Israeli Americans on a teetering bridge
The crisis in Israel-diaspora relations has put new pressure on a group that could help mind the gap
Yoav Gal does not fit in. An Israeli-American composer and musician living in the progressive stronghold of Park Slope, Brooklyn, Gal’s outspoken support for Israel’s hard-right government often puts him at odds with his own circle of largely artistic, largely left-leaning Israeli-American friends. His support for President Donald Trump (if only on his Israel-related policies) puts him at odds with just about everyone else.
If that weren’t enough, the marked deterioration in Israel-diaspora relations in 2017 — Haaretz called it “the worst year ever for relations between Israel and the Jewish world” — has opened up new fronts with American Jewish acquaintances. “This is not at all something abstract for me, I feel it all around me,” Gal told NJJN in a recent phone interview. “Whether it’s in the Jewish school my girls go to, or at the neighborhood food co-op, or in my own projects to bring the [Israeli and Jewish American] communities closer together — as a pro-Israel Israeli-American it has made my life here harder.”
Since their remarkable makeover from “yordim” — Israel’s old, semi-derogatory term for Israeli emigrants, translating as “those who go down [from Israel]” — to the forward-looking “Israeli Americans,” the community of Israeli expats living in the U.S. has taken up some lofty aspirations. One of the primary ones is to serve as “a living bridge” between the Jewish-American community and the state of Israel. “We’re a living human tissue connecting the two worlds,” Shoham Nicolet, co-founder and CEO of IAC (Israeli American Council), explained in an interview with NJJN last year. “We are both Israelis and American Jews, part of both cultures. … We bridge the culture gaps just by the nature of who we are.” But now that these two worlds appear to be pulling apart, how fares the living connective tissue?
As the leading national Israeli-American umbrella organization, IAC has taken up the role of mediating be- tween its Israeli American constituents, the larger Jewish American community and the state of Israel. The rift that followed the Kotel crisis and the conversions bill — with Israel first reneging on the agreement to implement a long-anticipated egalitarian prayer-space in the Kotel, and then passing a bill that granted Israel’s Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over Jewish conversion — had placed the organization in a tough place, forcing it to choose sides in what was supposed to be an equilateral triangle. In a July 2017 statement circulated among its members, IAC “acknowledged the concerns and frustrations” of Jewish-American partners and reaffirmed their commitment “to be a ‘living bridge’ which fosters a united Jewish community in America.” But ultimately, the group avoided taking any position on either the Kotel or the conversions issue, deferring this or any matter of Israeli public policy to “Israel’s democratically elected institutions and leaders.”
This response angered some Jewish-American partners. Among the first New York shuls to launch programs geared for Israelis, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue is a longtime partner of the IAC, and hosts several of its flagship programs. Ammiel Hirsch, Stephen Wise’s senior rabbi, referred to IAC’s statement as “woefully lacking.”
“Not to take a stand here IS to take a stand — for the status-quo,” he told NJJN in a phone interview. “The status quo is distorted, and is ruining the relationship between Israel and American Jews. Here is my question to the IAC: If you agree that this is a crisis of unprecedented proportions — and as far as I know it’s never been this bad — and that if left unattended it will only get worse, then how could you have no position?”
Asked for a response, Nicolet said in an email statement, “For the IAC to take positions on issues of internal Israeli politics would be divisive for our community, which includes a wide range of views that span the ideological spectrum. It would also be counterproductive for the relationship between Israel and American Jewry. Instead of focusing on criticizing Israel, the IAC looks for opportunities to build vehicles for meaningful collaboration and thoughtful dialogue between Jews in America and Jews in Israel.”
The perceived right-of-center af- filiation of the Israeli-American establishment, in both Israeli and American politics, has also contributed to invisible tensions with progressive Jewish-American partners. Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE), a prominent Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, was the original home of Keshet, Keshatot, and Shishi Israeli, Hebrew programs for Israeli-American families that today are run by the IAC. Once IAC took them over, CBE quietly opted out of hosting them. Alex Ben-Abba, CBE’s associate director of Hebrew-language and Israel programs, is a former IAC employee herself. “I didn’t quit IAC because of politics; I did it because I was skipped over for promotion,” she clarified, “But it is definitely a relief to not be involved with a group I’m politically opposed to.”
