April 23, 2019 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
In the days after Election Day, voters in any democratic society are filled with jubilation or discontent, depending on how the outcome is viewed. Introspection is salutary for all sides in order to avoid slipping into divisiveness, especially after a hotly contested campaign. That’s certainly the process in both Israel and the United States.
While our countries and peoples are bound by deeply-rooted democratic values, the US and Israeli political systems are quite different. For American Jews watching Israel’s April 9 national elections from afar, with 11 of 39 parties on the ballot winning seats in the Knesset, and the lead party garnering only 35 out of 120 Knesset seats, the process can be a bit befuddling.
Yet considering how to work with the new coalition government once it is fully formed, just as we figure out how to collaborate with the US president and members of Congress after our own elections, is essential. Full engagement of American Jewish organizations is critical to not only sustaining, but importantly, to strengthening the bilateral US-Israel relationship and the kinship between the world’s two largest Jewish communities.
The clusters of issues most relevant to the Israel-Diaspora relationship that will be impacted by the new government coalition are Jewish religious pluralism and the peace process. Public opinion surveys have shown that important segments of American Jews and Israelis do not see eye-to-eye on these issues, and that the differences often are amplified unhelpfully by leaders.
The likely composition of the emerging new Israeli government suggests that any positive movement on realizing full religious equality for Jews in Israel, top concerns to many American Jews, is improbable. The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties captured 16 Knesset seats and will be a critical part of the coalition Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is negotiating to create.
On the religious pluralism front, there has been relatively little movement in recent years, but not just because of government inertia. Israeli Jews generally do not consider this issue a priority the way many in the Diaspora do, a reality confirmed by American Jewish Committee (AJC) surveys of American and Israeli Jews last year. For example, while 73% of American Jews favor providing a space near the Western Wall for mixed-gender prayer, only 42% of Israelis do.
Regarding the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, 43% of American Jews, but only 26% of Israelis, believe the growth of these denominations in Israel could improve the quality of Jewish life there. Further, 30% of Israelis say the non-Orthodox denominations are irrelevant to Israel, though they acknowledge that those streams strengthen Jewish life in the Diaspora.
On the peace process, there are wide-ranging views among Israeli and American Jews on how to advance it and what should be the ideal result. My organization, the AJC, has been advocating since 1991 for an enduring two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in December 2016, the AJC board reaffirmed its position regarding the settlements.
The AJC “strongly rejects the contention that settlements are the core issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the statement asserts. But AJC also has long maintained that “Israeli settlement expansion is inconsistent with the aim of a two-state accord,” and in particular believe that construction and reclassification of outposts beyond the security barrier “are not conducive to advancing prospects for peace.”
For American Jews, and others by the way, it is prudent to reserve comment on a new US peace plan until the White House does finally announce it in June, the latest projected date, or later. Likewise, whether the Israeli prime minister’s election campaign statements on West Bank territory were aimed at securing more votes or laying the groundwork for new policy is not yet clear.
For Israel-Diaspora relations, however, it is important for us American Jews to recognize that the number-one issue for Israeli voters on April 9 was, as always, security. Not surprisingly, US Jews and Israelis have different views. The AJC 2018 surveys found that 68% of Israelis said it is not appropriate for American Jews to attempt to influence Israeli policy on such issues as national security and peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and 25% said it is appropriate. A majority of US Jews, 53%, said it is appropriate, and 43% said it is not.
Nonetheless, plenty of Israeli politicians over the years have expressed the view, often to visiting American Jewish groups, that Israel is not just the nation of its citizens, but also of the Jewish people. To that end, American Jews do have a role, especially on non-security matters, and should continue to seek out allies among elected officials, non-governmental groups, and Israeli citizens in order to pursue action on their shared areas of priority concern.
One election in Israel, or for that matter in the US, does not fundamentally alter the foundation of the Israel-Diaspora relationship. Keeping it close and strong must be a shared priority for both American Jews and Israelis.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.