A letter from Israel

October 28, 2018 by Ron Weiser
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Being in Israel for the meetings of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors and at the same time overlapping American Jewry’s General Assembly, the feeling of the shift in the balance of power and confidence between Israel and the largest Diaspora community, is palpable…writes Ron Weiser.

Dr Ron Weiser

The American GA is held in Israel every few years and now for the first time, outside of Jerusalem.

These gatherings are prepared some years in advance. Of course, it is perfectly reasonable, in fact desirable, for conferences such as these to move around the country and see Israel in all of its layers.

It is purely a coincidence that just when President Trump has recognised Jerusalem (without the Holy Basin) as Israel’s capital, American Jewry are meeting in Tel Aviv.

However, there is at least some unintended symbolism here, of the separation of the bulk of US Jewry from the President.

The GA centred around the theme of ‘we need to talk’.

It is fair to say that the GA comprises largely of Conservative and Progressive and lesser numbers of Orthodox Jews, and with a greater proportion of those American Jews with concerns – real or perceived – about Israel’s liberal and democratic values and settlement policies, being front and centre.

Which of course reflects the relative sizes of these groups in the US.

Overlaid on this base, and looming large is the disconnect and discontent of very significant sections of United States Jewry with President Trump and in some ways at the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who represent values that they believe are alienating American Jewry from the Jewish State and by extension, from Judaism.

The ‘we need to talk’ is sincerely presented as the desire for a two-way dialogue, and for both sides to need to understand each other better.

But in reality, as witnessed by the call itself being initiated by the Americans, it is they who now feel they are not being heard by Israel.

And they are deeply bothered by it.

As Israel has grown stronger and larger, the balance has shifted dramatically.

And whilst Israel does, of course, care deeply about the Jewish Diaspora, it is the Diaspora that increasingly depends on Israel for its continuity, rather than the other way around.

A hard truth for American Jewry to swallow.

We in the Diaspora do have so much in common with Israel, but there are also stark differences.

There is a huge paradigm shift between living in and being part of the Jewish State with a Jewish majority – compared to merely being the committee for the Jewish people, living as a minority group in a non-Jewish host society, no matter how open and welcoming that society may be.

The difference in the powers and ability of a state versus a committee, go to the heart of the matter.

As the GA progressed, I started to wonder just who the Americans were more eager to convince, the Israelis or themselves.

Whilst many Diaspora communities are dynamic and rich in Jewish culture, they fade into the background compared to what is going on in Israel today with the increasing variety of ways to express one’s Jewish identity and religion.

As another purely symbolic and admittedly very superficial sign of the times, but one I thought about never the less – it was only in the 3rdsupermarket within cooee of the Tel Aviv beachfront that I was able to find a single bottle of gefilte fish on the shelves, as opposed to the variety on similar shelves in Jerusalem. Whilst I was trudging through the Tel Aviv heat and humidity I did ask myself – Old versus New?

However, there is a religious revival in Israel, or better said a spiritual revival – in many shapes and forms.

Even in so-called secular Tel Aviv, and all over the country for that matter, including in Jerusalem, there is a thirst for Jewish thought, experimentation and experiences.

Zionism today has become the enabler of Jewish identity and the place which perhaps counterintuitively brings the Jewish world together, whilst maintaining and increasing its diversity.

Diaspora experimentation with identity, without the unifying matrix of the Jewish State, if it can succeed at all, lacks the chances of significant impact.

Which means to say that in all matters, including recognition and status of the streams and various philosophies, the main game in town is in Israel and one must play in this arena to be central to the Jewish future.

Distance from Israel, whilst complaining about Israeli attitudes, will not help Diaspora causes.

So good on organisations like the Nth American Federations’ with the GA and the Jewish Agency, for bringing the game to town.

In particular, the Jewish Agency under the leadership of new chairman Isaac ‘Bougie’ Herzog, has brought an excellent beginning to this task. He is well placed to do so and has the energy and intellect to carry out the mission.

What I also witnessed, is a pause and recognition amongst most disaffected sections of the American leadership that to try and bring change in Israel and with Israel, a more conciliatory and less confrontational approach is more likely to succeed.

Herzog was not afraid to tell the GA that Israel and the Diaspora are different saying We can no longer pretend we are all the same” and called“for a celebration of difference”.

I left Australia before the Wentworth by-election, but was in Israel whilst it and the then subsequent counting took place and was quoted on it in the Jerusalem Post.

I am not sure there really is such a thing as the ‘Jewish vote’, but it is instructive to look at the campaigning and at how much like American Jewry we are becoming, albeit not in the same proportions – as yet.

We had a non-Jewish candidate in Dave Sharma, whose knowledge of and affinity for Israel are well known and who recently completed one of the most highly regarded stints as Australian Ambassador to Israel in living memory.

During the campaign, Prime Minister Morrison announced, very positively, that the government would consider – would merely consider – a proposal to move the Australian embassy to Jerusalem.

Ironically this announcement probably had the unintended consequences of making Sharma’s election more difficult and the embassy move in the foreseeable future, less likely.

Running against him as an independent and it appears, ultimate winner, was a Jewish candidate, Dr Kerryn Phelps, who ran strongly on a campaign with high focus being given to climate change.

The most prominent Progressive Rabbi in Sydney, and the Rabbi who officiated at Phelps’s renewal of marriage vows (Australia’s first such Jewish ceremony since same-sex unions were legalised) whilst not endorsing Phelps directly, was quoted in the general and Jewish press and apparently in a letter to his large congregation,saying that voters should prioritise the moral issue of climate change when considering how to vote.

Both Sharma and Phelps were positive in varying degrees on the two issues of Israel and climate change, but differed on which one was highlighted and more strongly emphasised during the campaign.

Now again, with only some 12% or so of the electorate being Jewish, it is hard to know if there was a ‘Jewish vote’ and if so, how significant it was.

And as we also know there were many unique features in this election from disgruntled Liberal voters with the unedifying removal of Malcolm Turnbull from the prime ministership, to the knowledge that a general election is imminent in any case.

But what this election did highlight is the Americanisation of the local Jewish community in terms not of adherence to universal values per se, but the relative importance of the ranking of them, versus the desire to promote the interests of a (very small) minority group within the wider society. Noting that those interests will not be front and centre of anyone else’s agenda.

It was the way in which both candidates chose to conduct their campaigns that reflected the much larger and starker divide within American Jewry.

The direction we choose is up to us, but this is the most overt signs we have seen of this phenomenon here.

Dr Ron Weiser AM


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