Israeli-Americans Angle to Be Influential Players in U.S. Political Sphere

The Israeli-American Nexus wants the perspective of Israelis to be heard in American politics, from blocking BDS bills to encouraging scientific collaborations.

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Shawn Evenhaim, chairman of the new Israeli-American Nexus
Shawn Evenhaim, chairman of the new Israeli-American NexusCredit: Abraham Joseph Pal
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK — While all eyes at the AIPAC Policy Conference 2016 will be on Donald Trump, a new group of activists there will be coalescing around something other than the most controversial candidate of the U.S. election cycle. The focus of Israeli-American Nexus, or IAX, is simple: to give voice to their specific — they would say unique — Israeli perspective, making sure it is heard in American politics.

Thats something that Israelis living in America have never had before, with the exception of a few high-profile figures who are major political donors, as media magnate Haim Saban has been to Hillary Clintons campaign.

Israelis unique perspective is needed in Israel advocacy, said IAX chairman Shawn Evenhaim. Evenhaim is a residential real estate developer in Los Angeles and former chairman of IAXs parent organization, the Israeli-American Council. One thing we have is the understanding of whats happening there on the ground. I can tell you 100 percent that I have different perspective than someone who has not lived there, he said.

Evenhaim added that IAX expected to have several hundred members at the conference.

Conspicuously absent from public connection to IAX is major IAC backer Sheldon Adelson, though given his penchant for stealth funding of pro-Israel efforts, that isnt surprising. Though Mr. Adelson has no formal role within the Israeli-American Nexus, we look forward to working with the Adelsons and other visionaries who support our mission, Evenhaim told Haaretz in an email. Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson have been generous supporters of the Israeli-American Council and many other Jewish causes.

Evenhaim says that IAX is bipartisan and is funded by its four board members, adding, we intend to eventually have other supporters. It receives no financial support from any branch of the Israeli government, he said. The organization has one employee. Evenhaim declined to disclose IAXs budget or the names of other backers.

It could in time become a rival to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the lobbying behemoth that expects 18,000 people at its annual conference in Washington, from March 20 to March 22. But for now, they plan to work in a way that complements, rather than competes, with AIPACs work, said Evenhaim. While AIPAC works on the federal level, IAX is focusing on state and municipal legislators to pass laws that will stymie those who work to undermine Israels economy or image.

To be sure, IAXs presence will comprise a small fraction of the crowd expected at the AIPAC gathering. But IAX members are intent on making their Hebrew-accented voices heard from Capitol Hill to statehouses nationwide, and gathering as a defined constituency at AIPAC is just the start.

In general the Israeli-American community has not been engaged [in politics] at all, Evenhaim said. We dont know what it means to live in diaspora, to live in America when we come here. In Israel you dont have to be part of a community. ... You can choose whatever political view you want ... but as citizens of the U.S. its our duty to get engaged, and as Jews who live in America its our duty to get involved in Jewish and non-Jewish causes and definitely in pro-Israel causes.

For its part, AIPAC welcomes the formation of this new organization and we look forward to working with them to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship, said Marshall Wittman, the groups spokesman. Wittman declined to answer specific questions about IAX.

The new groups dual strategy is to combat boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts and to knit stronger ties between Israel and American states and municipalities.

It has started with two projects. The first is a campaign in support of a bill called The Combating BDS Act of 2016, for which IAX has blanketed members of Congress with 4,000 letters. That bill authorizes state and local governments to divest from, and prohibit investment in, any entity that engages in BDS against Israel, effectively applying the tactics of BDS to those who are engaged in it.

The bill was introduced into the Senate and House of Representatives in February and has been referred to committees in each chamber for further study. IAX is now working to advance similar legislation on the state and local level all over the country, said Evenhaim, starting with California and Nevada.

We want to be in every state, especially where there is an Israeli-American community, said Evenhaim. Encouraging states and local governments to pass laws that do not allow BDS activities is desperately needed.

The second project is a recently brokered agreement between the State of Californias Institute for Regenerative Medicine and Israels Science, Technology and Space Ministry on collaboration and joint funding of (on stem cell research and regenerative medicine projects.

The goal, Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis of the Likud party said in a statement, is to push the boundaries and advance medical breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimers, HIV and AIDS.

The goal of the Israeli-American Council, whose headquarters are in Los Angeles, is to preserve and further Israelis Israeli-ness — language, culture and social ties — even as they put down deep roots in American soil. It has nine regional chapters in major metropolitan areas including Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Boston. IACs focus is education, celebration and connecting the estimated 500,000 to 800,000 Israelis living in the United States.

Longtime AIPAC members and leaders welcomed IAXs emergence as a vehicle for increasing Israeli-American political engagement, though with some reservations.

IAXs plans certainly overlap with AIPAC and its agenda, said Dov Zakheim, U.S. undersecretary of defense under President George W. Bush and a member of the American Jewish Committees executive committee. But if it will galvanize Israeli-Americans to become politically active, then why not?

Asked if he thought it might become confusing for legislators to be approached by two different groups representing American Jewish and Israeli-American interests, Zakheim said, Were already confusing people. There are so many Jewish groups in America. Were the only community in the world that has a Conference of Presidents with a president of presidents. I dont think it will make much difference.

Another AIPAC member, a longtime board member who would not speak publicly about the organization, said he believes that IAX will likely fill a void for a demographic that is just beginning to find its political footing.

AIPAC limits its lobbying to foreign aid, two states for two peoples, and Iran, he noted. There are issues outside of AIPACs purview likely to be of major interest to Israeli-Americans, like visas and job retraining, on which IAX can be active.

Furthermore, what are you going to do, deny them? he asked rhetorically. Unless Donald Trump gets elected and deports them all, theyre here for awhile. Israeli-Americans might as well create organizations that represent them.

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