(May 24, 2021 / JNS) While it is instinctive for many to overlook occasions like American Jewish Heritage Month as being largely ceremonial, this year’s event comes at a particularly important time for the relationship between American Jewry and Israel.
With the possibility of a rotation of the Prime Minister between the leader of Yamina Naftali Bennett and the leader of Yesh Atid Yair Lapid back on the table after the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Israel could avoid a fifth election in two and a half years. Or, if recent history continues to repeat itself, the country’s political stalemate could persist.
Despite the uncertainty, there remains a number of encouraging news in the Israeli-American Jewish relationship. In January 2020, a Ruderman Family Foundation survey found that 80% of American Jews had a favorable and favorable view of Israel, regardless of the politician in power. Subsequently, a November 2020 poll commissioned by our foundation following the U.S. election found that 91 percent of Israelis believed President Joe Biden’s administration would support Israel.
Our research was reinforced this month in a study published by the Pew Research Center which found that 82% of American Jews think that caring about Israel is “essential” or “important” to what it means to be Jewish to them, and that 58% are at least somewhat attached to Israel. This brings out the reality that while some tensions exist in the Israeli-American Jewish relationship, Israel remains a central component of Jewish life and Jewish identity in the United States. What’s more, only 10% of American Jews support the boycott of Israel, and 43% say they haven’t even heard much about BDS.
At the same time, stress points should not be ignored. The diverse views of the American Jewish community, both politically and religiously, are not necessarily adequately represented by American Jewish organizations – the same organizations that regularly interact with the Israeli government. Meanwhile, today’s constant political renewal in Israel sets aside important programs that the American Jewish community has launched with the Israeli government, including in the area of promoting religious pluralism.
There also remains a substantial gap between the worldviews of the Israeli electorate and the American Jewish community. Current Israeli public opinion leans from the center-right, while American Jews lean from the center-left. Yes haredi the parties are part of Israel’s next governing coalition, the future government could repeat the demonization by former ministers of large segments of the American Jewish population, especially Reform Jews. It is not only offensive, but also a bad strategic decision for the Israeli leadership to make statements that harm Israel’s relations with the American Jewish community.
More broadly, the challenges in the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community long predate Israel’s current political stalemate in Israel. Discourse on Israel’s relationship with the United States and its ties to the American Jewish community seems to resemble railroad tracks: two parallel lines that connect the same places but never meet. These lines are the public discourse on the relationship between the two countries and the public conversation on the relationship between the two largest Jewish communities in the world. We rarely hear about the connection between these relationships; it’s as if they weren’t related. This artificial separation is a strategic error because it hides, and sometimes distorts, the truth. The truth is simple: America’s Jewish community plays a vital role in inter-country relations, and it is impossible to have an honest discussion of bilateral US-Israel relations without considering this community.
Israeli change agents tend to speak of the relationship with the American Jewish community in the context of the Jewish people and philanthropic giving to various projects – in welfare, education, and other areas. At the same time, the media is focusing on government-level cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem on issues ranging from Iran’s aspirations to its nuclear program, trade deals and visa waivers. Ultimately, the dichotomy between the two dialogues is absurd, as one cannot talk about Israel’s relationship with the United States without talking about the American Jewish community.
Charting a better course in relations between Israel and the American Jewish community requires a paradigm shift in understanding this relationship – not as a bilateral relationship, but as a “relationship triangle” between Israel, the U.S. government and the American Jewish community. Cooperation within the triangle is crucial because a dependence and a mutual relationship exist between the three corners; together they form a much more powerful entity.
Moving forward, it is crucial that Israel mobilizes bipartisan support for the United States, which can bring Israel and the American Jewish community closer together. Israelis must internalize the importance of the American Jewish community as a valuable strategic partner in the context of Jerusalem’s relations with Washington. Every aspect of this relational triangle is important and affects all three corners.
Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.