On US tour, Israeli politicians debate Diaspora Zionism
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'Zionism was a movement that said let’s control our future, let’s not depend on others to control our future'

On US tour, Israeli politicians debate Diaspora Zionism

Amid rifts on core issues such as the peace process and Jewish identity, MKs urge ‘unity’ in Israel-Diaspora relations

Speaking during a town hall-style gathering outside Boston on April 13, 2016, MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) addresses the audience at Temple Emanuel in Newton (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
Speaking during a town hall-style gathering outside Boston on April 13, 2016, MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) addresses the audience at Temple Emanuel in Newton (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

NEWTON, Massachusetts — Billed as a “strengthening the relationship” gathering, seven members of Israel’s Knesset addressed rifts between Israelis and American Jews during a town hall meeting outside Boston Wednesday night.

In its fourth year, the Knesset Mission is sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation, whose priorities include deepening connections between Israelis and American Jews, as well as advancing inclusion for people with disabilities.

A 20-minute interview with MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) kicked off the event, during which Livni urged several hundred attendees in Newton’s Temple Emanuel to “be united for a shared vision” about Israel’s future, despite yawning gaps between Israel and the Palestinians on a solution to the conflict.

“The whole idea is to separate us from the Palestinians, to live in two states for two peoples,” said Linvi, who received a standing ovation following the interview with Algemeiner editor-in-chief Dovid Efune.

When asked if widespread anti-Semitic opinions held by Palestinians are an obstacle to peace, Livni pushed back, saying, “It’s more important that we think about what we need to do in Israel.”

Mentioning Israel’s need for permanent borders several times, Livni called on the government to freeze building in settlements outside the major blocs, and to strengthen the Palestinian economy.

MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) and MK Michal Biran (Zionist Union) at the Ruderman Knesset Mission in Newton, outside Boston, on April 13, 2016 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) and MK Michal Biran (Zionist Union) at the Ruderman Knesset Mission in Newton, outside Boston, on April 13, 2016 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

“A good Palestinian economy is good for Israel’s security,” said the former foreign minister, who mentioned her role in the 2005 disengagement from Gaza under former prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Apart from pursuing a two-state solution, Livni said Israel’s future relies on shaping a new paradigm for relations between the Jewish state and US Jews.

‘The obvious in 1948 is not obvious anymore’

“The obvious in 1948 is not obvious anymore,” Livni said of some young Diaspora Jews’ lack of a connection to Israel. While acknowledging the BDS movement — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — as a threat to Israel, Livni called on students to engage with the Jewish state beyond fighting BDS and other forms of anti-Semitism on campus.

On Israel’s end of the relationship, Linvi criticized the rabbinate’s authority in the civil affairs of Israeli Jews, saying, “the Jewishness of the state shouldn’t be given to the ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel,” for which she received applause.

Following the talk with Livni, each of the six “junior” MKs gave remarks tied to the Israel-Diaspora relationship and his or her party’s priorities in Israel.

First up was MK Yoav Kisch (Likud), a former IAF pilot and start-up maven, who did not mince words in his opposition to Livni’s vision of two states.

Audience members during the Ruderman Knesset Mission's Boston stop, held on April 13, 2016 at Temple Emanuel in Newton (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
Audience members during the Ruderman Knesset Mission’s Boston stop, held on April 13, 2016 at Temple Emanuel in Newton (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

“I am not going to risk the future of my son,” said Kisch, who added that ceding land to Palestinians in the West Bank “will create another ISIS country, or Hamas country, five minutes from Ben-Gurion [Airport].”

Kisch spoke about the aftermath of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza one decade ago, which was followed by “rockets and death tunnels,” he said.

‘As long as there is incitement in Palestinian education, we will not move forward’

Pointing to youth indoctrination as the conflict’s ongoing fuel, Kisch said, “As long as there is incitement in Palestinian education, we will not move forward. It has to stop,” he said.

Given his audience’s applause for Livni’s promotion of a two-state solution, Kisch closed with what a cynic might call a backhanded compliment.

“I believe that you care about our security as much as we care about your identity as North American [Jewish] communities,” said Kisch. “No matter how deep our disagreements may be, we will keep the conversation going,” he added.

MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) at the Ruderman Knesset Mission event outside Boston on April 13, 2016 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) at the Ruderman Knesset Mission event outside Boston on April 13, 2016 (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

Focusing on Zionism last night was MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union), a former commander of the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit.

“Zionism was a movement that said let’s control our future, let’s not depend on others to control our future,” said Bar-Lev. “The mission of Zionism is not to establish a Palestinian state. It is that Israel will be a democratic state with a clear Jewish majority,” he said.

As the only Ethiopian-Israeli MK, Avraham Neguise (Likud) opened his remarks by saying he would “leave at home” talk of a two-state solution, because “we can always argue in the Knesset,” he said.

Instead of Israeli-Palestinian relations, Neguise addressed issues ranging from immigration to strengthening Israel’s relationship with countries in Africa. Other MKs focused on economic issues, most notably MK Michal Biran (Zionist Union), who trashed the Netanyahu government’s policies as widening the rich-poor gap.

Identifying herself as “a feminist modern Orthodox Jewish woman,” MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) urged the audience to “do your own research” when it comes to their relationship with Israel. Focusing on youth development was MK Yifat Shasha-Biton (Kulanu), who heads the Knesset’s Rights of the Child committee.

Following the speeches, a moderator read half a dozen questions from the audience, with mentions of Women of the Wall, the war in Syria, religious pluralism in Israel, and — that most timeless of political questions — “AIPAC or J-Street?” The MKs tip-toed around that last thicket, not hesitating to urge “unity” in their responses.

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