Washington, D.C. — On Sunday morning, in introducing a session between two members of the Knesset from opposing parties, the moderator assured the large audience at the Israeli American Council (IAC) conference here that the discussion would not be political.

That said, it took about a minute for the two MKs to go at each other, full throttle.

First, Merav Michaeli of the left-leaning Zionist Union Party announced that she has introduced legislation to limit a prime minister to two terms in office. (Israel has no term limits.) Tzipi Hotovely, deputy foreign minister and a member of Likud, responded that if a government is working well, “don’t fix it.” She praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and said that his legacy will be that “he made Israel’s economy one of the best in the world.”

To which Michaeli responded: “There is a big gap between the excellent economy and the lack of ability of Israelis to provide for their families.” Her statement generated loud applause. Then she added: “Too many amazing Israelis are choosing to live in the United States because of the Israeli economy.” More applause.

Undaunted, Hotovely countered: “Merav may be popular here but in Israel she’ll be part of the opposition for many years.”

Moments later, when the subject turned to the Netanyahu government’s reneging on a pledge to enhance the main area surrounding the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer, Michaeli said Israel cannot afford to exclude a major segment of the Jewish people and “deprive them of the Kotel,” evoking another big round of cheers, which grew when she continued: “To be patriotic is to support your country always, but your government only when it deserves it.” The volume grew even louder when she expressed her opposition to allowing “the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate to determine who is a Jew.”

Hotovely insisted that the Kotel issue was being used politically by the government’s opponents and that it was not of importance to the great majority of Israelis.

“When was the last time you prayed at the Kotel?” she asked Michaeli.

Identity Issues For ‘American Sabras’

Welcome to the IAC’s fourth annual, and largest, national conference, a four-day event attended by an estimated 2,700 to 3,000 delegates, almost all of them Israelis living in America. It was an impressive turnout, underscoring the dramatic growth and reach of an organization that began in Los Angeles only a decade ago. Its appeal has been to a large — some say up to 1 million — but previously amorphous population of Jews in the U.S., many of whom felt looked down upon by Jerusalem for emigrating, and at the same time alienated from the American Jewish community, with its emphasis on religious identity and communal organizations.

“A few years ago there was no such thing as ‘Israeli-Americans,’ the phrase didn’t exist,” Orli Santo noted at the outset of a session she moderated Sunday afternoon on “American Sabra: A Complex Identity.” (Santo, a Jewish Week staff writer, is an Israeli living in New York.) But when she asked people to raise their hands if they considered themselves both Americans and Israelis, the great majority in the room did so. While acknowledging the tensions and confusion associated with multiple identities, the IAC participants — including many millennials — see themselves as ready to take on the role of bridging the major gaps between the American Jewish and Israeli communities, believing they have insights to share.

They take pride in their “Israeli-ness,” which the IAC describes variously as a mix of Jewish heritage, love for Israel and its culture, knowledge of the Hebrew language and a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. It seemed quintessentially Israeli that the participants joined in spirited Israeli dancing Saturday night and debated the issues vigorously the next day.

Much of the discussion I heard was about the deep misunderstandings between — and among — the two societies. American Jews expect Israel to have the kind of church-state separation the U.S. has, while Israelis think Americans should understand the form of coalition governing that requires making deals with minority parties to form a government. Israelis say it is hard to break into the American-Jewish social scene, while American Jews view Israelis as clannish.

There were many references at the conference to the recent clash over equal gender prayer at the Kotel and conversion policies the chief rabbinate seeks that would further exclude liberal denominations.

“Israelis don’t want to hear that we American Jews are insulted” by these actions, said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, a panelist at a session called “Tribal Division Within the Jewish People.”

“I want to show Israelis how damaging the rabbanut [the chief rabbinate] is for them, making the name of God a curse to many Israeli Jews,” said Shrage, an observant Jew. “They need to take Judaism back from the rabbanut, not for our sake but for themselves.”

At another panel on the gap between Israeli and American Jewry, Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, said that Israel, once the great unifier among diaspora Jews, has become “the single most divisive issue.” He said “the disconnect” between the two communities is deeply worrisome and “unless we connect the dots, we’ll never bridge it. It’s a long-term fix that requires patience on both sides.”

