Restore American Jews’ faith in Israel

5 March 2013

Restore American Jews’ faith in Israel

The last four years created an unprecedented and dangerous alienation between the Israeli leadership and liberal American Jewry.

By Rachel Liel | Mar.05, 2013 | 4:23 PM

The coalition negotiations are at their height, but one thing already seems certain: Following Yair Lapid’s campaign promise, the new government is expected to be both more effective and smaller. Portfolios like “Society and Heritage” and “Regional Cooperation” are going to disappear – and with them also the Ministry for Public Diplomacy and the Diaspora, which was invented especially for Yuli Edelstein several years ago. The disbanding of superfluous ministries is of course welcome – but we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water. And surprising as this may sound, it is precisely the subject of the Diaspora that should become a central issue in Benjamin Netanyahu‘s third government.

Relations between the government of Israel and American Jewry took some tough blows over the past four years. Outwardly, the American Jewish community continues to support Israel, but off-the-record its leaders, activists, donors, and ordinary community members have expressed bitter criticism at the absence of a political initiative and at nationalist radicalization in Israel. The gloomy wave of anti-democratic legislation, the attempts to harm the Supreme Court and human rights organizations, the discrimination against women, and the expressions of racism against Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, homosexuals and lesbians, social activists, refugees seeking shelter – all of these have created an unprecedented and dangerous alienation between the Israeli leadership and the naturally moderate American Jewry.

It appears that the outgoing Israeli government has forgotten that most American Jews hold liberal and progressive opinions. Between 70% and 78% of American Jews voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and most of them did so because they deeply identify with the liberal values Obama represents of social justice, civil rights, and diplomacy as a way to solve international crises. The sweeping support that Obama received among the Jews of America during the recent election proves that the Jewish community did not go astray and follow the attempts to depict the president of the United States as an opponent of Israel and his opposition to unnecessary military adventures as “an abandonment of Israel’s security.” The opposite is true: This was an overwhelming vote of confidence in Obama’s moderate line – even with regard to Israel and the Middle East.

In other words, the line taken by the government of Israel against millions of liberal American Jews was fundamentally mistaken. Instead of cultivating the strategic relations between the Jewish communities on both sides of the ocean on the basis of common values, the government preferred to let the supporters of Kahane in the Knesset to take over and march Israel in a fanatical, nationalistic, and racist direction. Thus relations between Israel and the U.S. deteriorated on every level: not only between Obama and Netanyahu, but also against the centers of the American Jewish community, which were appalled at the strong winds blowing from Jerusalem.

So what has changed now? The elections of 2013 proved that the Israeli public champions a relatively moderate civil agenda. On the eve of President Obama’s visit to the region, all the signs indicate that the political arena is about to shift and that U.S.-Israel relations are also liable to reach a turning point. This is therefore a golden opportunity also to turn over a new leaf with American Jewry.

For this purpose there is indeed no need for the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs – and certainly not for a ministry that deals with a “public diplomacy” that has lost all meaning. However, there is certainly a place for the new government to take the lead in a campaign among the Jews of America, to restore their faith in the ethos they so long for – the ethos of Israel as a democratic, peace seeking state, one of equality that honors human rights.

Rachel Liel is the director of the New Israel Fund.