Charles Bronfman estimates that he has donated more than $250 million to charitable causes in Israel over his long philanthropic career, not counting major additional funds he has given for wars and other crises.
But the Canadian-American cocreator (with fellow business-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt) of Birthright Israel told me last week he is concerned that the current Israeli government is “whittling away at democracy.” He says it is time for North American Jewry to “take some action” to counter Jerusalem’s increasingly rightward shift as the Israel-diaspora “rift grows wider and wider.”
Calling for a new and sustained lobbying effort in Jerusalem, he said he fears that if Israel and diaspora Jewry “break into different camps,” the vision of a unified Jewish people is threatened.
Bronfman, who turns 87 next month, is a longtime leader of the Mideast peace camp and currently chairs the advisory council of the Israel Policy Forum. But he said he felt compelled to go further than previously in his criticism of the Netanyahu government — in a major address and in our interview — out of deep frustration and concern about the Jewish future.
Expounding on his anxiety in a major address at the Hebrew Union College commencement on May 3, Bronfman said: “It seems to me that a form of preventative medicine is necessary to prevent the collapse of this already unhealthy relationship” between Israel and the diaspora. He called for establishing “a permanent, serious lobby” in Jerusalem, including both Israeli and North American Jewish groups.
“The time has come,” he asserted, “to demonstrate both the negatives as well as the positives that proposed Israeli legislation will have on North American Jewry. At the same time, we must heighten awareness of our vibrant communities, their importance to Israel, and their real need to be recognized as full partners.”
In a follow-up interview, Bronfman acknowledged his plans for the lobby are “not even an embryo” at this point. But he believes that if major figures from Israel and the diaspora “who have clout in Washington and Israel” come together to counter some of the worrisome policies of the current Jerusalem government — on issues from treatment of the Palestinians to efforts to deport African asylum seekers to the strong criticism of the press and judicial system — a pressure group could be effective.
“An Israeli leader who ignores American Jewry does so at his own peril,” said Bronfman, who believes Prime Minister Netanyahu bases his support on Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. (A variety of polls indicate that a solid majority of American Jews are Democrats and espouse values more liberal than those of the ruling coalition in Israel today.)
Bronfman’s remarks come a few weeks after Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and a former supporter of Netanyahu, took to the Opinion pages of The New York Times to express “fear for the future of the nation I love” (“Israel’s Self-Inflicted Wounds,” March 18). Lauder, who described himself as “a conservative and a Republican,” cited “two grave threats” that he believes could endanger Israel’s “very existence”: “the possible demise of the two-state solution,” with some on the Israeli right calling for settlement expansion, and “Israel’s capitulation to religious extremists and the growing disaffection of the Jewish diaspora,” based on Israel’s non-recognition of the liberal branches of Judaism.
Bronfman focused his critique primarily on the issue of religious equality, referring to what he called “the doubleheader”: the Israeli government’s reneging on its pledge to provide equal prayer opportunities at the Western Wall for all denominations and its capitulation to the Chief Rabbinate on conversions, all on the same day last June.
“That’s what prompted my response,” Bronfman told me. “If Israelis know they are doing things that weaken us and encourage people to forget about Israel — things that cut the ties that bind us,” they may urge their government to change its alienating policies toward diaspora Jewry. He is hoping the planned lobby could, over time, help educate Israeli society about the diaspora and put pressure on the government.
Until now, Knesset members tend to remind diaspora critics that Israeli politicians are only accountable to their constituents; diaspora Jews have no vote in Israeli elections.
“Do Israelis care enough about what happens in the global Jewish world?” Bronfman asked in his HUC remarks. “Can a prime minister really claim to be the guardian of the entire Jewish people when he reneges on a carefully crafted agreement, knowing that he will suffer no political consequences at home? Indeed, he can, because this subject and others like it are of little or no concern to the vast majority of Israelis.”
Asserting that he is “perplexed and angry” over “the official rejection” of liberal Jewish movements, Bronfman said: “We have but one state. It shocks me to the marrow of my bones that Conservative, Reform, liberal, and Reconstructionist Judaism are legally unrecognized by the State of Israel.” He observed that “only the State of Israel” among the nations of the world “bars official state recognition” of the traditions liberal Jews observe.
Bronfman questioned whether Israel will become “less central” to diaspora Jewry and find it “a source of frustration and provocation.” Will Israel “view the concept of ‘we are one’ as an empty vessel?” he asked. “Is it a relationship of mere sentiment, or a covenantal relationship in which the partners are unconditionally committed to each other and to the dream of perfecting the world?
“We must do our part just as Israelis must do theirs,” he said, “in order to rescue the Jewish people from breaking apart.”
Has Bronfman reached the breaking point in terms of contributing to Israel?, I asked him. His reply was indirect, observing that as an economic power, Israel “doesn’t really need our funds,” with more of American Jews’ donations going to Israeli universities now than to quasi-governmental organizations like the Jewish Agency for Israel.
While he suggested that Israel could suffer politically in Washington if American Jews become increasingly alienated from the Jewish state, he said the primary issue was not about swaying votes in Congress. “It’s a moral responsibility they have,” he said of Israel’s leaders. His suggestions are “not an ultimatum,” he stressed, but “an opportunity” to prevent a permanent split.
Bronfman’s appeal to revisit the Israel-diaspora relationship and move it beyond short-term politics to a grander vision of mutual respect and shared destiny is an important wake-up call for both communities. Not only because of the message but for who the messengers are as well.
While some supporters of Israel may reject the critique of celebrities like Natalie Portman as naïve or unsophisticated, major diaspora figures like Ronald Lauder and Charles Bronfman cannot be so easily dismissed. They have proven their commitment to Israel and the Jewish people through their funds and their leadership. Their words of criticism, echoing the biblical prophets, come from a place of deep caring, commitment, and concern. Let’s hope they are heard and appreciated before it’s too late.