Talking in Israel
I just returned yesterday afternoon after 72 hours in Israel for the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (GA). The annual conference, this year held in Tel Aviv, brings together Jews from around the world to discuss challenging issues facing our people. This year’s theme was “We Need to Talk,” an opportunity to delve deeper into the perceived divide between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
There were many articles in the Jewish press castigating the GA prior to it even happening. One questioned whether the GA was not held in Jerusalem because of the controversy over the US embassy move there (not the case as the location and venue contracts were signed years ago). One questioned whether representatives of the Orthodox community in Israel were appropriately represented on panels and in the large plenaries (fair point). Another said that only Israeli speakers who “validate the viewpoints of liberal Federation leadership” were invited (not the case). And some felt the GA would be far from a dialogue and much more of a monologue with American liberal Jews coming to Israel with fanfare to tell Israelis what they should think and how they should live (I thought it was an excellent experience engaging in dialogue with people not only from Israel, but from across the United States. Hearing differing opinions made the conference a success).
I encourage you to read this article by Gidi Grinstein, founder of the Reut Group, written prior to the start of the GA, which provided excellent context to the conference.
A major highlight was hearing from leading figures in Israel. They were there to express their views, not that everyone agreed with them. Here are snippets of what they said:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: In regard to the peace process, Netanyahu said he “wants the Palestinians to govern themselves, yet not have the power to threaten Israel. Therefore, Israel must maintain the security west of the Jordan River.” He is fearful of the West Bank becoming another Gaza and believes Israel’s security control will strengthen the Palestinian Authority against terrorist regimes.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin – He shared the idea of a “reverse Birthright” with Israelis familiarizing themselves with Jewish communities around the world by visiting.
United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman: As reported in the press, he said, “I am an unapologetic right-wing defender of Israel. I’m a security hawk. That’s who I am…Social justice issues cannot overcome Israel’s security issues.”
He shared what he believes are the two major differences between Israel and the United States:
- There is no separation between church and state in Israel. Religion and policies are tied together.
- Enemies are “on and within” the borders of Israel, which is not the case for the United States.
Canadian Ambassador to Israel Deborah Lyons: “It is time for countries around the world to stand up for democracies in the Middle East, and Israel is the only one.”
New Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel Isaac Herzog: He warned of the “existential threat” posed by a growing rift between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, and called for urgent dialogue to renew amity between Jews in Israel and abroad.
He noted the demographic dangers of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the identity crisis of many young North American Jews. Herzog said, “Ironically, in this, the first era in our history when the external existential threats we face have greatly diminished, we ourselves are endangering our own existence.”
Vice-Mayor of Parkland, FL Stacy Kagan – She was visiting Israel for the first time and spoke about the horrific Parkland shooting when 17 students were killed. She shared the important role of the Israel Trauma Coalition, a JFNA partner, and how they immediately sent counselors from Israel to the school community. While crying, she said, “Thank you! Israel, you showed up. You taught us how to be resilient.”
Chen Kotler Abraham – A resident on the Gaza border who watches gas-filled balloons and kites land on neighboring fields and catch fire. She said, “How sad is it for a child not to look at a balloon with joy and wonder.”
Perhaps the most important statement of the entire conference by an Israeli leader was “Do not walk away because your liberal sensitivities are insulted. We in Israel may look at things from a different lens. We may speak more directly. But we do want to listen and better understand. We are family with a shared history and a shared future.”
Beyond all the incredible speakers, programs, and discussions, I also had the opportunity to discuss plans for the Centennial Trip to Israel in March 2020. We are pulling out all the stops to truly make this the trip of the century. The early-bird registration deadline is November 15, so make your reservation NOW! There are several more online and in-person information sessions -- find details here . Plus, if you have any questions, please call 503-245-6219 and ask for Caron Blau Rothstein or me.
In addition, I met with Rabbi Jay Moses, Vice-President of the Wexner Foundation, to discuss the 2020 launch of the Wexner Heritage Leadership Program in Greater Portland. This is the premier leadership program in the Jewish world. Next summer we will launch a community-wide nominating process looking for twenty leaders ages 30-45 to participate in this program.
Another highlight was meeting with several Portlanders who are currently living in Israel, including one young woman on a 10-month MASA program teaching high school English to children in Petach Tikva.
It is always special to be in Israel, and this time I appreciated the conversations.
On a local note, do not miss Rachel Calof – A Memoir with Music! This award-winning musical, sponsored by Congregation Beth Israel and the MJCC, will be performed on Sunday, November 4 at 3:00 p.m. at CBI. This one woman play is about a mail order bride who moves to North Dakota in the late 1800's and lives in a 12’ x 14’ shack with her in-laws, husband's brother, wife and children, two chickens and a cow. Tickets are on sale now.