Boston, MA – Six Israeli lawmakers are headed to the United States this weekend for an intense study of American Jewish life amid concerns about a growing gap between American and Israeli Jews.
The members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, arrive Sunday at Brandeis University, near Boston, then head to New York City mid-week as part of the inaugural Ruderman Fellows Program.
The six-day program aims to give the legislators a detailed understanding of the structure and history of the American Jewish community. Each day is devoted to a single aspect of it, such as “How the Case of Israel is Made in United States,” and includes lectures and meetings with American Jewish leaders in academics, business, philanthropy, even entertainment (at a Broadway play). A planned town hall-style meeting at Brandeis will give critics of Israeli policy a change to question the lawmakers.
Avi Dichter, one of the fellows, said he hopes the group returns to Israel as “ambassadors … about what it means to be a Jew overseas in general and in the United States in particular.”
Just last week, the Knesset drew rebukes from American Jewish leaders for what they considered meddlesome and inappropriate hearings on whether a left-leaning Washington-based Jewish group, J Street, was anti-Israel. And last month, the Jerusalem Post ran a lengthy essay, “Do American Jews still like Israel?” that discussed how American Jews no longer see Israel as the center of the Jewish world.
The fellows program’s founder, Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation, moved to Israel from Boston in 2005 and said it was quickly clear that Israeli lawmakers often misunderstand basic aspects of American Jewish life.
The Ruderman fellowships target influential Israelis to ensure different perspectives don’t harden into permanent divisions within the small global Jewish population, which “would be disastrous for the Jewish people,” he said.
“The future unity of the Jewish people, that’s what’s driving me,” Ruderman said. “In order to have unity, you have to have an understanding.”
The six lawmakers were recruited from a range of Israeli political views and experience. Eitan Cabel and Daniel Ben Simon are from the liberal Labor party, Dichter and Ronit Tirosh from the centrist Kadima and Tzipi Hotovely and Carmel Shama from conservative Likud. The 30-year-old Hotovely is the youngest member of the parliament. The 59-year-old Dichter was a longtime member of Israel’s internal security service, then its director, before being elected to parliament in 2006.
Ruderman hopes this year’s fellows are the first of many who eventually have “a major impact” in the 120-seat Knesset.
The global Jewish population is estimated at 13.4 million, with Israel (5.7 million) and the United States (5.25 million) home to nearly 82 percent of the total.
Numbers aren’t all that make the communities vital to each other, said Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna, an expert in American Jewish history who helped design the program. Israel sees itself as both a physical and spiritual homeland for Jews worldwide, and the American community is by far the most influential outside Israel. Meanwhile, American Jews expect understanding from its government in the same way American Catholics expect the Vatican to try to understand them, he said.
But Sarna said many Israelis struggle to grasp the diversity of Jewish life and practice in America, including an alphabet soup of advocacy groups and interests.
Judaism in Israel, financially sponsored and guided by government through offices such as the Chief Rabbi, is far more monolithic, Sarna said. The Israeli government sometimes answers sensitive questions about Judaism in ways American Jews object to — such as who among those who’ve converted are Jewish (and thus eligible for Israeli citizenship), whose marriages are Jewish, whose children are Jewish.
“Judaism in the United States had to develop in an utterly different way, in the absence of government control, oversight, power,” Sarna said. “It had to develop in a competitive religious market.”
The liberal Reform movement has grown to be the largest of the three major American denominations, and its members are also the least likely among them (21 percent) to describe themselves as “very emotionally attached to Israel,” according to a 2005 report by the United Jewish Communities.
Meanwhile, most Jews in Israel believe Jews worldwide should eventually settle there, Ruderman said. The fellows program can help Israelis see why American Jews are content to stay in America, he said.
“To see it live in action, and to understand that, ‘Hey, there’s a rich Jewish life here in America that people enjoy being part of, I think that will help them in their understanding of what this community’s all about,'” Ruderman said.
Anti-Defamation League president Abraham Foxman, who will meet the Knesset members in New York, said today’s debates between Americans and Israelis are the same as they’ve been for decades, but the Internet has ramped up the intensity and impact. On top of it, he said, many younger American Jews don’t fully understand the context in which Israelis make their case, surrounded by unbendingly hostile neighbors and worried about their nation’s survival.
Said Dichter: “I think the temperature in Israel is different.”
Foxman said face-to-face visits can clarify where both sides are coming from, emphasize the importance of respectful debate and make clear that disagreement with Israel’s government doesn’t signal lack of American support for the nation.
“It’s only for the good,” Foxman said.