Washington, D.C. — The appearance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the headline of the annual General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America here this week. But it was what he and his Likud coalition represents to the various constituencies in his audience — rather than what he said in his 30-minute speech on Tuesday — that is the more intriguing story of this year’s conference.
One day after an apparently successful White House meeting with President Obama, with both men on their best behavior and focused more on future cooperation than past differences, Netanyahu received enthusiastic applause when he asserted that “Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel.” He praised the U.S. for its “generous support” and made reference to his “wonderful discussion with President Obama on assistance.” The Israeli leader also reiterated his pledge made to Obama on Monday that he will continue to seek a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
That’s what the 3,000 delegates of lay and professional federation leaders — and surely most American Jews — wanted to hear. The past several years of increasingly sharp differences between Jerusalem and Washington, and specifically Obama and Netanyahu, over Mideast policy, most notably the Iran nuclear deal, have made Jews in this country uncomfortable. They want to see a reset of the two leaders’ relationship and a renewed effort on both sides to strengthen U.S.-Israel ties.
Netanyahu did not break new ground in expressing his appreciation for the Jewish federation system and for supporters of Israel. He did not speak of the Iran deal or of the month-long series of violent attacks by young Palestinians against individual Jews. Instead, he sought to assure this prominent cross-section of American Jews, many of whom take exception to the Orthodox control over issues of religious and personal status in Israel, by guaranteeing that “all Jews can feel at home in Israel — Reform, Orthodox and Conservative.”
Still, with the increasing numbers of millennials at the GA — one JFNA spokesman estimated that delegates under 35 numbered roughly 500, or 17 percent — there was also the inevitable tension between the younger set and their parents’ generation regarding attitudes toward Israel and Jewish life.
At one of several breakout sessions on millennials, a comment that it’s time for Israeli policies to be discussed and debated more openly received enthusiastic applause from the younger people in the room.
Jacob Abudaram, 22, a senior at the University of Michigan who was a panelist at the session, told me later that “even behind closed doors we’re often unable to have these discussions about Israel and how we choose to identify Jewishly.” He said he and many others of his generation feel deeply connected to Israel but believe Jerusalem should be taking the initiative in working toward peace with the Palestinians.
“Israel should be doing more, but it’s something of a taboo subject” at many American Jewish forums because the older generation believes it should show support by following Israel’s lead. Abudaram feels younger people should have “a seat at the table” in making communal decisions, even if they don’t have the wealth and generosity that their elders do.
“I’d like to see millennials and older Jews talking about issues of Jewish values, tradition and history — not just talking about the role of millennials,” he said.
Beth Cousens, the San Francisco-based head of the JFNA’s Jewish education and engagement office, helped plan a millennials session and took part in it. She said such discussions are ongoing and focus on integrating the different approaches of younger and older Jews in how they express their shared values of social justice and repairing the world. The millennials, she said, are less inclined to join existing organizations, preferring to “do things themselves.”
How this will play out in terms of millennials’ support for Israel and their assumption of positions of leadership in existing Jewish organizations remains to be seen, she said.
One observer noted that “the price we pay for engaging younger Jews is actually listening to what they have to say, even if we don’t agree with their views. And it’s well worth the effort.”
Call For ‘Cryo-Diplomacy’
While Netanyahu had little to say about next steps in the volatile Middle East, several American policy experts who spoke at the three-day conference agreed that while there is no hope for full peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority at this time, it is important to take small steps to preserve the goal of creating two states.
“Vacuums are always filled by the worst possible people,” asserted Ambassador Dennis Ross, the veteran Mideast policy planner. He suggested steps on the ground like a halt in new settlement building and Israel-Palestinian cooperation to tamp down the current violence.
David Makovsky, who was part of Secretary of State John Kerry’s team working toward peace talks last year, urged that there be no cutoff of funding for the Palestinian Authority because it would end vital Israel-Palestinian cooperation on security in the West Bank. He said that since three previous U.S. attempts to tackle all the final-status Israel-Palestinian issues at once failed, “it’s time to go for singles and doubles,” more modest efforts that address specific problems.
Ilan Goldenberg and Laura Blumenfeld, who also served on the Kerry team, agreed that the immediate goal should be preservation of the two-state solution. Blumenfeld called for “cryo-diplomacy, a way to freeze things in place so they don’t get worse.” Goldenberg suggested allowing Palestinians to worship at the Al-Aksa mosque on Fridays and calling on Palestinian leaders to tone down their vengeful rhetoric.
Has An Impact
The theme of this year’s GA was “Think Forward,” a somewhat generic concept that embodies the branding challenge for JFNA, which is not associated with a clear and specific mission. Rather, like the federations it is made up of, the umbrella group supports efforts to help Jews in Israel, America and around the world, dealing with a range of issues from health care to poverty to Jewish identity.
Several JFNA speakers asserted that the group “touches more Jewish lives on the planet” than any other.
One effective means of dramatizing JFNA’s reach was evident in the opening plenary on Sunday when several celebrities offered their personal Jewish narratives. Like most GAs, this one crammed in too many speakers who spoke too long. And there was no logical connection to their stories. But each on its own was powerful.
Three Jews in their 20s told of their experiences in drawing closer to their Jewish identity through Birthright Israel, the free 10-day trip for young Jews, and other Jewish programs; Rosalie Abella, the first Jewish female Supreme Court Justice in Canada, spoke of how her parents’ survival of the Holocaust set her on a path to seek justice; actress Debra Messing shared her experience of being discriminated against as the only Jew in her Rhode Island school and later expressing her Jewish values, after the success of the hit TV show “Will and Grace,” in speaking out on gay rights and AIDS issues.
David Gregory, the former host of NBC’s “Meet The Press” and author of the memoir “How’s Your Faith?” captivated the crowd when he offered a deeply personal and candid talk on his Jewish journey. Growing up in an interfaith family, he had only tenuous ties to his Judaism until well into adulthood.
He noted that his father, who was Jewish, died late last week and that he was flying out to his funeral in California the next day — as well as celebrating the bar mitzvah of his son next Shabbat. The painful experience of renewing fragile ties with his father in the last year brought “moments of holiness,” a tearful Gregory said. He encouraged his listeners to ask themselves what they believe, to “live inside the question,” and “make peace with people in your life you care about.”