What Did Israeli Lawmakers Learn About the U.S. Jewish Community?

A group of MKs spent a week in the U.S. with selected members of its Jewish community to learn what life looks like right of the Atlantic; their impressions were varied.

The relationship between Israel and Jewish communities in the Diaspora has been complicated for many decades.

Over ten years ago, I was a member of the first group of Russian-Israeli journalists who were brought to the United States to meet the Jewish community there. As far as I know, it was also the last group. Instead of the triumphant reunion of grateful representatives of the community that the U.S. Jewry was eager to release during the Soviet era, it became a somewhat awkward encounter rife with cultural shocks.

Israeli and U.S. flag, April 8, 2011.
Courtesy of Howie Hecht

Most members in our group didn’t know the words of the Shabbat songs nor did they understand why they were being dragged to American synagogues when they had barely visited one at home in Israel.

Meanwhile, our hosts felt somewhat disappointed at the fact that their guests couldn’t share heroic refusenik stories and their lack of curiosity into U.S. Jewish customs.

Recently, one of my Israeli readers wrote to me following an article I published: “They [the U.S. Jews] are in love with the idea of Israel, but they do not know us – and I am not sure they are interested to meet the real Israel. I do not blame them, it can be ugly”.

During the last year, the mutual exposure became quite inevitable with the debate about the conversion law as well as several unpleasant incidents tied to the issue of the lack of religious pluralism in Israel. Bringing Israeli MKs to visit the U.S. to meet the local Jewish community was a logical step in the attempt to settle the misunderstandings and to lay the foundations for smooth cooperation.

“Israel is the center of the Jewish people and the focus of the Jewish people and the Knesset makes decisions that affect us all”, said Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation who initiated the project. “When I made aliyah 5 years ago, as I came to know more and more members of Knesset and government members – I realized they do not know well enough the community I came from, the American Jewish community."

Over a week’s period, the MKs met with AIPAC, Russian Jewish immigrants to the U.S., and Brandeis University students (MK Avi Dichter even got a taste of the leftist protest, when a group of students disrupted his attempt to answer a question, calling him a “war criminal”). They learned about the way Jewish philanthropy works and what it takes to provide children with a Jewish education, about the religious streams and the secular institutions.

“It was a great opportunity for us to learn about the differences between the organizations, how they see the reality in Israel”, Dichter told Haaretz.

“I have been giving lectures to these organizations for years – so it’s good to finally get an opportunity to listen to what they have to say. It is very significant and helpful. In Israel we see the young people coming with “Birthright” – but it’s fascinating to see how it is organized from here."

MK Daniel Ben-Simon (Labor) told Haaretz that the most heartening moment for him took place at the dinner at Brandeis University. “It wasn’t on the political level”, he clarified. “We had a dinner at Brandeis with students – and something happened there that you wouldn’t see in Israel.

They had kosher and non-kosher dinner options. I took a kosher dinner – and I wanted to take an ice cream, which was obviously not kosher together. And an Orthodox rabbi helped me find it - he came with me to take the non-kosher ice cream and said 'I won’t judge you, Mr. Ben-Simon.' I liked that moment because it was a moment in which an Ultra-Orthodox went with a non-kosher guy with grace and a smile. It’s something we need to learn in Israel. To live together and respect each other, like we did in that small restaurant - you eat kosher and I non-kosher, and we still can be at the same place and eat together”.

Ben-Simon criticized the U.S. Jewish community for being too cautious in speaking their mind about the recent legislative attack on leftist NGOs and the conversion law.

“This coalition is not friendly to the American Jews”, Ben-Simon told Brandeis students. “[Avigdor] Lieberman doesn’t look at you, but the Russian Jews in Israel. He’s got the votes, he’s got the power, but you can’t live with his suggestions. You need courage to tell this to the Israeli leaders. Netanyahu hates this legislation, but he wants to survive. If I were a Jewish student in the U.S., I wouldn’t identify with this legislation. And we in Israel need to think about you”.

MKs Ronit Tirosh and Carmel Shama said their eye-opening experience was the protest at Brandeis University and the negative coverage of Israel following the rocket attacks from Gaza on the Negev as well as the Israeli military's reaction.

“We met with several groups, from several people to over a thousand at the AIPAC gathering, who were very supportive of Israel. But when we got out from the Broadway show, there was a huge monitor with news headlines running on it – and one of them was 'Israel killed 8 people in Gaza.' It helped me understand the reality of the Jews here, the collision between what they learn at the community institutions and what they hear from the news sources," Shama said.

Asked how he sees the relationship between the U.S. Jewry and Israel, Shama said: “In the short term they probably can live one without the other, but not in the long term”.

Ruderman said that something tangible, - in Hebrew “tachless” - will come from the program – such as “forming a caucus in the Knesset with focus on the U.S. Jewish community. I think it’ll help to improve the relations,” he suggested.

Professor Jonathan Sarna, the Brandeis organizer who took part in the program, added: “There is no center for teaching about U.S. Jews in Israel - while every major U.S. University has a program to teach about Israel and several Israeli centers. I hope this will bring about new efforts to teach Israelis about the U.S. Jewish community”.

Tirosh on her part provided a discouraging, but traditionally Israel-oriented answer. “If you expect us to teach about the different communities – if you ask me about the priorities of the government – it’s not among the first priorities when we are surrounded with so many problems”.

When asked how she would connect young Jews to Israel, she said Birthright and similar programs are a good solution. “We should bring more and more youngsters to Israel to talk to their peers in order to feel what we feel and explain what’s going on – that it’s not black and white”.