelson, considered one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest allies, owns the pro-Netanyahu free daily Israel Hayom, and donated tens of millions of dollars to Republican candidates in the last U.S. presidential election.
Last Tuesday, the IAC’s chief operating officer, Miri Belsky, sent an email to the Israeli embassy in Washington with a link to the survey, asking that Israeli consulates in the United States be instructed to distribute it. She even asked that the consulates send out four reminders - one every three days – in order to elicit replies from at least 10 percent of their mailing list.
That same day, the Israeli consulates in the United States received instructions from the embassy in Washington and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry’s returning citizens' department to distribute the survey by email to the tens of thousands of Israelis and Jews on their mailing lists.
“The IAC is conducting a survey of Israelis in the United States to map their positions and needs,” read the email the Washington embassy sent to the consulates. “We will be partners in the findings. They are asking for our help in distributing the questionnaires via our communication channels, in order to reach as many Israelis as possible … We thank you for promoting this from today.”
Midgam Research and Consulting, a polling company, has been hired to carry out the survey, which is apparently financed by the IAC but was endorsed by official Israeli government agencies. The symbol of the State of Israel appears on the survey’s opening page, and the questionnaires were sent from official Foreign Ministry email accounts.
However, it is unclear what governmental level approved this move, or whether absorption or foreign ministry officials checked what type of questions would be asked. Only after several of the consulates had already distributed the survey to tens of thousands of recipients did some Israeli diplomats realize the significance, and partially halted its distribution.
“Tell her not to send it out. The questions in this survey are unbearable and not legitimate,” Gil Lainer, consul for public diplomacy at the Israeli Consulate in New York, wrote to one of his colleagues in an email.
One question in the survey asks specifically which side the respondents would support publicly if there was a crisis in the relationship between the United States and Israel. The respondents are also asked to what extent the presidential candidates or Congress members' attitudes toward Israel impact their voting decisions.
They are also asked about the impact of American Jews and U.S. Jewish organizations on American policy, and how Israelis living in the United States and American Jews have an impact on Israel’s strength.
An Immigrant Absorption Ministry spokesperson told Haaretz, “this survey has no connection to the ministry,” but admitted ministry personal were involved in its distribution. “We will check how this hitch occurred.”
The Foreign Ministry noted that “the survey was distributed by Ella Saban - director of the department for returning Israelis at the Absorption Ministry - to the consulates. It is a project of the Absorption Ministry and the IAC.” However, it noted that the embassy in Washington and the consulates around the U.S. helped circulate the survey.
The IAC replied via its PR, Moshe Debby. “The Israeli American Council initiated and approved the survey and questions,” Debby said. “We drafted the survey and it was distributed by many organizations, including [the Immigrant Absorption Ministry agency] Bait Israeli. The government of Israel was not involved in drafting the survey. We chose to conduct this survey … checking the characteristics of Israelis living in America and their children, to learn about the community’s nature.
“We think those questions are legitimate, as they are not influencing the reader to vote one way or another. The survey is totally anonymous and the results are for statistical study. The questions you referred to are questions that many Jews and Israeli Americans are faced with.”