What's on the Minds of America's Jewish Leaders?

Convening in Jerusalem this week for the annual Conference of Presidents, Jewish leaders got the chance to ask Israeli lawmakers questions. This is what they wanted to know.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Malcolm Hoenlein, CEO of the Conference of President’s, February 21, 2017.
Avi Hayun

More than 100 American-Jewish leaders representing 52 organizations have convened in Jerusalem this week for the annual Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. This yearly gathering provides an opportunity for them not only to hear from Israeli political leaders, but also to question them.

On Monday, participants met with leading members of the governing coalition and the opposition: Education Minister Nafatli Bennett, head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party; opposition leader Isaac Herzog, head of the Zionist Union; Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid opposition party; and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

So what’s on the minds of American-Jewish leaders these days? To be fair, those who queued up at the microphones to put their questions to the Israeli leaders could hardly be described as a representative sample, their ranks dominated by members of right-leaning Orthodox groups (noteworthy in and of itself). Yet their questions were telling all the same.

Paramount on the minds of many, it seemed, was the future of the settlement enterprise. Also of concern was official Israel’s curious lack of response to rising anti-Semitism in the United States. Moreover, quite a few of the questions posed tried to ascertain Israel’s true position on moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and on recognizing the status of non-Orthodox movements.

Here is a selection of questions put to Israeli leaders on Monday by participants at the Conference of Presidents:

"Will new homes be built to house the Jews of Amona [a reference to the illegal West Bank outpost evacuated by order of the Supreme Court earlier this month – J.M.], who were brutally thrown out of their homes?" (Asked of Bennett by Morton Klein, president of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America)

"What can you do to instill ethics in the Supreme Court? The Amona decision was the most unethical decision I’ve ever seen in the history of Israel, and it’s an embarrassment to the country. What can you do to fix that?" (Asked of Shaked by Ken Abramowitz, chairman of the American Friends of the Likud)

"What is your reaction to President Donald Trump’s request from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to build new settlements now because it may not be helpful?" (Asked of Bennett by Mindy Stein, chair of the board of Emunah of America, a religious women’s organization)

"You alluded to the possible acceptance of construction in existing settlement blocs and East Jerusalem as part of an agreement discussed last year. Can you elaborate about what the participants in those talks were willing to commit to?" (Asked of Herzog by Nathan Diament, chairman of the Orthodox Union)

"Often today, we are facing lots of anti-Trump sentiment and pushback, especially among the young generation. Because of this, a lot of people have been delegitimizing and going against what the Trump administration states. Given that, I wanted to know how we should prepare ourselves to respond when Trump advocates for Israel?" (Asked to Lapid by an unidentified woman)

"Senator Marco Rubio has asked why Israel is still supporting the Palestinian Authority when it honors murderers of Israelis and Americans, and names buildings after them. When will Israel adopt a clear policy saying no more aid to the PA?" (Asked of Bennett by Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel)

"At the end of the day, does it really matter whether we talk about a one-state, three-state or four-state solution?" (Asked of Herzog by Martin Oliner, member of the presidium of Religious Zionists of America)

"There are concerns that the Reform and Conservative movements are not indigenous to Israel or, for that matter, to traditional Judaism, and the attempts to promote these movements can be damaging to the richness of the Jewish tradition, particularly in Israel where these movements, until recently, haven’t been particularly strong. What is your opinion?" (Asked of Lapid by an unidentified woman)

"What is your view about halakha [traditional religious law] and how halakha fits into the Jewish world, Jewish tradition and Jewish life here in Israel?" (Asked of Lapid by an unidentified man)

For lack of time, Shaked decided to forgo her speech and got straight to the questions. But before listening to the conference participants, she had two important questions, whose answers she wanted to hear. The first question, she admitted, has been keeping her up at night: Is it true, asked the justice minister, that support for Israel is declining within the Democratic Party, and if so, why? Her second question was whether anti-Semitism was truly on the rise in the United States.

The minister's interlocutors confirmed that support for Israel among the Democrats is indeed waning, and offered the following explanations: Israel doesn’t explain itself well enough; the Democratic Party has been taken over – in their view – by radical leftists; and J Street (the pro-Israel, anti occupation group), they claim, is causing divisiveness in the Jewish community.

In response to her second question, Shaked was told that not only is it true that anti-Semitism is on the rise in the United States, but that it’s high time Israeli leaders spoke out against it.

“Unfortunately so many of the president’s supporters seem to feel they have a license now to speak in ways that are not just disrespectful, but truly a terrorism of another kind,” said Margo Gold, international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “For the Israelis to reach the president with that message would be very important.”

Steve Seiden, chair of the JCC Association of North America, concurred. “Anything Israel can do to convince our new president to address the issue head-on that anti-Semitism is a problem and to acknowledge it, I think will go a long way toward eliminating threats we have to deal with,” he said.

President Rivlin with Conference of Presidents chairman Stephen Greenberg and Executive Vice Chairman/CEO Malcolm Hoenlein.
Avi Hayun