Focus on Issues: Israeli Government Scores Mixed Reviews on Outreach

Six months after the Israeli government changed hands, the diplomatic effort to reach out to Diaspora Jews and transmit Jerusalem’s new message is prompting mixed reviews.

Some community and organizational leaders say the outreach is not as aggressive or cogent as it was under the previous government, in part because Israeli policy is still evolving.

And they say this has led to a vacuum.

Others, echoed by several Israeli diplomats, say this is a transition that follows every change in government. They say a period of adjustment is natural, and that Diaspora Jewish diplomacy remains as high a priority as ever.

Several recall that the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin began his term in 1992 with a “declaration of independence” from the Diaspora, which damaged the relationship and took a lot of time to repair.

They point out that virtually every minister of the Netanyahu government already has visited the United States and met with leaders of the Jewish community.

And they say this government is keen to cultivate its U.S. Jewish ties, in part with the expectation that the Jews will be needed to mediate on its behalf with the U.S. government if and when Israeli policy on the peace process diverges from U.S. interests.

In any event, virtually no one disputes that outreach is critical at a time when profound changes are afoot in both the peace process and the status of religious pluralism in Israel.

While some applaud these changes and others lament them, no one challenges that both these issues cut to the core of the Diaspora Jewish connection to Israel.

“The current government does not yet have a road map, both with the peace process and with respect to Israel-Diaspora relations,” said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco.

“It is still a work in progress,” said Kahn, who based some of his observations on a recent two-week trip he led to Israel that included meetings with government officials. “And the implications for the Jewish community are that we are in a wait-and-see mode.”

“My biggest fear is that people might just get fed up and walk away from their interest in Israel and that would be the worst of all,” he said.

Colette Avital, Israel’s consul general in New York, said some in the Jewish community are unsettled by the change in government, but she added that this is a natural process.

The new Israeli peace policies have been “enunciated” but are “still being shaped,” she said.

“As long as people don’t know what the parameters are, there is some uncertainty and anxiety,” said Avital, who is leaving her post and returning to Israel in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, she said, “this government is more concerned about working with the Diaspora than the previous government, which started with the premise that it could handle its affairs alone.”

Another senior Israeli diplomat from a different city put Israel’s challenge quite candidly.

“The Jewish community doesn’t have the slightest clue where the government is leading us, and there is no answer from Jerusalem,” said this official, who asked that his name not be used. “We have to mark time until we get a clear government policy and make sure the community stays with us.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, sought to put the current transition in perspective.

“There are some tensions and there have been tensions before,” he said. “When Labor came in, it was a time for adjustment. We had worked with Likud for 15 years.”

The transition to Benjamin Netanyahu has been smoother for the Diaspora, he said. On his visits to the United States, the Israeli prime minister has “tried to project that we are a partnership, that we need each other.”

If there is any criticism to be leveled, Foxman said, “it is that we don’t know where he’s going.”

“But he’s entitled,” Foxman said. “He’s still in the process of developing his policy. When he does, he’ll let us know.”

Outside the Jewish community, meanwhile, reaction to a perceived slowdown in the peace process and prospects of settlement expansion has been less sympathetic.

Jewish organizational leaders say that puts the burden on them to explain and defend Israeli policies in what some of them experience as a vacuum.

“The four-year honeymoon with a positive press has ground to a halt” and the government “needs to mount a more intensive effort” to counter the trend, said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

“The Israeli government must deliver a message to help” the community “adjust to the political reality” and explain it to both critics and sympathizers, he added.

For instance, another source said, members of Congress who must sign off on aid to the Palestinian Authority are confused by the Israeli government’s steady stream of criticism of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat’s failure to comply with Israeli-Palestinian accords.

“Does Israel want U.S. aid [to the Palestinians] to stop?” said this professional, who requested anonymity. “It puts us in a difficult position.”

Barukh Binah, minister counselor for public and interreligious affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, defended the government’s outreach effort.

“We, as envoys, are doing exactly what we did before” and that is “talking as much and as often as possible with the Jewish community concerning things people are bothered with,” he said.

The sensitivity of the relationship was driven home recently when the Council of Jewish Federations adopted a resolution intended to signal to the Israeli government the potential alienation that could result from legislation on religious pluralism.

The measure called on the Israeli government not to pass legislation that would invalidate non-Orthodox conversions in the Diaspora. In an unusual move, CJF also called on Israel not to close the window on the legality of non-Orthodox conversions performed inside Israel, a window that was opened by a Supreme Court decision about a year ago.

Netanyahu pledged via satellite at the CJF’s General Assembly in Seattle not to alter the status of Diaspora conversions even as he promised to uphold the Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel.

While Netanyahu did not appear in person at the G.A., several of his ministers did, including Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, who heads the interministerial committee on Israel-Diaspora relations.

Sharansky, who stressed in his public remarks the importance of Jewish peoplehood, held a private meeting in Seattle with heads of CJF and the United Jewish Appeal, where he pledged to keep the channels open and continue the dialogue.

“I was reassured there’s an interest in an intensive pursuit of Jewish unity,” said Richard Wexler, UJA national chairman.

“I feel this is a government that wants its story told and wants Diaspora Jews to understand it,” he said.

But that does not mean the Netanyahu administration will take a course on religious pluralism that the majority of the non-Orthodox community in the Diaspora will like.

Another piece of legislation recently passed its first reading in the Knesset requiring members of local religious councils to be Orthodox. This challenges still other Israeli Supreme Court rulings barring the exclusion of Reform and Conservative members by the councils, which control virtually all aspects of religious life in Israel.

The government coalition also moved forward in its efforts to prevent non- Orthodox conversions in Israel, with legislation expected to be introduced in the Knesset shortly.

At a recent symposium here sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, Israeli U.S. Ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar signaled that the government is unlikely to challenge the efforts by the Orthodox members of its coalition to retain the monopoly of the Orthodox rabbinate over religious life.

“As long as we have territorial problems to solve, other questions will be postponed,” he said. Israel has “no other choice.” At the same time, Ben- Elissar took pains to emphasize the value that the new government attaches to Diaspora Jewry.

“Jews all over the world are owners of the Land of Israel,” he said. “The state belongs to you as well as it belongs to us.”

But Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said the government of Israel is “ignorant” if it thinks that legislation denying legitimacy to non-Orthodox movements would be “consequence-free.”

He said it would have a “disastrous impact on all matters of the relationship – - politics, money, tourism and the closeness that American Jews” feel toward Israel.

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