Interview'We need to work urgently to heal the divides'

Jonathan Greenblatt wants to mend the ‘paradox’ of Israeli-Diaspora relations

As the ADL prepares for its first flagship event in Israel, CEO says US Jews have never been more connected to Israel, but at the same time, they are drifting

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

WASHINGTON — Jonathan Greenblatt sees a “paradox” at the heart of Israel’s current relationship with American Jewry.

“In a world that has been reshaped by globalization and technology, we are closer to Israel than we ever have been,” he said.

Through Birthright and academic exchange programs, through Israeli innovations being used in the US, through Netflix carrying the Israeli television series “Fauda,” there is “a cross-pollination” between the two cultures that Greenblatt describes as “extraordinary.”

And yet, there is also a range of data that shows American Jews feel increasingly estranged from the Jewish state.

On no issue was that more exacerbated in recent months than the Israeli cabinet’s decision to cancel its plans to establish a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall.

Worshipers at the annual priestly blessing during the Sukkot holiday at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 8, 2017. (Israel Police)

“You’ve seen the tensions on things like the Kotel,” Greenblatt said. “This played out in many synagogues around the High Holy days this year, at least in Reform or Conservative ones — and 90 percent of the identified Jewish community is Reform and Conservative.”

“So it’s a bit of a paradox how we are closer in many ways and yet people speak of this drift.”

As the head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Greenblatt, 46, intends to do something about this drift. His organization is next week to host its first-ever flagship event in Israel — called “Israel 2048: Israel Social Cohesion Summit” — which will address this very theme. It will take place October 24 at the Hangar 11 event space at the Tel Aviv Port.

(One of the panels, which will be moderated by The Times of Israel’s editor David Horovitz, will discuss the role of Diaspora Jewry. Another will dissect how social media is transforming the discourse on Israel.)

“We thought it would be interesting to help Israelis envision a society that they want to see in 30 years,” Greenblatt said, referring to Israel’s centennial.

We thought it would be interesting to help Israelis envision a society that they want to see in 30 years

In a lengthy interview with The Times of Israel, the former Obama administration staffer stressed that the confab would aim to “foment shared understanding between the communities” and bring more of the kind of work the ADL does in the United States — like defending Jewish people and the State of Israel, and advocating polices that reflect a more tolerant, more open society — to Israel.

“That idea of how can we defend Israel by helping the country strengthen itself is much like the work we do here in the US, so I think we’re trying to build on our expertise and trying to offer a value-added contribution in the country,” he said.

One of the internecine divides taking place both within Israel and between the Israeli government and its Diaspora community remains a debate about the meaning of religious pluralism. There are also stark differences, as has been the case for years, over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially among younger American Jews.

“It’s certainly impossible to ignore,” Greenblatt said. “The lack of a resolution, or the lack of a path to a resolution, definitely has an impact on how the Jewish Diaspora sees the country. Until we see some pathway to a resolution, it will continue to be a concern for young people in the US.”

A complicated, confusing president

But there is another issue, he noted, that is dividing Jews at the moment: the presidency of Donald Trump.

“I think President Trump is a paradox himself,” Greenblatt said. “On the one hand, we’ve never had a president this intimate with the Jewish community by dint of his children, his grandchildren, his working life before this job. It’s just a remarkable thing. We’ve just never had someone this engaged and enmeshed in his personal life with the Jewish community.”

US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, May 22, 2017, in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“And yet,” he went on, “we’ve also never had a president who equivocates on neo-Nazis or white supremacists and sends mixed signals about them. So he’s complicated and confusing. The country is still struggling with how to reconcile these very divergent dimensions of his administration.”

Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, converted to Judaism after marrying Jared Kushner, who is an Orthodox Jew. They both remain observant and are raising their children Jewish.

Trump, himself, has made brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord a top priority of his foreign policy. He currently has a team, led by Kushner, dedicated to working with both sides to eventually reach a settlement.

Greenblatt has, since the 2016 campaign, not shied away from speaking out against Trump on a number of issues, ranging from appointments like Steve Bannon as his chief strategist to the administration’s travel ban blocking immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.

He has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Trump White House within the organized American Jewish community. He was especially fierce after Trump reacted to the violence in Charlottesville this summer by saying “both sides were to blame” and that “very fine people” were marching with the white supremacists.

US President Donald Trump speaks about the ongoing situation in Charlottesville, Virginia, at Trump National Golf Club, August 12, 2017, in Bedminster, New Jersey. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Despite this episode, and others, the president has maintained a loyal following of Jewish supporters. While Jewish Americans are engaged on a range of political issues, Trump has kept many particularly on their toes with how he has conducted US foreign policy in the Middle East.

“It’s a lot of mixed signals,” Greebnlatt said. “It’s a warm embrace of Israel. [He says] he’s going to move the embassy, but then he doesn’t. He is aligned with [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] on a focus on Iran, which is indeed a tremendous threat in many ways, but then at a press conference he talks about a deal with the Palestinians. He sends mixed signals and I think that’s created a lot of confusion domestically.

“People here generally are just trying to hold on every day, unsure of what the next day will bring.

Anti-Semitism rising

Something else that has been unsettling for American Jews to watch — which the ADL has been monitoring closely — is the increase of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States.

While “anti-Semitic attitudes are way down,” Greenblatt said, anti-Semitic incidents are up. The ADL’s Center for Extremism has compiled data that found a 50 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of 2017 compared with the first half of 2016.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO And National Director of the Anti-Defamation League testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 2, 2017, before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on responses to the increase in religious hate crimes. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“We’re in an environment where those are actual acts of harassment and vandalism and violence,” Greenblatt said. “We’re in a moment now where we as a community need to be incredibly vigilant, so that we push back against prejudice, whatever the source.”

Part of what frustrated many American Jewish leaders during the spate of JCC bomb threats was Trump’s seeming unwillingness to forcefully and unequivocally denounce them.

He eventually did give two speeches in April — one at a Holocaust Remembrance event on Capitol Hill — where he vowed to “confront anti-Semitism.”

Heal the divides

Soon to bring together all of these subjects during a day of panel discussions in cosmopolitan, coastal Tel Aviv, the ADL national director also emphatically emphasizes that he does not think all is grim in the relations of US Jews to the Jewish state.

“There’s still bipartisan support for Israel, community support for Israel.” he said. “I don’t see that changing any time soon, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to work with urgency today to heal whatever divides there may be.”

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