Exactly one week after the October 27, 2018, Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that killed 11 people, the city’s Jewish community gathered at the Rodef Shalom temple to commemorate the tragic event, the deadliest attack on American Jewry in history.
“It was a very long service, with many speeches,” recalled Dani Dayan, who served as Israel’s consul-general to New York at the time. Since he was also accredited to Pennsylvania, he headed to the site of the massacre shortly after the terrible news broke.
“My week in Pittsburgh after the shooting was the strongest, most difficult experience I had in America, by far,” he said.
But the memorial service, held in a Reform synagogue, left him somewhat encouraged.
“I don’t know if it was spontaneous or not, but it ended with one anthem — and that anthem was Hatikva. You can say a thousand times that American Jews are disconnected from Israel. If in their most painful moment they end their service with Hatikva — there is no disconnection here.”
Still, Dayan, 64, is extremely worried about current trends he says indicate that Israeli and Diaspora Jews may soon stop caring about each other.
“If we don’t deal with these trends and create a cross-responsibility — where Israelis care about Israel but also about world Jewry, and world Jewry cares about itself but also about Israel — then the disconnect will happen,” he warned.
Having concluded a four-year term as Israel’s top diplomat in the Big Apple, Dayan landed in Israel on Monday and is currently quarantined at his home in the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Shomron.
In a wide-ranging interview conducted via Zoom, he talked about the deep cultural and “ethnic” differences between Israeli and American Jews and how they can be bridged, about Israel’s struggle to engage with progressive politicians in the US, and about his own personal ambitions for the future.
In 2015, his diplomatic career got off to a rocky start, when the Brazilian government refused to accept him as Israeli ambassador due to his past as chairman of the Yesha Council pro-settlements advocacy group. Due to his right-wing views, including vehement opposition to a two-state solution, many liberal American Jews were initially wary of his appointment to the New York post.
But with his charming outspokenness, his surprising liberalism (regarding issues such as LGBT rights or religious pluralism) and his willingness to engage with nearly all sectors of society, Dayan won over most of his critics. No other Israeli diplomat in recent memory was showered with as many accolades by so many different communities upon leaving a posting.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., for instance, proclaimed July 7, 2020, to be “Ambassador Dani Dayan Day.”
— Dani Dayan (@AmbDaniDayan) July 7, 2020
“Not only was Dayan expected to be a terrible fit for New York on its own, but his appointment was widely seen as a political consolation prize for having been refused credentials as Israel’s ambassador to Brazil by the then leftist administration in Brasilia,” Abe Silberstein wrote in the Forward.
“Yet Dayan is leaving as a success. Why and how this happened goes a long way towards explaining the predicament of liberal and progressive Jews as Israel, a country in which they have been invested all their lives, descends further into what few on the left are still loath to call an apartheid reality.”
Before becoming an ambassador, Dayan had unsuccessfully tried to enter the Knesset. He ascribes his failure in politics to the clash between his hawkish views on diplomatic-security matters and his otherwise liberal values, calling himself a “political orphan.”
While still unwilling to rule out trying his hand again at politics in the future, his time in America — besides New York and Pennsylvania, he was also responsible for New Jersey, Delaware and Ohio, and spent considerable time in Puerto Rico and became the first Israeli diplomat to visit the US Virgin Islands — Dayan now sees strengthening Israel-Diaspora relations as his most important mission.
He currently has no concrete plans, he insisted, but in the future he would like to work for closer relations between the Jewish state and world Jewry as chairman of the Jewish Agency or Israeli minister for Diaspora affairs.
“I returned from New York with these beliefs much stronger. It’s now in my kishkes, in my blood,” he said. “The apathy that many in Israel have toward world Jewry is insulting. We are today the big brother.”
Dayan, who was born and raised in a Zionist family in Buenos Aires, said he is not worried about tomorrow’s headline about this or that crisis in Diaspora relations.
“There are crises, that’s not what bothers me. What keeps me awake at night, literally sometimes, is the long-term future of our relationship. And my fear is that in the 21st century, the two large Jewish communities will split into two different groups. Or worse, that one of them may disappear. It’s not something that can’t happen; the Jewish people underwent such processes in the past.”
Not overly concerned by BDS
Dayan, a secular Jew, said he frequently asks himself if our generation has a “special mitzvah.”
In the 1940s, American Jews had the obligation to rescue their European brethren from the Holocaust. The following generation had the “special mitzvah” to save Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry.
“What about us? BDS is surely not our special mitzvah,” he said, referring to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Combating anti-Semitism should not be underestimated but that’s not our overarching mission either, he surmised.
Rather, today’s Jews have two special mitzvahs: to guarantee the security and thriving of the State of Israel, and to safeguard the continued existence of Jewish communities around the world, he posited.
“I am worried by the trend that each of the two large Jewish communities would choose only one mitzvah. That Israeli Jews would choose only Israel, and American Jews would care only about their own continuity. If that happens, that’s a tragedy. I will do everything I can to stop that from happening.”
