At Knesset Diaspora committee meeting, US Jews work to convince the convinced
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'On our watch we're going to lose as many Jews as were lost in the Holocaust'

At Knesset Diaspora committee meeting, US Jews work to convince the convinced

With Chief Rabbinate, Diaspora Ministry, and coalition MKs no-shows, the pluralism-promoting choir again preached to itself

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Dov S. Zakheim (center), co-chair of the American Jewish Committee's Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (J-REC), speaks at the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2017. (AJC)
Dov S. Zakheim (center), co-chair of the American Jewish Committee's Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (J-REC), speaks at the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2017. (AJC)

All Jews are family and family must continue speaking with each other, said Likud MK Avraham Neguise, chairman of the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee, at a Knesset meeting on Wednesday. But what happens when half the family doesn’t show for the reunion?

Neguise held a special session of his Diaspora Committee at the initiative of the American Jewish Committee’s Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (J-REC). Opening the meeting, he announced, to murmurs of disapproval by those in attendance, the last-minute cancellation of the representatives of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

And so, with the exception of one conservative Israeli Orthodox-centric NGO called Chotam, which supported the increasing stringency of the Chief Rabbinate in matters of Jewish identity and life cycle, Wednesday’s meeting was a harmonious choir of near unanimous opinion.

The obvious angle pressed by those in attendance was the strategic asset of Diaspora Jewry for Israel’s security needs. Citing the recent unfavorable vote on UN Security Council Resolution 2334, Dov S. Zakheim, the co-chairman of JREC and a former US defense official, said the non-recognition of “85 percent” of American Jewry is a “serious problem” from a “national security perspective.”

“The American Jewish community has been a force in pushing for the security of Israel,” he said. Today, however, American Jews are increasingly less supportive of the Jewish state.

“Fifty percent of American Jews supported the Iran deal — although I did not,” said Zakheim. “Look how few Jews got upset at the Security Council vote — and most of them said nothing. To me this is a national security threat to Israel.”

Harriet Schleifer, the national chair of AJC Board of Governors, speaks at a January 11, 2017 Diaspora Committee meeting in Jerusalem's Knesset. (AJC)
Harriet Schleifer, the national chair of AJC Board of Governors, speaks at a January 11, 2017 Diaspora Committee meeting in Jerusalem’s Knesset. (AJC)

Leading with the heart rather than the head, Harriet Schleifer, the national chair of AJC Board of Governors, echoed Zakheim’s concerns.

“It feels good to say peoplehood, but what we are really talking about is the survival of Israel. Our young people don’t have the emotional connection anymore,” said Schleifer.

Raised by Holocaust survivor parents, Schleifer said the development of Israel was a matter of central interest and source of pride to her generation, which saw the fledgling state take flight.

‘It feels good to say peoplehood, but what we are really talking about is the survival of Israel’

“The young people don’t feel sorry for David, because Israel is like Goliath to them. What’s the connection that’s left? It’s that we’re Jewish. But if 90% of America’s Jews are told they’re not Jewish enough, who is going to fund Israel’s security?” asked Schleifer.

“We go around standing up for Israel — we do it because it is a passion, but it is also a fear,” she said.

Also speaking to the Jewish peoplehood’s existential fears was Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM, an organization which aids Israelis in navigating the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate. Farber is also the driving force behind the Giyur Kahalacha movement, which holds independent Orthodox rabbinical courts to convert Israelis according to Jewish law.

“On our watch we’re going to lose as many Jews as were lost in the Holocaust. It’s something that is happening on our watch, not in 20 or 30 years. If we don’t do something about preserving Jewish peoplehood, future generations will look at us as a generation that abandoned more than 50% of the Jewish people,” said Farber.

New parliament member Ksenia Svetlova of the Zionist Union party seen during an introduction day for new parliament members in the Israeli Knesset (parliament), on March 29, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Ksenia Svetlova of the Zionist Union party seen during an introduction day for new Knesset members, March 29, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Looking around the packed Knesset committee room, Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova said she was happy to see so many old friends, but pointed out the only MKs in attendance are those who are known for their fight for religious pluralism.

“We are convincing the convinced, which happens very often in such meetings. Most Israelis don’t think about this at all,” she said in English for the benefit of the American guests.

Svetlova explained that to Israeli Jews, the Diaspora is the “other.” But, she warned, “the void is growing all the time. The distance is growing all the time. Not just between Israel and America, but also Jews from the former Soviet Union. They are seen as second-class citizens. They will never be able to marry in the State of Israel.”

In a recent Zionist Union survey, however, it was found that matters of religion and state they rank at number 10 or 11 in importance to the party’s voters, well after security and economy.

At the same time, as a peace camp MK, Svetlova often meets with Jewish organizations bent on promoting a solution to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.

At Wednesday’s meeting she told the Diaspora activists that recently she has begun responding, “There are many peace proposals, but who will reconnect the Jewish nation?”

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