Sun, beach, family, people who say what they mean and mean what they say … after a few years in New York, I sometimes wonder why I left Israel in the first place. But no worries — when that feeling hits me, I only need attend what we Israelis call “a cultural discussion” to remember.
Last month, Moatza Mekomit New York, an umbrella organization serving Israelis in the New York area, held a panel discussion titled “Israel-USA-Israel.” The panel, which took place in the UJA-Federation of New York’s Manhattan headquarters, discussed the role of Israeli-Americans in shaping the relationship between the two countries, and the complexities embedded in this relationship. It was moderated by Moatza vice-chairman Aya Shechter, and led by three notable Israeli Knesset members: Nachman Shai, former IDF spokesman and current member of the Labor Party; Itzik Shmuli, former leader of the National Union of Israeli Students and a leader of the 2011 “Social Justice Revolution,” also a Labor member; and Michal Rozin of the left-leaning Meretz Party.
About 30 Israeli-Americans attended the event, which the invitation defined as “an open discussion.” Looking back, this was a mistake.
The three MKs are part of a special Knesset caucus devoted to strengthening the ties between U.S. and Israeli Jews. Sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation and Brandeis University, the caucus aims to familiarize Israeli MKs with the leadership, culture and ideologies of American Jews — of which, of course, Israeli Americans are a part.
Shai, who serves as chairman of the caucus, remarked that in today’s interconnected world, Israel’s policy of ostracizing its emigrants had become obsolete and counterproductive. Instead, he suggested, Israel must try to establish better, deeper communications with expatriates.
“We came here to open a real and honest conversation with you,” Shai told the Israeli-American audience. “We want to hear your side of things.”
Another major topic was the disparity between the way Israelis and Americans grasp their Jewish identity. When it comes to practice, declared MK Rozin, “the Jewish revival is happening here, in the U.S. It’s not happening in Israel.” In the U.S., said Rozin, religious pluralism encouraged American Jews to embrace Judaism, each according to their own ideology and worldviews. But in Israel, the hard-line dictates of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate created the opposite effect, distancing most non-Orthodox Israelis from their Jewish roots.
She described how her own daughter, who studies in a non-religious school, recently attended a Passover class taught by an Orthodox teacher. When the girl came home she told her parents “How ‘they’, the Jews” celebrate the holiday.
“Why do you say ‘they?’ We’re also Jewish, you’re also a Jew,” Rozin corrected her. “No, Ima, I’m Israeli — I’m talking about the real Jews,” the child answered.
The financial and social difficulties in Israel also came up. Rozin noted that while housing prices shot up 80 percent over the past decade, salaries rose by less then 5 percent. MK Shmuli, speaking for the students he until recently represented, confirmed that this is one of the main factors pushing many youngsters to leave. Instead of attacking them, he added, Finance Minister Yair Lapid should get off his high horse and find financial solutions.
Knowing that they are among fellow countrymen, the MKs allowed themselves to speak about Israel with a frankness they may have curtailed for an American audience. That was the third mistake.
The audience grew restive even as housing prices were mentioned. But when the discussion came to efforts to delegitimize Israel in Europe and the U.S., Rozin predicted the phenomenon would worsen if Israel doesn’t make an honest effort in the negotiations with the Palestinians. An elderly lady in the front row decided that she had heard enough.
“Excuse me, but we didn’t come here to listen to you badmouth Israel,” she interrupted Rosin mid-sentence.
This was rude even by Israeli standards, and MK Shai responded by chiding the lady for her bad manners. She chided him back for wasting her time, and for “wasting the taxpayers’ money” to fly here and do it.
Shai’s face turned a deep shade of red. “Now we’ve started?!” he exclaimed, and proceeded to inform the lady that the caucus’ work was privately funded, and that “in any case, you sure didn’t pay for it.”
“What you’re talking about just isn’t interesting for me,” she interjected.
“We’re not interested that you’re not interested! Let the speakers speak!” yelled someone from across the room.
“Why are you attacking her?” an elderly man in the first row exploded. “You said that this is an open conversation; you said you wanted to hear our side, but you’re not letting us talk!”
With this, everyone began talking at once. “This is no way to have a conversation,” one woman commented.
“What did you expect? Israelis,” snickered the man at her side.
Spirits calmed once the moderator promised that everyone would have a chance to speak once the panel was over. They flared again when Shai mentioned the caucus’ efforts to allow people who left Israel temporarily — say for a work assignment or for studies — to vote from the local consulate, instead of having to fly back to Israel to do it. This privilege would not be extended to permanent expats. “I.E., not you,” snapped Shai, who is after all also an Israeli, at the elderly lady.
The lady fumed, her friends complained, others complained about the complainers. One person stood up and demanded: “Why them yes and us no?”
His question spoke to many in the audience, who felt that if a small group of interrupters gets to speak out of turn, they should too. In a room full of Israelis, even American ones, no one wants to be a sucker.
The dynamics repeated throughout. The panel discussed issues of great importance to the Israeli-American community, but discussion took place between one interruption and the next, and all issues paled in comparison to the culture of Israeli speech — or the lack thereof.
“The event was open to the public, and we can’t always control who comes and how they behave,” Pazit Levitan, Moatza’s vice president, commented later. “Moatza will learn from what happened, and draw conclusions for the future,” she added. Going forward, Moatza might avoid the “Open Discussion” format, or enforce more stringent rules of conduct.
Still, this debacle should not reflect on all Israelis, Levitan stated. In fact, on the day after the event, many participants sent the MKs letters of apology, begging forgiveness for everybody else’s bad behavior.
Orli Santo is a correspondent for the New York-based weekly Yediot America. Her “Strangers Among Us” column appears monthly.