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Welcome to the Jewish Agency, Mr. Herzog. My Advice? Ignore American Jewish Institutions.

Our elites are useless, but there are many friends to be had elsewhere

Liel Leibovitz
June 25, 2018
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
Issac Herzog in Tel Aviv in 2015.Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
Issac Herzog in Tel Aviv in 2015.Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

Dear Isaac Herzog,

Congratulations on your appointment as the new head of the Jewish Agency! You’ve got some very big shoes to fill. Natan Sharansky, short in stature yet large in spirit, is an authentic Jewish hero for the ages, who earned the respect of Jews around the world for his many years in solitary confinement in a Siberian prison, and for his championing of the cause of human freedom worldwide. American Jews, Russian Jews, French Jews, Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews—they all loved and admired Sharansky. Bibi admired Sharansky, and maybe even loved him, too. And yet, even Sharansky found it troublingly difficult to get much of anything done.

Yours being a Jewish organization, you’re already inundated with advice, analysis, and all manners of unsolicited opinions, which if followed to the letter will surely make your own tenure a smashing success, even without Sharansky’s global stature. For example, there was the article in a major Israeli newspaper just yesterday arguing that your election is an instrument to help American Jews defeat the Israeli they most revile, Prime Minister Netanyahu. As the most powerful and successful Jewish community in the history of the planet—aside from Israel, of course—American Jews believe that they are your most important partners. They also believe that they the key to your success, and perhaps to Israel’s very survival.

As an Israeli who’s been living in New York since the fall of 1999, long enough to consider myself an American Jew as well, allow me to offer you one piece of advice: These are no longer the American Jews you went to high school with in Manhattan. They’re richer, more entitled, and, often, spaced-out. Obama crushed their political power in the liberal circles where you feel comfortable. They’ve become increasingly beleaguered and shrill. Why? Because they feel like no one is listening to them, and they are right. To put it politely, the progressives who rule the Democratic Party now don’t give a flying hoot about nice Israeli liberals and the American Jews who support them. The Trump Jews support Israel, but no one cares about them either—including Trump.

If you consult the conventional wisdom about the state of the relationship between Israel and American Jews, you’d likely get a grim picture. Those on the left will tell you that the occupation is alienating a new generation of American Jews that no longer feels comfortable instinctively identifying with Israel. Those on the right will say that the problem is not in our stars but in our hasbara, and that our most important order of business is to tell our story better. Some will gripe about the creeping influence of the rabbinate, others about women not being permitted to all parts of the Kotel, and others yet about other things, which it’s your job to sit patiently and listen to, even when they are dreadfully ill-informed, or sound like they are coming from Mars, and also when they are true.

My advice to you is to ignore them—us—all. Why? First, because they’re not talking about Israel at all. Both the right and the left of the American Jewish community are prone to seeing Israel not as a real and separate place but as a proxy for their own, uniquely American Jewish, emotional and psychological dramas and conundrums. They’re Americans, which means that what they are actually talking about, endlessly and passionately, is themselves.

As an Israeli embedded on the Upper West Side and as a journalist who has spent most of the past two decades covering the American-Jewish community, I can tell you that this behavior is, if not laudable, then entirely normal, and entirely American. So none of it particularly worries me.

What does worry me, as someone who still dearly loves Israel, is not the familiar song and dance of the Israeli-American Jewish relationship, in which Americans are from Venus and Israelis are from Mars. Rather, it is the acute sense that one side in this relationship is no longer capable of being a functioning partner. The relationship is broken, because the organizational structure of American Jewry is broken. They won’t partner with you, and even if they did they are incapable of reaching anyone within the Jewish community.

It’s no big secret that nearly all of today’s name-brand “major Jewish organizations,” with their storied histories and reputations and initials, whose letterhead is enough to con foreign heads of state into thinking that they are meeting with the Elders of Zion themselves, are nothing more than fancy letterheads paid for mostly by a bundle of bored billionaires. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if so many of these organizations didn’t succumb to a particularly dispiriting mindset that is so spooked by being accused of dual loyalty that it too often fails to state the position that the overwhelming majority of American Jews fervently support: That the state of Israel has a right to exist and an obligation to defend itself and its citizens against violent attacks of all stripes.

Sounds basic, but if you consider the fact that most Jewish organizations—as well as their funders and officers—live within a larger intellectual and organizational universe where Israel is generally seen as a crude ethno-state perpetually teetering on the brink of fascism, you’ll understand their general reluctance to unequivocally and uncomplicatedly cheer for Israel to protect its own interests, within any set of historical borders.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating blind obedience to the powers that be in Jerusalem, religious or political. Far from it: As American Jews, we also have a lot to do to help change much of what is wrong there, from the chief rabbinate’s stranglehold over all religious life to discrimination against Ethiopian Jews. But all of us—left and right, Reform and Conservative, Orthodox and secular, Republican and Democrat, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, American and Israeli need to stand together on the issue of Israel’s legitimacy. In order to do, however, it is clear to me that Israel needs new American partners. They don’t exist here.

So, the next time you’re in town, then, forget about the fortified bastions of privilege and irrelevance that, increasingly, do less and less and less that actually matters. Take heart that you now have the technology to reach so many of us who want to hear a voice—any voice—that speaks to us in the plain and morally serious tone our leaders no longer can or want to sound. And know that while any newsroom or classroom in America is likely to be irredeemably biased against the simple idea that Israel has the right to survive, most other Americans, as surveys show, feel very strongly the exact opposite way. We’re in the middle, or the beginning, of a technological revolution that has destroyed the old media landscape, in a way that is scary, but also offers you an opportunity to fulfill your mission.

Instead of talking to the New York Times, try going on Sam Harris’ podcast, which reaches millions of people who still take the idea of free inquiry seriously rather than seek to bend reality to fit the fantasies of the political operatives who run Twitter. There’s support and love for Israel all around you. It’s just not in the airless heights of our elites, Jewish and otherwise, who are frankly more worried about what the other millionaire-billionaires think of them, and getting their kids into Swarthmore.

There’s never been a more thrilling time to head the Jewish Agency. I hope you go out there soon and make new friends.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.