In a stirring speech in front of the Jewish Federation of North America General Assembly this past November, President Reuven Rivlin called for a renewed commitment to bridging the Israeli-Diaspora divide — coining Jews living outside of Israel as the “fifth tribe.”
“Israeli society is going through a major change. It is changing from a society made up of a clear Zionist majority, to a society made up of four clear sectors, or ‘tribes,’ which are getting closer in size: secular Jews, National Religious Jews, ultra-Orthodox and Arabs. Four tribes, all of them Israeli,” he said.
“I believe that this challenge — of creating a partnership between the four tribes — is one of the most significant challenges that the State of Israel faces today. In order to meet this challenge we need the partnership with you, the fifth tribe, the Jews of the Diaspora.”
On Thursday, approximately 60 Jewish community leaders from Israel and North America gathered to discuss the unique needs of each”tribe” in a follow-up event titled, “Re-connecting with ‘The Fifth Tribe’: A New Paradigm for Israel-Diaspora Relations,” at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem.
Particular focus was given on what to do on the growing divide between the Jewish Diaspora — specifically North America — and Israel.
The event was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of San Francisco and Shaharit, a think tank, leadership incubator and community organizing hub promoting a new take on Israeli liberalism.
Keynote speaker was Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Four Israeli speakers representing different Israeli communities briefly responded (in Hebrew) after Eisen’s lecture: Orly Dabush-Nitzan, a former Israeli emissary in New York, Naomi Pearl, the director of leadership development programs in the ultra-Orthodox community for the Mandel Foundation, Ghaida Rinawi-Zoabi, the Arab-Israeli director of INJAZ, an organization devoted to creating strong local Arab government within Israel, and Tehila Friedman-Nachalon, director of Shaharit’s Fellows program.
While participants agreed on the importance of proactively working to mend the relationship between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, the discussion descended into a game of hot potato as different interpretations of blame for the split emerged.
Embarrassed Jewish America
Eisen, a renowned scholar of American Judaism, went through the various obstacles facing the Israeli-Diaspora relationship as he sees them, both deep-rooted and newly-emerging.
“I do believe with every bone in my body that our two communities are inseparable. You cannot separate the fate of Jews in North America or Judaism in North America from the fate of Jews and Judaism in the State of Israel,” he said.
The main issue of today, Eisen said, was the sizable ideological and political split between North America’s vast liberal, non-Orthodox Jewish population and the right-wing, and increasingly religious, stronghold in Israel.
This makes Netanyahu’s alignment with the Republican party and Trump particularly problematic, said Eisen.
“You have a government which, to me, made a political mistake in the first order,” Eisen said, referring to Netanyahu’s address to the US Congress against the Iran Deal in 2015.
“Bibi [Netanyahu] identified the State of Israel exclusively with one of the two parties in the United States, which had never been done before, which has caused a great problem for AIPAC,” Eisen said, prognosticating a particularly uncomfortable AIPAC Policy Conference this coming spring.
Trump, said Eisen, is “someone that a lot of people detest. Absolutely detest,” he said, raising his voice.
“And when [Trump] does his most detestable things, the one government in the world which most stands up and applauds him publicly is the government of the State of Israel,” he said. “This is very hard for us as [American] Jews.”
Eisen noted August’s far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, after which Trump blamed “both sides” for the violence. In response to the death of a protestor, Trump issued a condemnation of the white supremacist rally organizers only following media pressure. Netanyahu, not known for hesitating to call out anti-Semitism on the world stage, did not criticize Trump and waited two days before issuing his own condemnation of the rally.
The Netanyahu government, Eisen said, is comfortable with saying, “Yes, we’re going to allow anti-Semitism and racism, as long as you support Israel.”
“You can’t make this trade-off,” he said.
Factor in the growing power of the ultra-Orthodox community and their control over the Israeli rabbinate, and the result, said Eisen, is that, “We — Jews like me — are delegitimized.”
Eisen also pointed to a stark contrast in religious affiliation between Jewish Americans and Israelis. According to the most recent Pew report, 10 percent of American Jews are Orthodox. In Israel, the Orthodox community continue to grow in numbers and power, helping define the political agenda.
“To say that only Orthodox Jews matter is both a political and Jewish mistake,” he said.
“Israel sold itself to Diaspora Jews as the dream and for most Jews, it remains that dream. We need to see Israel being our best selves,” Eisen concluded. “Zionism needs to make Jews proud. Want to make Jews proud right now? Take in refugees, don’t expel them.”
But there are few things Israelis appreciate less than a lecture.
Speaker Tehila Friedman-Nachalon, representing the national religious sector, passionately rebuked Eisen’s demands, throwing them right back at him.
“Do you know what it was like for us during the Obama years?” she asked Eisen, referring to Israel’s concern over the Iran Deal as an existential threat.
Addressing American Jewry at large, Friedman-Nachalon said that Israelis are not “your dream,” but a country “just like yours,” with it own problems, its own economy, its own army.
“We are two worlds with different challenges. We are Catholics and you are Protestants,” she said, calling for a change in discourse.
“We are not our government just like you’re not your government,” she stressed.
The majority of the native Israelis in the room seemed to agree with Friedman-Nachalon as she spoke, an impression that was reinforced by an impassioned round of audience questions (but mostly statements) at the end.
When the questions were given back to the speakers for a response, Eisen said he had nothing more to add.
An interesting result of conceptualizing Diaspora Jewry as another sector under Israel’s umbrella is that it allowed for discussion of Israel’s minority Arab community to be brought into the same space.
Representing the 20 percent of Arab citizens living in Israel was Ghaida Rinawi-Zoabi. She said that if both Jewish and Arab Israelis see Arabs more as part of the Israeli fabric, it will allow for greater participation, and ultimately, give them more agency to shape the country’s direction.
“Are we [Arab Israelis] participants? If yes, how are we going to do this?” she asked.
According to a recent survey, 76 percent of Israeli Arabs believe Israel doesn’t have the right to call itself a Jewish state. The Israel Democracy Institute’s Peace Index also found that a majority of Jewish Israelis (52.5%) maintain that those “unwilling to affirm that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people should lose their right to vote.”
These numbers are reflected in the tension that played out in the Knesset this week when lawmakers from the Joint (Arab) List faction were thrown out of Vice President Mike Pence’s speech to the Knesset after they held up signs in protest of the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
In response, Ze’ev Elkin, minister of Jerusalem affairs and environmental protection, tweeted that “the Joint List MKs are traitors.”
“When [Jewish Israelis] say, ‘what about your members of Knesset,’ I say, what about your members of Knesset?” Rinawi-Zoabi said, asking, “Is [the future of Israel] a Jewish question or an Israeli question?”
Because if its an Israeli question, that’s an issue for Arabs as well, she concluded, noting Arabs and Jews can only work together on an equal playing field.
Israelis visit the… Grand Canyon?
After the lecture, Friedman-Nachalon told The Times of Israel that Americans need to see Israel as a real place with real people. Friedman-Nachalon also discussed her specific ideas on bridging the Atlantic divide.
She’s part of an organization, Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, working to bring religious Zionist leaders to America on a “reverse Birthright” experience.
“Dialogue should be more equal,” she said. “Using each other is not dialogue.”
Audience member Na’ama Ore, who works as a strategic consultant, supports Friedman-Nachalon’s idea.
“Many of the people here have made a call for action like Tehilla’s idea for a reverse Birthright. We need to come into this conversation in a mutual kind of way,” she said.
After the event, Eisen said the reaction to his speech “was terrific,” reinforcing his final message, “Let’s develop new and exciting forms of Judaism and let’s talk about it.”
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