Opinion

From Glass Capsule to Civil Caucus

We need men and women from diverse occupations who will speak openly about the importance of Israel's relationship with the American Jewish community, and how it affects their personal and professional lives

A man silhouetted against Israeli and American flags, Washington, March 25, 2019.
\ KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

The conversation about Israel's relationship with the American Jewish community is a closed one. Unlike other topics, like education or security, you rarely hear those who aren't "Jewish professionals" voice their opinion on this issue. While there are different reasons for this, the result is the same: The discussion takes place in an echo chamber, with little impact on the public. In light of the challenges facing this relationship, and especially the growing gap amid younger Israelis and American Jews, it is time to drastically change the conversation and break the glass capsule containing it.

Creating a relevant discourse will not solve all the problems facing us. A real dialogue between the sides is not only "nice to have"; it is the base for a common language, and our ability to build a united vision to guide us.

The ecosystem in the field of Israel-American Jewish relations includes an enormous and complex network of players, organizations and institutions, governmental, nongovernmental and quasi-governmental. Despite the number of engaged people and the large budgets invested in strengthening the relationship over recent years, the forum in which the conversation takes place has yet to expand. The same people, and same organizations, talk one with the other, repeating similar tunes and lacking real dialogue with the public.

This situation causes three main problems: A lack of diversity in the voices heard; no public attention to the topic; and the stagnation of more established, older institutions. Moving the conversation to the open space can help answer these three challenges. It is time to create a Civil Caucus — men and women from diverse occupations, who will speak openly and loudly about the importance of the relationship and how it affects their personal and professional lives.

Women covered with prayer shawls pray at the Western Wall, 2013.

New voices will help diversify the discourse. Rather than talking only in statements on Jewish Peoplehood or Israel's national security, we can increase the number of subjects. The relationship between the sides affects numerous fields of life. The economic impact is huge, as evident by the ties in the startup sector or the appointment of Prof. Stanley Fischer as head of the Bank of Israel. Also the sporting world is filled with connections — from Tal Brody and other basketball players to the recent qualification of the Israeli men's baseball team to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. You can find similar ties in the worlds of medicine, academia, culture and others. Today, these voices are all but absent from conversations on the future of Israel's relationship with the American Jewish community and the rest of Diaspora Jewry.

New speakers and ideas will also connect new audiences in Israel and the United States to the conversation. Today, you have to be engaged in the field to speak about it. Imagine a situation where the Israeli press reports on stories of U.S. Jewry — not only in the context of anti-Semitism, but also in the sporting, cultural or economic sections. When that happens, and opinion leaders relate to the topic, the public at large will also understand its importance and broad impact. 

Finally, new voices and the ensuing public interest will directly contribute to the revitalization of the veteran institutions. Today, these places overrepresent white Ashkenazi men over 50 while underrepresenting women, young Jews, people with disabilities, Russian-speaking Jews, members of the LGBTQ community, and others. Naturally, the lack of diversity and aging of some institutional leaderships mean a widening gap between the organization and the public it should represent. Having new people engaged and amplifying the public discourse are necessary steps in making sure that these organizations, in Israel and the United States, remain relevant to the communities.

We must form a civil caucus, and we must do it now. People who live on the seam of these two communities, who know Israel and the American Jewish community, who connect with them in their daily lives, need to speak up. Actors and scientists, athletes and academics — all have a unique perspective and need to be part of the conversation. This is morally important, but it will also directly contribute to their professional life.

Shira Ruderman is the Director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which strengthens the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community.