by Shmuel Rosner
October 20, 2015 | 5:36 am
The Israeli-American Council (IAC) is a schizophrenic organization. From Oct. 17-19, it staged its second annual conference in Washington, D.C. — a little less exciting than last year’s debut IAC conference, but still more exciting than most conferences held by most Jewish-American organizations.
Once again, the IAC demonstrated that there are many Israelis in America who have strong ties to Israel, who want to assist Israel and contribute to its future success, and who are willing to invest their time and energy in achieving that. There are also many Israelis in America who are looking for a community, who understand that they need a peer group of like-minded people, who take the time to craft for themselves an identity that fits their new situation and the life they choose to live.
These are two reasons to have an organization, two reasons to have a conference — two reasons that do not always sit well with each other.
The IAC has a strong political motivation: to support Israel in the broad sense. The conference included Republican as well as Democratic politicians; it also included Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the right-wing coalition, and Labor leader Isaac Herzog of the opposition. There was also an undertone of a certain hawkishness: The Democratic politicians were notably those who defied their party line to vote against the agreement with Iran; the opposition MK’s from Israel were from centrist Yesh Atid and from the more centrist camp of the Labor Party, not Labor leftists and not Meretz MK’s. The IAC, clearly, does not want to be narrowly defined, politically speaking, but it also doesn’t want to have a tent so flexible as to include everyone. After all is said and done, it is an organization whose funds come from one main source: Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. Obviously, such funding marks a line beyond which the organization cannot go.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. As I said earlier, it’s a schizophrenic organization. It has two parallel tracks that might not intersect. And it seems, from time to time, that the two tracks separate the top leadership of the organization from many of its activists and local leaders. The track of the organization’s leadership is political. Not party politics, but politics: the battle against BDS, objection to the Iran agreement, criticism of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, these types of things. The track in which many of the midlevel leaders are more interested is the track of community: building bridges, investing in Jewish identity in the Diaspora, working to connect with the local Jewish community, social networking.
The first track connects the IAC to Israel and to Israel’s government and explains why the IAC chooses to hold its conferences in Washington, D.C., and not in places in which more Israeli Americans live (New York, Los Angeles, Miami).
The second track puts some distance between the Israelis of the IAC and Israel, and between them and Israel’s policies, especially on issues of religion and state, and connects them to local communities that aim to improve their daily lives in the areas in which they chose to live (New York, Los Angeles, Miami).
Shaked’s speech at the conference was a manifestation of the first track. Shaked has improved herself in the months since she was appointed as justice minister and has learned to think before speaking. She still insists on expressing her views, and she still wants to communicate her agenda, even when her agenda is infuriating to some Israelis. But she does it more calmly, more respectfully, than before. Alas, in Washington, she found it hard to restrain herself and uttered unnecessary criticism toward President Barack Obama’s administration.
The appearance of Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau at the conference was a manifestation of the second track. Lau, by coming to the conference, stepped into a trap without realizing it. Israelis who move to the United States tend to be secular and to have little patience with the Israeli rabbinate and its rigid, unaccommodating rabbis. Those Israeli-Americans who have begun the process of becoming more Americanized — Jewishly speaking — already speak the language of a more pluralistic Judaism. They have little use for people such as Lau, and he could feel it and hear it. There was a negative vibe when Lau spoke at the conference. One wonders if he learned something from it and if that will motivate him to make any changes in his institution’s policies. I’m not optimistic.
So there is politics — looking to Israel — and there’s community — looking to America. Apparently, the IAC needs both tracks, even though they seem to contradict each other from time to time.
It needs both because without emphasizing Israel, there is no need for a separate Israeli-American organization. The Jews of America have more than enough organizations that, for the right price, would be more than willing to take in the Israelis and help them maintain their Jewish identity.
It needs both because without emphasizing the local community, there is no need for a separate Israeli-American organization. There are more than enough lobbying organizations that support Israel in America, and these organizations would also be more than willing to take in the Israelis and help them maintain their support for Israel and have political impact.
They need both. Israel needs them to have both.