One recent morning I woke to learn that Israel’s Religious Affairs minister, David Azoulay, had made yet another round of disparaging remarks about non-Orthodox Jews in the diaspora. “A Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say that he is a Jew,” stated Azoulay.
I was initially shocked not just by the brazenness of the remarks but also by the religious ignorance coming from none other than the chief government officer for religion. If there’s one thing Jews of all streams have agreed on, it’s that if you have a Jewish mother, you’re Jewish.
In the wake of the remark, I was also quite surprised by how few American Jewish leaders spoke out against the statement on an issue that so directly impacts the relationship between the diaspora and Israel. What’s behind the silence, I wondered. Where were the Jewish mega-philanthropists? Where were the highly paid CEOs of Jewish organizations?
And how might we change the dynamic in which Israeli leaders repeatedly offend American Jews with impunity?
Each year our foundation, The Ruderman Family Foundation, takes Knesset members and Israeli journalists to the U.S. to educate them on the American Jewish experience. It was a recent participant in the journalism mission, Razi Barcay of Israeli Army radio, who posed the question to Azoulay that prompted the offending remark. Other participating journalists were also immediately sensitized to the issue and reported on it.
Educating Israelis on trips to America has proven over and over again an extremely effective way of transforming the perspectives of Israeli opinion leaders, who in turn educate the larger Israeli public — just as educating American opinion leaders on trips to Israel has done wonders in influencing American opinion leaders and the larger American public. Educational trips work.
Trips involving elites from one country visiting the other, however, are but a drop in the bucket compared to the volume of trips of American Jews going to Israel. Thousands of American Jews, ranging from youth group members and college students to federation donors, go to Israel each year. Undoubtedly, the American Jews who participate in these trips learn a tremendous amount about Israeli society. Studies repeatedly show they come back from Israel more informed, more inspired and, on federation missions, more generous. That’s all well and good.
But what’s missing is the opportunity to educate Israelis on the American Jewish experience. Imagine if American Jewish groups made their missions to Israel not only about educating American Jews on Israelis but also on educating Israelis about American Jews. Why do all conversations between American Jews and Israelis have to be about Israel?
Indeed, instead of American Jewish participants getting “briefed” by Israeli civic and political leaders on the panoply of issues facing Israeli society and security, the participants could engage in “dialogues” with their Israeli counterparts about the American Jewish experience as well. They could have a direct impact on educating Israelis about religious pluralism and sensitizing the Israeli public to the American Jewish experience.
I can hear the objections now. “Bringing up contentious issues like religious pluralism to Israelis will create tension in the relationship and undermine the (Disneyland) experience of American Jews in Israel,” they might say.
But the lack of a two-way discussion is creating an even bigger chill in the relationship. Every derogatory statement made by an Israeli minister offending American Jewish sensibilities that falls on deaf ears of the Israeli public, and every piece of legislation introduced in the Knesset that curbs religious diversity and de-legitimizes the American Jewish experience, chips away at the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Such tensions only compound the growing rift between a sizeable segment of the American Jewish community and Israel over controversial Israeli policies.
American Jews owe it to Israel to be more forthcoming in the dialogue about their own interests. If they stay on the sidelines, and fail to bring their concerns to Israelis, they just might wake up to an American Jewish community that’s so disenchanted and disengaged with Israel that it no longer wants to participate in missions to the country. And that will be a truly tragic blow to both Israel and the American Jewish community.
Jay Ruderman is the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which works to educate Israeli leaders on the American Jewish community. Follow him on Twitter @JayRuderman.