Perhaps a realistic way of framing the situation, suggested David Suissa, the editor of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles who moderated the panel, “is not ‘we are one,’” the longtime UJA motto, “but rather, ‘we are connected.’”

Many echoed the sentiment that Israeli and American Jews are family and desperately need each other. But the reality is that growing numbers of American Jews, especially the younger generation, feel distant from Israel. And diaspora Jewry is not on the minds of most Israelis in a serious way.

“What you are doing here is very important,” Tzipi Hotovely told the audience in her session, then added: “I’m sure one day you’ll be back in Israel.” She warned that American Jews are assimilating at an alarming rate, “a tragedy … that this great community could be lost.”

Not Adelson Clones

What surprised me most about the conference was that despite the widespread impression that Las Vegas businessman and megadonor Sheldon Adelson bankrolls the IAC (and owns an Israeli daily newspaper, Israel Hayom) to further his hard-right political views — a headline in Haaretz on Monday morning read, “Adelson Has Hijacked The Israeli-American Community For His Hard-Right Agenda” — it seemed that most of the attendees held views that were by no means consistent with his.

Israeli-Americans may be more hawkish than American Jews on issues of Israeli security. But when it comes to topics like those raised at the Michaeli-Hotovely session — Jewish identity and Israel’s role as the nation-state of the Jewish People — the vocal majority of those in the room reacted as would most American Jews: clearly in favor of a pluralistic approach.

It’s worth noting that the IAC has not taken a position on the Kotel prayer issue or any other matter of Israeli public policy, deferring to “Israel’s democratically elected institutions and leaders,” the organization’s officials explained in a letter to members. Ruth Calderon, the Israeli educator and former Knesset member who addressed the IAC conference, called IAC’s neutrality “a shame.”

She told my colleague Orli Santo that Israel should make decisions on financial and security issues, “but the matter of Israel’s Jewish identity is the business of every Jew in the world.” She said it was unfortunate the IAC did not take “a stronger stand. … They are the ones that could really save the day.”

Adelson engendered headlines on Sunday night when he asserted that the IAC is “unequivocal” in its support for the Jerusalem government. (The implication was that the IAC is not like AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby Adelson stopped backing a decade ago because of its support for peace talks and the perception that it seeks U.S. administration approval.)

“I said to myself, ‘This could be an unequivocal support organization for Israel,’” he said Sunday evening, recalling why he has backed the IAC. “There’ll be no political correctness, there’ll be no questions about whether we can keep the White House door open to us.”

That explains the right-leaning political agenda IAC maintains through its lobbying arm. But for most of those I encountered, what draws them to the group is less about politics and more about Jewish, cultural and social engagement with fellow Israelis. And concern about raising children who will be engaged with Israel while living in the U.S.

It’s the many IAC programs and projects that seek to engage young people and families that give it vitality, and offer hope to the larger American Jewish community in the years ahead.

The “American Sabra” session evolved from a panel discussion about identity to a kind of confessional, with individuals in the audience coming up to the microphone to share their personal concerns and ask for advice. One woman said her daughter feels like an outsider as both an Israeli and an American. “Am I a good mother?” she asked, and was assured by Neta Peleg-Oren, a psychologist on the panel, that “we all must make choices we can live with,” and it’s normal.

Others noted that even secular Jews in Israel are infused in Jewish life through the calendar of holidays, weekly Shabbat meals, the Hebrew language, etc. “Here in America,” observed Galia Messika, a Washington attorney and IAC board member, “we have to work at it [being Jewish] and we can learn from American Jews about preserving identity.”

A father living in Boston said his older sons went to public school and were taught not to discriminate, and now they are dating non-Jewish women. But his younger sons, 16 and 12, go to IAC programs in the community, and “being Jewish comes natural to them.” He credited IAC as “a game-changer” and is hopeful his children will lead engaged Jewish lives.

In the end, observed Barry Shrage, the Boston federation executive, “these Israeli-Americans realize they are not in any less danger than we American Jews are in losing the next generation.”

Gary@jewishweek.org. Staff writer Orli Santo contributed to this report.