The Federation’s General Assembly - A squandered opportunity

Rolling into town with PR spin doctors may create a few headlines, but will not produce much substance.

Leah Aharoni, | updated: 11:15

OpEds Leah Aharoni
Leah Aharoni
INN:LA

It’s been touted as “A Time to Talk”. The Jewish Federation had an intriguing idea for its annual General Assembly - bring American Jews and Israelis together for an honest conversation. However, even a cursory look at the program tells a different story. The GA is far from a dialogue. It’s much more of a monologue. The agenda seems clear. American liberal Jews are coming to Israel with fanfare to tell Israelis what they should think and how they should live.

The speaker list leaves little to imagination.  There are prominent American liberal rabbis, but not a single Orthodox one. On the Israeli side, only those speakers who validate viewpoints of liberal Federation leadership have been invited.  A handful of Orthodox speakers mostly represent fringe opinions in the community. None come from the mainstream of the Israeli religious society. At the last minute, after come public criticism, two haredi speakers were added to the program, the Chief Rabbi of Dimona and the President’s Chief of Staff. This is nothing more than tokenism.


The panel on the “peace process” doesn’t have a single voice supporting continued Jewish presence in all of our ancestral homeland.
Nor do we find political viewpoints representing the majority of Israelis, who support Likud and other right-wing parties. The panel on the “peace process” doesn’t have a single voice supporting continued Jewish presence in all of our ancestral homeland. Of course there is one exception - the Prime Minister himself. But other than him there are no others.

The GA is a squandered opportunity. It could have been a forum for diverse perspectives and an honest exchange of ideas. Both sides could have gotten to know each other better, engaged in mutual learning on topics of community building, and even agreed to disagree on issues with little hope for consensus. Instead, it promises to become a massive PR stunt to reinforce the perspective of liberal American Jews on what kind of Israel they envision and a leverage tool to make Israelis cave in to the dictates of the US Jewish establishment. This program will not build bridges of understanding. It will only exacerbate the tension.

This begs one question. What is the real cause for the so-called rift between American Jews and Israel? Let’s be honest. While there are disagreements between Israeli policy makers and the liberal leaders of the American Jewish community, there is no division between Israelis and Diaspora Jewry. Not even on the hot issues of religion and state. Overwhelmingly, most Jews outside the US are members of Orthodox congregations, even if they do not observe commandments day-to-day. Inside the US, only 25% of Jews belong to Reform and Conservative temples. So the claims of American Federations to be speaking for Diaspora Jews on these issues are false.

Unfortunately, the liberal movements are struggling to retain the youth. Across the country, hundreds of Conservative temples have closed, and many Reform are teetering. With a crisis on their hands, what better way to rally the troops than to find an outside enemy. The Orthodox and right-wing Jews in Israel were branded as that ultimate other. So instead of asking why the young people are abandoning Judaism in America, Federation leaders have used the old political ploy of “wag the dog”.

There is a greater risk to the Federation system in the approach they are taking.  Most demographers concur that the Orthodox community holds the key to the future of American Jewry. Instead of championing a battle against traditional Judaism in Israel, the Federations should use their influence to building bridges in the US between all segments of the community. The Federations are the only place on the American Jewish landscape with the ability to coalesce all committed Jews for common good.


With a crisis on their hands, what better way to rally the troops than to find an outside enemy.
Yet present policy makes this impossible. A growing number of Orthodox Jews will not want to be part of organization, which focuses on doing battle against the religious status quo in Israel. Nor is this battle winnable. Today some 30% of Israelis are Orthodox, another 50% traditional, the balance secular. The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have some 80 congregations combined, with about 13,000 members. In other words, their numbers don’t reach even one half of one percent of Israel’s population.  

If American liberal Jews want to change Israel, they are invited to move here. Serve in the Army, battle Tel Aviv traffic, build communities, and raise their children in Hebrew. We may disagree on a host of issues, but there is nothing we would love more than to see more of our brothers and sisters make Israel their home. Even if that means reinforcing views we do not support.

Until that day, rolling into town with PR spin doctors may create a few headlines, but will not produce much substance. Nor will this commotion help the most crucial agenda - galvanizing the resources of the entire Jewish community for the welfare of Israel and world Jewry.  

The GA may excite the liberal base, but will do little to benefit Israel or the Jewish people. Alas, it’s a squandered opportunity.




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