Looking tired and tense, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog managed to put aside the acrimony of failed Likud-Zionist Union coalition negotiations for an hour Wednesday afternoon to attend together an official Knesset event honoring the Jewish American contribution to Israel.
The ceremony was the centerpiece of a full day of activities at the Knesset marking Jewish American Heritage Month, an annual recognition in the US of the community’s achievements and contributions.
Wednesday was the first time since Jewish American Heritage Month’s inception in 2006 that it was marked in Israel, and instead of focusing on what American Jews have done for the US, it highlighted what they have contributed to Israel over the past century.
Speakers at the ceremony, including Netanyahu and Herzog, used the opportunity to laud the historically strong relationship between Israel and American Jews, and also to point out areas in which ties between the world’s two largest and most influential Jewish communities have become frayed and are in need of repair.
May was designated Jewish American Heritage Month by President George W. Bush, following the passage of resolutions introduced by Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania urging the recognition of the more than 350 years of Jewish history in America.
Six years later, on May 1, 2012, President Obama issued a proclamation stating that “generations of Jewish Americans have brought to bear some of our country’s greatest achievements and forever enriched our national life.”
At the initiative of Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai, and with the partnership of the Ruderman Family Foundation, the Jewish Agency, Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish People Policy Institute, a full day of activities was organized in the Israeli parliament.
These included Knesset committee discussions on the American Jewish contributions to Israel’s security, social welfare, absorption of new immigrants and educational system, as well as a marking of the subject in the Knesset plenary.
In addition, an exhibition of archival photographs and films tracing the American Jewish community’s involvement in building and sustaining Israel, produced by the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa, was on view in the Knesset’s Chagall State Hall.
“These have not been easy days between the prime minister and me, but one thing we have in common is that we both have benefited from educations in the United States,” Herzog said in a speech he gave to several hundred invited guests, including members of Knesset and American Jewish and Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum.
As newly installed Likud MK Yehuda Glick, a US-born rabbi famously controversial for his Temple Mount activism, sat inches away from J Street founder and president Jeremy Ben-Ami, Herzog reminisced about how as a student at New York’s Ramaz School (when his father, the late Chaim Herzog, was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations), he became involved with the movement to free Soviet Jewry.
Other speakers, including Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein — both former high profile Soviet Refuseniks — also emphasized the critical role of American Jewry in what was a 30-year-long campaign advocating for the right of Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union.
“It’s been 25 years since Operation Exodus,” Sharansky said, referring to the subsequent mass immigration of Jews from the FSU in the early 1990s. “The American Jewish community raised a billion dollars in support of that operation in a matter of weeks.”
Two and a half decades have passed since then, and although, according to recent Pew Research Center surveys of American Jews and Israelis, most American Jews and Israeli Jews feel a close kinship, they differ on a range of political issues concerning Israel and the peace process and Jewish religious pluralism.
Accentuating the positive, JFNA chair Richard Sandler spoke of American Jews’ financial, political and emotional support of Israel, and US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro noted the American Jewish community’s “generous and steadfast support” for Israel and the US-Israel alliance.
Netanyahu, too, painted a rosy scenario. He alluded to, but downplayed recent tensions between American Jews and his government, especially concerning the Iran nuclear deal.
“The contribution of American Jewry to Israel will be important to us in the coming years,” Netanyahu said.
“And to those who question whether we will be here in a hundred years, I say that the Jewish people will be here [in Israel] in a hundred years, and we will enjoy the support of the American Jewish community,” he added.
By contrast, Shai, chairman of the Knesset’s Israel-US caucus, told The Times of Israel that on a recent trip he took with a group of fellow members of Knesset to visit the Jewish communities in Cleveland, Dallas and Miami, he learned that Israel has become a divisive issue for American Jews.
“They told us that Israel is no longer a uniting power. It’s become something divisive. American Jews didn’t like what the [Israeli] prime minister did regarding the Iran deal. They didn’t like his addressing the Congress and interfering in the American political process,” he reported.
American Jews also expressed to Shai their unhappiness about the treatment of liberal Jews at the Western Wall.
“Issues of religion and state are key to what is making mainstream American Jews feel that they are being pushed away from Israel,” agreed former Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman.
Lipman, now director of public diplomacy in the vice chairman’s office of the World Zionist Organization, told The Times of Israel he went to each of the Knesset committees that met Wednesday to “spoil the party a bit,” as he put it.
“I told them that it is wonderful to thank the American Jews for everything they have done for Israel, but the gratitude can’t just be lip service. There has to be action,” Lipman said.
“All it takes is one [Israeli] minister to say that we don’t see Reform or Conservative Jews as Jews and the damage is done — and it’s immense,” he lamented.
According to Lipman, American immigrants to Israel are leading the way in creating positive change in Israeli society that can mend the relationship with American Jews, especially younger ones affected by anti-Israel activism on college campuses.
However, he believes that not enough American immigrants, or “olim,” are involved.
“American olim need to know they can’t just complain. They need to get involved. We are not pulling our weight. We currently have two American-born members of Knesset [Glick and former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren], but there should be more of us. American olim need to get over their fear of language and cultural barriers and work for change. It’s not okay to accept it when we are told that things are just the way they are and there’s nothing that can be done,” Lipman asserted.
Melody Coven, who was at the Knesset on behalf of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, is ready to embrace the challenge.
“We are a unique piece of the Israeli melting pot,” said Coven, who immigrated from Pittsburgh in 2013.
“The success of Israel can be based on the aliya of choice, on the extent to which American Jews bring our values of freedom, democracy and liberal thinking to Israel and choose to stay here,” she said.