A Dispatch From the Israeli-American Conference
by George E. Johnson
The conventional wisdom in American Jewish life is that the next generation of Jewish adults is less “Jewish” and essentially turned off by the establishment. They will not join—or pay for—the synagogues, communal organizations, or federated agencies of their parents, and are distancing themselves from the State of Israel. So what to make of this new national Jewish organization, seemingly rising from nowhere, full-blown—the Israeli-American Council, which held its second annual Israeli-American Conference in Washington in October?
One can be excused for approaching the goals of the group—“to encourage a culture of advocacy, giving, and connection to Israel through personal examples of leadership”—with the question, is this just another pro-Israel lobbying group? But the group’s conference, attended by some 1,300 people, many of them smartly dressed young adults in the 25-40 cohort, suggests a new kind of American Jewish organization—equal parts Israeli brash self-confidence, in-your-face debate and inventiveness, solidarity with Israel and Sheldon Adelson largess ($12 million this year and $10 million last year, according to The Forward). Adelson, according to The Washington Post, told the conference that “I came up with the idea for, the vision for, IAC.” Indeed, the IAC is a kind of reverse Birthright Israel—a program to which Adelson has contributed $160 million to date—banking on the ability of Israeli expatriates to build greater attachment to Israel among American Jews.
Unlike conferences of other national Jewish organizations, speakers at the IAC gathering were not necessarily greeted only with polite applause. When Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Israel David Lau told a plenary audience that the Chief Rabbinate needs to come up with a standard for conversion acceptable to rabbis all over, there was loud applause. But when the Chief Rabbi said that a woman could not, under halacha, be a Chief Rabbi, there were catcalls and protests. In the break-out sessions, there were equally frank differences of opinion on receptivity to Israeli-Americans as they attempt to involve themselves in American Jewish life, and on the challenges Israeli-Americans face in preserving Israeli and Jewish cultural identity as they, like other immigrants, attempt to integrate into American life.
On the other hand, there were serious proposals and discussions on the hot-button issues, both in the plenaries and in the small sessions. When General Amos Yadlin, Director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, rose to criticize the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran, there was no overblown rhetoric about annihilation, but rather recognition of the need to overcome the “bitterness” created by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s advocacy against the deal and to “put Israel back in the game.” He proposed using the time provided by the agreement to develop a strategy for countering the Iranian threat and a new cooperation agreement between Israel and the United States to monitor Iranian nuclear preparations during the agreement period.