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The Israeli-American Council feels like a revolutionary force

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November 11, 2014

There are questions over which one can agonize forever, but which demand a yes or no answer. One such question is: Are we — and by “we,” I mean the Jewish world — better off with or without the surging Israeli-American Council (IAC)?

The answer, following the conference that took place last weekend in Washington, D.C., which was successful above and beyond the expectations of all the participants with whom I spoke (that is, two or three dozen), is much clearer today than it used to be: We are better off with the IAC, and now we can go back to agonizing about it.

Why agonize? A young couple I met at the conference provided me with an answer. They told me their life story: Nothing dramatic, just a personal decision to stay in the U.S. rather than move to Israel; not for lack of love for Israel; not because they thought that Israel isn’t good enough for them; not because they see many faults in Israel or have great misgivings over its policies or the cost of living. They decided to stay in the U.S. because of several small things, and the call was pretty close. One day they might still change their minds — or not. Quietly, they confided in me the following observation: An organization such as the IAC makes it easier for us to be here and feel at home. It makes us feel we can enjoy all the benefits of living in the U.S. without having to really give up on living in an Israeli community.

So, here is the downside (and it is twofold):

First — and this is the obvious downside — for Israel to lose youngsters to the U.S. is always somewhat painful (even as we realize that in today’s world, people come and go). Israel, according to the Zionist ethos that is the basis of its existence, is a country that believes Jews should have their own country. And for them to have a country, they have to live in that country. If Jews do not want to live in Israel and are going to build small Israels for themselves in places such as the U.S., there will be no Israel.

And there is also a second downside that is less obvious — the illusory reality that organizations such as the IAC help to create. That is to say: The IAC, without ever intending to do such a thing, is making young couples such as the one I just mentioned believe that their small-i-israel is like Israel — when it is not. Yes, they can speak Hebrew. Yes, they can send their kids to the Tzofim youth movement.

Yes, they can watch Channel 2 news and chat about it on Friday nights and visit Israel and Skype with their families and have mostly Israeli friends and rely on Israeli professionals and eat Israeli food.

But, no — this is not Israel in the sense that it is not really transferable to the next generation. The Israeliness of the parents is based on memories, nostalgia, personal experience, gut feeling. These are not transferable. The memories that the next generation is going to have will be American, and the Israeli memories that they will have, from going on vacations and visits to Israel, will be the memories of a visitor. I remember visiting Haifa as a young child, but my world was in Jerusalem. The children of Israelis in Los Angeles will fondly remember visiting Israel — but their everyday nostalgic memories will be created in L.A.

I have nothing against L.A., and I don’t intend to pass judgment on personal decisions made by people who decide to live wherever they want. But I do think that illusions lead to problems. If, by creating a “small-i-israel,” people expect their children to be “Israeli,” they are likely to be surprised. If they expect their grandchildren to retain their sense of Israeliness, they will almost certainly be surprised.

Because of these reasons, the IAC justifies some agonizing. And even more so, because it seems to be on its way to prominence. The conference in Washington was a great success, not because of the many political headlines that came out of it (Iran, Saban, Adelson, Romney, Graham), but rather because of the special atmosphere and the energy and the vibrancy that all the participants felt all through the event. My last tweet from that event said: “Would it be too bombastic to argue that #IACinWDC was the liveliest Jewish gathering in quite a while?” I am ready to now answer the question: no, it is not bombastic, it is a simple truth. Of course, this being the first conference for the organization was a big factor. And so was the fact that the participants all spoke the same language (Hebrew, that is). And also the fact that many of the participants themselves seemed to agonize over the things I just mentioned.

This was evident at a panel at the very end of the conference, when Israeli MK Elazar Stern, always ready with an in-your-face comment, compared the participants to his own children, had they decided not to be religiously Jewish.

Would he be pleased with their decision? No. Would he endorse such a decision? No. Would he tell them that it doesn’t make a difference? No. Stern said that he believes in education that carries a clear ideological message — and so he would want his children to pursue a path similar to the one in which he also believes. Nevertheless, he said, had his children decided to take a different path, he would still love them, and he would still want the best for them, and he would still regard them as his own flesh and blood.

That is agonizing over the IAC — and the crowd cheered him vociferously for his blunt honesty. That is exactly the way many of them feel. They also feel that we are family, even if they choose to live far away, and also want all the best for Israel, and are willing to contribute to its success. (And no, they can’t contribute as much as Israelis do, but something is much better than nothing.)

IAC still has a long way to go and it still needs to refine its message and goals: Is it an organization that helps expat Israelis make the transition to Diaspora Jews? Or is it an organization that helps Israelis keep their identity abroad until the day they return to Israel? Or is it an organization that attempts to create a new breed of Jewish identity that is different from Israelis, but also different from Diaspora Jews?

Two weeks ago, when I interviewed Shawn Evenhaim, the chairman of IAC (for Maariv), he told me that the organization doesn’t take any position on Aliyah to Israel, but that he assumes that some of the activities encouraged and supported by the IAC make Aliyah more likely. I’m not sure that’s enough – I think that the IAC would be better advised to move from a neutral “I think that encourages” position to a less-neutral “I hope that encourages” position. Not to preach Aliyah, but to hope for it seems to me like the proper balance.

Then again, these are details. Some of them will never be determined, and some might be determined later in the game. We can talk about them forever, and we probably should, as long as they do not cloud our vision and prevent us from seeing the revolutionary nature of the IAC conference. I try not to let it all cloud my own vision, because I know what I saw: Jews coming together, proud of their heritage, proud of the Jewish homeland, feeling no ambiguity about the need to support it, having no doubts about its overall virtue. Israel needs such friends abroad. U.S. Jewry needs such a voice among it.

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