Restore American Jews' Faith in Israel

The last four years created an unprecedented and dangerous alienation between the Israeli leadership and liberal American Jewry.

Rachel Liel
Rachel Liel
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Rachel Liel
Rachel Liel

The coalition negotiations are at their height, but one thing already seems certain: Following Yair Lapid’s campaign promise, the new government is expected to be more effective and smaller. Ministerial portfolios like “Society and Heritage” and “Regional Cooperation” will disappear – and with them also the Ministry for Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, which was invented especially for Yuli Edelstein, a Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu MK. The disbanding of superfluous ministries is of course welcome, but we must not throw out the baby with the bath water. Surprising as this may sound, it is precisely the issue of relations with the Diaspora that should become central in Benjamin Netanyahu’s third government.

In particular, relations between the government of Israel and American Jewry took some tough blows over the past four years. Outwardly, the American Jewish community continues to support Israel, but off-the-record, its leaders, activists, donors, and community members have expressed bitter criticism at both the absence of a political initiative and the increasing ultra-nationalism in Israeli society. The gloomy wave of anti-democratic legislation, attempts to harm the Supreme Court and human rights organizations, discrimination against women, and expressions of racism against Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, homosexuals, social activists, refugees and asylum seekers, have altogether created an unprecedented and dangerous alienation between the Israeli leadership and historically-moderate American Jewry.

It appears that the outgoing Israeli government has forgotten that the vast majority of American Jews hold progressive opinions. Between 70 and 78 percent of American Jews voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and most of them did so because they deeply identify with the liberal values Obama represents of social justice, civil rights, and diplomacy as a way to solve international crises. The sweeping support that Obama received among U.S. Jewry during the recent U.S. elections proves that the Jewish community did not go astray and follow attempts to depict the president as an opponent of Israel and his opposition to unnecessary military adventures as “an abandonment of Israel’s security.” The opposite is true: This was an overwhelming vote of confidence in Obama’s moderate line, even with regard to Israel and the Middle East.

In other words, the line taken by the government of Israel against millions of liberal American Jews was fundamentally mistaken. Rather than cultivating the strategic relations between the Jewish communities on both sides of the ocean on the basis of common values, the government has preferred to let the supporters of Kahane's ideology in the Knesset take over and lead Israel in an extremist, nationalistic, and racist direction. Thus, relations between Israel and the U.S. have deteriorated on every level: not only between Netanyahu and Obama, but also with many leaders of the American Jewish community, who have been appalled by the aggressive winds blowing from Jerusalem.

So what has changed now? The elections of 2013 proved that the Israeli public champions a relatively moderate civil agenda. On the eve of President Obama’s planned visit to the region, all signs indicate that the political arena is about to shift and that U.S.-Israel relations are also likely to reach a turning point. This is also, therefore, a golden opportunity to turn over a new leaf with American Jewry.

For this purpose there is no need for a Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, and certainly not for a ministry that deals with a “public diplomacy” that has lost all meaning. However, there is certainly cause for the new government to take the lead in a campaign among the Jews of America that would restore their faith in the ethos for which they long, of Israel as a democratic, peace seeking state that strives toward equality and honors human rights.

Rachel Liel is the executive director of the New Israel Fund in Israel.

President Barack Obama meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN building, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011.Credit: AP

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