BOSTON (AP) — A group of lawmakers representing a cross-section of Israel’s political spectrum is reaching out to American Jews at a time when anxiety over anti-Semitic activity is running high in both countries, and amid uncertainty over the direction of US policy toward the Jewish state under President Donald Trump.
The five members of the Knesset arrived in Boston on Tuesday after attending the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington, where US officials including Vice President Mike Pence and senior members of Congress pledged continued support for Israel. On Wednesday, the group met privately with Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker before concluding the visit with a discussion of anti-Semitism at a town hall-style meeting with members of the Boston-area Jewish community.
The meeting was planned during a wave of bomb threats against Jewish schools and other institutions, but prior to the arrest last week of a 19-year-old American-Israeli in connection with many of the threats. The man was said by his lawyer to suffer from a “very serious medical condition.” The lawmakers agreed that the arrest should not detract from the struggle to contain anti-Semitism in the US or elsewhere.
“It is unfortunate,” said MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, from the Zionist Union party which sits in the opposition. “I find it concerning, part of the worldwide battle against cyber, but I don’t think that is the issue.”
Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said an uptick in anti-Semitism in the US began well before the recent bomb hoaxes, and that he sensed a climate of increased hostility not only toward Jews, but Muslims and other groups as well. The nonprofit foundation, with offices in the US and Israel, sponsored the current visit and those by other Israeli politicians to learn about the American Jewish community.
Verbin said she believed the response from the Trump White House to acts of hate has not been sufficient to date, but not all of her colleagues fully agreed.
“I do believe you have an administration at this time just as, if not more devoted to fighting anti-Semitism, to fighting the bashing of Israel, both in the UN and other places, said Amir Ohana, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. “So I am very optimistic.”
Ohana, the first openly-gay member of Likud, praised Trump’s tolerance, calling him “the most pro-LGBT” candidate ever nominated by the US Republican Party.
Netanyahu, whose relationship with former President Barack Obama often was strained, has called the US-Israeli relationship stronger than ever under Trump, although the new administration has yet to take specific steps to break from previous American policy.
Rachel Azaria, whose Kulanu party is right of center and aligned with Likud, said the arrest of the Israeli teen brought a realization that some of the panic associated with the wave of threats might have been misplaced.
“But you can’t ignore that there are more anti-Semitic incidents,” said Azaria, an Orthodox Jew who also describes herself as a feminist. “I think everyone is kind of wondering, is the sky blue again, or is it still cloudy?”
Where there was little disagreement among the Israeli lawmakers was the importance of maintaining and strengthening ties between Jews in Israel and their often more secular American counterparts, even those with whom they may have sharp political and philosophical disagreements.
“It’s always upsetting to see how little Israelis know about the support we get from the US Jewish community and that’s something we need to work on,” said Azaria. “We need to have this relationship and I don’t think we say it enough as Israelis — but thank you.”
In response to a question about the role of Diaspora Jews in Israeli politics, Verbin said Israelis “truly rely on [American Jews] in so many ways. And you are sitting here with MKs who have the utmost appreciation for the US Jewish community. I know that you need to rely on us to give you answers but the situation in Israel is not easy, obvious, and never one-dimensional.”
Mickey Levy, a former Jerusalem police commander and deputy finance minister who belongs to Yesh Atid, a centrist party not in the coalition, said he worried about the future.
“We need the Jewish community from the United States and they need us,” he said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report