Education is key to countering these worrying trends, Dayan said. Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs, Omer Yankelevitch, should devote a substantial part of her budget to educate Israelis about the importance of caring about our brethren across the ocean, he said.
“Yes, I am my brother’s keeper,” he declared. “I am not talking about the government, I am talking about civil society — they’re not interested in the American Jewish community, unless something like Pittsburgh happens. And that’s not enough.”
On the other side of the pond, the situation is not much better, with many Jewish parents unwilling or unable to provide their children with a Jewish education, Dayan lamented. He recalled hosting a Reform rabbi in his office who complained that he cannot afford to send his three children to Jewish schools.
‘We are different. We are very different. There is no point in hiding that’
The high cost of a Jewish education is not the only problem America Jews face, “but it’s the most acute one,” he said.
American Jews know a great deal about Israelis and the challenges they face. “But I don’t think they understand our way of thinking, our way of making decisions,” he said. To remedy that situation, it might be a good idea for US Jewish organizations to stop inviting Tzipi Livini and Michael Oren as keynote speakers, and start hosting Orthodox politicians like Arye Deri, Moshe Gafni and Betzalel Smotrich instead, he said.
Wouldn’t the extremist views espoused by these people further alienate American Jews?
“Of course that danger exists,” he replied. “But also voices in the American Jewish community — Seth Rogen being the last one, but also Peter Beinart and many others — alienate Israelis. We are different. We are very different. There is no point in hiding that.”
Israelis had to build a sovereign Jewish state from scratch, while Jews in America needed to blend in with an existing society, Dayan went on. The two groups had to develop completely different strategies to succeed, which led to the development of different character traits and values.
For Israelis, the most important Jewish value is Shivat Zion, the return to the ancient homeland, which causes some to look upon their coreligionists in the Diaspora with disdain. For American Jews, on the other hand, the supreme principle is Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place.
“We’re also different ethnically,” the outgoing diplomat continued, noting that Israeli Jews are 50 percent Sefardic and Mizrahi, while the American Jewish community is 95 percent Ashkenazi. “We bring with us different legacies, different traditions, different forms of thought from our respective origins,” he added.
“Despite all differences, Israelis and Diaspora Jews must maintain the bond. It’s not easy, it’s a challenge. But it’s necessary. Otherwise, we’ll become the state of the Israelis and no longer the state of the Jews, and I am not ready to accept that.”
Among pro-settlement activists, the secular Dayan has always been somewhat of a rarity. As a diplomat, he continued to criticize the lack of religious pluralism in Israel. The fact that Israeli ministers don’t visit Reform and Conservative synagogues is “extremely problematic,” he said.
‘Some of the political moves the Reform movement did regarding Israel were a shot in the foot, if not higher than that’
At the same time, he also reserved some harsh criticism for the US Reform movement for its dovish positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as opposing the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
“One of their huge mistakes is that they haven’t decided whether they are a religious denomination or a political group,” Dayan said. Mixing religion with politics is detrimental mostly for the movement itself, as it precludes potential Israeli allies on the right from in Israel from supporting them.
“I failed to convince them to make their politics in different organizations,” Dayan said. “Some of the political moves the Reform movement did regarding Israel were a shot in the foot, if not higher than that.”
Dayan was hesitant to discuss Israeli politics, but offered that he was not worried about the Jewish state becoming a wedge issue in American partisan politics. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close alignment with US President Donald Trump did not cause significant harm to bipartisan support for Israel, he posited.
“Israel has a very clear strategy: to have as intimate as possible a relationship with any American administration. I have no doubt that if Secretary [Hillary] Clinton had been elected president, Israel would have acted in exactly the same way, it would have made a concerted effort to have as intimate a relationship with the administration as possible.”
Dayan acknowledged that progressive forces within the Democratic Party are hostile to Israel, but argued that their opposition to the Jewish state has nothing to do with its government’s policies.
“There’s no point in trying to convince them. They will not be satisfied until Israel disappears from the map. Yes, there are those sectors: we see it on campus, we see it in politics. It’s a problem, I am not underestimating it. But to generalize and to say we cannot maintain a dialogue with a progressive is a total mistake.”
Of course Israel can and should do more to reach out to left-wing Americans, he said. “But it’s not a lost battle.”
As a case in point, Dayan cites this week’s Democratic primaries for New York’s 15th district, which is located in the South Bronx. “It’s probably the poorest district in New York state. There are virtually no Jews there. Five of the six candidates were progressives. And five out of the six, including the winner, are pro-Israel.”
The likely future congressman, Ritchie Torres, an Afro-Latino gay man in his early thirties, is staunchly supportive of the Jewish state, Dayan said, noting that he had been engaging with him before Tuesday’s ballot. “I sincerely believe that Israel should be a progressive cause in American politics. It has all the merits to be a progressive cause.”