Gal is a former member of CBE, where his daughters attend Hebrew school, and a current member of the IAC. He is an alumnus of the IAC leadership program Gvanim, which combines fostering community initiatives with study of Jewish history in the diaspora, heritage and Talmud. CBE formerly hosted Gal’s biweekly discussion group, The Room, about Israel-related topics, but the group fizzled out. When he started it, he said, “There was this feeling that now we, Israeli Americans, are coming together to really bridge the [Israeli and American- Jewish] communities, to work out an understanding.” But after the elections and Kotel crises, he continued, “The [CBE] community became so devoted to the anti-Trump ‘resistance’ that I felt like the rug was pulled from under our feet.”
For some, though, the rent in Israel-diaspora relations appears to have opened “an opportunity to critically re-engage.” Gili Getz is the Israeli- American director of “The Forbidden Conversation,” a one-man autobiographical show “exploring the difficulty of having a conversation about Israel in the American Jewish community. Meant to facilitate the type of no-holds-barred conversation about Israel which Israelis find very natural but American Jews find very difficult,” said Getz, the half-hour show is followed by an hour-long open conversation.
“When I started this project, I thought the debate would be between left and right, regarding the role of the Jewish-American community in the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict,” Getz told NJJN in a phone interview. “But I found that the most dominant position in Jewish spaces is ‘we do not talk about Israel.’ The topic is so toxic that the conversation about it is broken.”
Following the elections and Kotel crisis, said Getz, he could see a change in that attitude. “People were really upset with Israel, so much that they started to open up, to talk about their rage…That’s when I can encourage them to get engaged, to go to Israel to see and to talk with real people on the ground, to experience firsthand the issues they are dealing with.”
Getz noted that the Kotel crisis in particular appears to have shifted his audience’s demographics: Before, it was booked primarily by Hillels on college campuses, but after the crisis he began receiving invites from non-Orthodox synagogues across the country.
For Misha Shulman, the Israel-diaspora crisis touched upon heart of what he does, with both negative and positive implications. Shulman is the founder and director of the School for Creative Judaism, an after-school program in Brooklyn geared for children ages 3-13, of mostly unaffiliated or Reform Jews. The staff is composed of 11 teachers, Shulman included, and all of them are Israeli-American artists from various disciplines. For the older kids, who are gearing toward their bar/ bat-mitzvah, the curriculum contains a small but crucial segment about Israel. “We teach them about Israel’s history, including Jerusalem — everything from the ancient history through the Six-Day War to the Women of the Wall. When the Western Wall deal was signed, we taught about that as a sign of progress and an example of social growth; now that it’s been canceled, we teach about that too, and what it means.”
Assuring that “the connection to Israel remains an integral part of the Jewish American identity” — whether one agrees with the state’s actions or not — had been one of Shulman’s primary goals in creating the program. Post-Kotel crisis, Shulman feels the need for this far more dire. “Every year, more and more parents ask: ‘Can we just not talk about Israel?’ This [Kotel crisis] makes things worse. It makes it just too much for the kids. They hear that Israel is the Jewish country but it doesn’t recognize them as Jewish. So they say ‘Fine, if Israel doesn’t care about me I’m going to not care about Israel.”
The silver lining Shulman sees in the Israel-diaspora rent is that it helped create a distinction between “the story of Israel, the concept of Israel, the ongoing dream of Israel,” and the policies of the current government of Israel. “This helps show the two are not the same, and you can still be connected to Israel without agreeing with the government.”
Israeli American Asaf Kalderon, 27, is an activist in Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP,) an advocacy group that is seen in communal circles as anti-Israel for its support of the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement against Israel. In Kalderon’s eyes, the worsening in Israel-diaspora relations has brought a much-needed awakening. “The attention to Israel’s transgressions should have been about the occupation, not about inter-Jewish relations, but this is a gateway,” he noted. “Israel’s rejection of its own people, of the Jewish people who love and support it, helped shed a light on the exclusionist under- current that drives the Israeli government…. ultimately, it conflates with the narrative of the occupation.”
Not surprisingly, Leore Ben David, the Zionist Organization of America’s Israeli-American managing director of the campus department and West Coast campus coordinator, sees things differently.
“I don’t see a growing rift; I really don’t see disengagement. … From where I stand, I see engagement at an all-time high,” she notes. “I see events fully booked. … I see Jewish students who are interested in Israel, believe in Israel, and will stand up for Israel, now perhaps more than ever before.”
While reactions vary widely, the Israeli Americans interviewed for this piece largely agreed on one thing: “It’s a relief to finally be able to argue for real,” said Gal. “With my Israeli friends, we can fight about Israel, we can go hard at each other for hours, but we stay friends. American Jews are so averse to conflict they would rather not talk about Israel at all than argue. But now they are angry, they are all riled up, so they are willing to start talking honestly. For me, that’s a good thing.”