Birthright Co-founder Says 'Angry' With Israel: Netanyahu Widening Already Dire Rift With Diaspora

Jewish billionaire philanthropist Charles Bronfman suggests establishing 'reverse AIPAC' in Jerusalem with Israeli and North American groups

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Shachar Peled
New York
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Birthright participants travelling in Israel, October 1, 2015.
Birthright participants travelling in Israel, October 1, 2015.Credit: Taglit
shachar peled
Shachar Peled
New York

NEW YORK — Charles Bronfman is not happy. The Jewish businessman-philanthropist billionaire is “perplexed and angry” with how Israel is treating the Jews of the Diaspora, and he’s out to do something about what he calls “the fractious Jewish world” that will “cause a decline of the Jewish people everywhere.”

One target of his wrath is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who, for example, reneged on an agreement last year to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

“It shocks me to the marrow of my bones that Conservative, Reform, Liberal and Reconstructionist Judaism are legally unrecognized by the State of Israel,” Bronfman said in a speech at Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. On Thursday, Bronfman was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the institution, and he took the stage to express his outrage.

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“A rift has been developing and increasing between us,” he quoted from a 1990 speech he gave in Jerusalem, emphasizing how little has changed. He wondered back then whether dissociation and alienation, perhaps even collision, characterized the relationship.

“Unfortunately those questions are as valid today as they were 28 years ago, and perhaps even more valid today as the rift grows wider,” he said.

Charles Bronfman, center, receiving an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College, May 3, 2018.Credit: Hebrew Union College

The schism between North American Jews and Israel is clearly a grave concern of the man who co-founded Birthright, the organization that offers young Jews a free trip exploring Israel. In fact, 10 minutes of his 15-minute speech in front of the graduates went entirely to the widening rupture.

And he pointed a finger at Netanyahu.

“Can a prime minister really claim to be a guardian of the entire Jewish people when he reneges on a carefully crafted agreement knowing that he will suffer no political consequences at home?” Bronfman asked. He answered: “Indeed, he can, because this subject and others like it are of little or no concern to the vast majority of Israelis.”

Speaking to Haaretz, Bronfman addressed the issues that are causing that rift, like the delay of the Western Wall agreement (on which he penned a letter to Netanyahu last year) and the so-called blacklisting of Diaspora rabbis, including his own back in Canada. Last year, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate released a list of rabbis abroad whose decisions regarding Jewish identity it rejected.

“Israelis don’t need us as much as they did,” Bronfman said. “At one point they needed our money and our support. That’s in the days when Israel was David. Now Israel is, unfortunately for all of us, seemed to be called Goliath.”

Charles Bronfman speaking at Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion, May 3, 2018.

Bronfman also referred to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli army’s actions at the Gaza border fence, where the army has killed 45 protesters and wounded thousands during the violent demonstrations since March 30. Bronfman is also chairman of the Israel Policy Forum's Advisory Council.

As he put it, “You have many American Jews today saying ‘you guys are an embarrassment to us. You Israelis, you’re dropping bombs, you’re doing all these things you do, the Gaza thing.’ It’s shocking.”

As for the Trump administration’s planned move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv this month, Bronfman shows more flexibility, saying he was against it at first but now thinks “it might play out better than we all thought.”

During his speech, Bronfman also had some warm words, especially for President Reuven Rivlin, calling him “a blessed leader” and lauding his respect for Diaspora Jews.

But regarding the widening Israel-Diaspora rift, Bronfman said “one cannot exist for long without the other” – so he’s working on a plan for a solution. In his talk, he suggested establishing “a permanent, serious lobby in Jerusalem including both Israeli and North American Jewish groups,” jokingly calling it “a reverse AIPAC” – the powerful Washington-based American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“The time has come to demonstrate both the negatives as well as the positives that proposed Israeli legislation will have on North American Jewry,” he said. “At the same time, we must heighten awareness of our vibrant communities, their importance to Israel and their real need to be recognized as full partners.”

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