Israel Sees Assimilation as the Diaspora's Problem

Despite possible threats to American Jewish consensus on Israel, Jerusalem doesn’t see a reason to get involved.

Gedalyah Reback ,

Peres  with presidents of Major American Jewi
Peres with presidents of Major American Jewi
Flash 90

Israel's diplomatic corps is small, possibly over-stretched and up until a couple years ago seemingly underpaid. It is not being tasked with an expectation to expand Israel's connections in new areas of the world in light of hostility from Europe and the United States. But about 10% of Israel's diplomatic staff is committed to two embassies and 11 consulates between the US and Canada, according to the estimate of former Israeli Consul General to Atlanta and New York, Ambassador Arye Mekel.

Mekel is currently a research fellow with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies focusing on Israeli-Greek relations, having spent four years in Greece. However, Mekel has lived a collective 21 years in the United States thanks to his diplomatic deployments. The major reason for such an extensive diplomatic presence in North America is the largest Jewish community in the world.

"One of the things they do is to connect with the Jewish community. This is the way the government represents itself in the US. In New York, they deal with most of the major Jewish organizations. When ministers come, they meet with leaders of various Jewish communities," he said.

Arutz Sheva asked if recent reports of a gulf in Jewish identity, assimilation or a generational shift were something Israel had ever felt the need to prevent in the United States. Mekel saw many of those issues as mainly internal to American Jews.

"I don't think that on an organized basis they are trying to get involved. There is some Israeli influence in Jewish schools in terms of staff, but I don't think there's a lot of involvement."

"It's all a matter of priorities for the Jewish community in America," said Mekel, who interjected that were he a leader of an American Jewish community rather than an Israeli diplomat, that he certainly did have an idea what he would consider a priority. "If I was a leader in the community, I would make education my top priority and make it free. There shouldn't be one Jewish student who wants a Jewish education and can't afford it."

The Ambassador noted a high rate of intermarriage, but also a career engaging with Jews of all sorts of (often mixed backgrounds.

Hank Sheinkopf, a former adviser to President Clinton, said in an interview last week with Arutz Sheva that Israel needed to weigh how it engaged American Jews going forward in saying, “The intermarriage and non-affiliation rate are higher than in the past, while among affiliated Jews they are becoming less and less Democratic. The unaffiliated are less connected and less supportive of Israel."

However, Mekel, did not indicate that Israel’s diplomatic corps had ever thought their constituency might be destined to erode however. He was not convinced that it was something Israel would have to prioritize either, whether it be logistically or financially.

He was not asked if Israeli diplomats had ever been approached, though by Mekel's responses it seemed that he had never heard of such a case. Diplomats in Israel's consulates still do involve themselves intimately with the community, getting to know leaders. In turn, those leaders often make Israeli consuls members of the local community in their own right.

"It was a benefit to the diplomats in any place you went to meet a mayor or a Congressman or a Senator. Although they know you're a diplomat, they treat you as a part of the Jewish community," he said.

"I always brought at least one leader from the local Jewish community with me to my meetings. That made me stronger. The Jewish community is always well-represented in civic life and very politically minded."

When asked if the very public disagreements between Jewish organizations were reminiscent of past clashes between Presidents and Prime Ministers, Mekel did not indicate that the fallout between Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu was totally unfamiliar. He recalled his time as an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who also had very public clashes with President George H. W. Bush over settlements. Even as today's extreme gulf between the heads of state brings renewed attention to chasms in how American Jews relate to Israel, Mekel personally does not see a situation all that different from what he might have seen in his time as a diplomat.

"The best situation for an American Jew is that there is 100% agreement (between the two countries) but since this is quite often not the case, sometimes it's more difficult. I don't doubt the support and commitment of American Jews today though. I see it today as I saw in the past."