December 10, 2018

IAC CEO Shoham Nicolet on Unifying American-Jewish Community

Shoham Nicolet

More than a decade ago, Israeli-born Shoham Nicolet arrived in Los Angeles with a dream. A former lieutenant in an elite Israel Defense Forces unit and alumni of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Nicolet along with a group of Israeli-American businesspeople in Los Angeles – wanted to establish a prominent Israeli-American organization to serve the Jewish-American community and foster deeper connections to the Jewish state. Amid countless rejections, it long seemed like a pipe dream. Nicolet joined with this group of business leaders to found the organization, becoming its first professional staff member.

Eleven years later and Nicolet is the CEO of the Israeli-American Council (IAC), the largest Israeli-American organization in the United States. The Journal caught up with Nicolet before his organization’s national conference in South Florida at the end of the month, to discuss the Pittsburgh shooting, what Americans can learn from Israelis in the fight against anti-Semitism, and what he views as obstacles to unity in the Jewish-American community. 

Jewish Journal: First, I wanted to give you a chance to respond to what happened in Pittsburgh, on your own behalf, and on behalf of the IAC. 

Shoham Nicolet: The most important thing is our hearts and minds are with the community. That’s before anything else. These are members of our community that lost their lives just because they were Jews. It shook all of us at the IAC. It doesn’t matter where we live or where we’re from. We’re a part of this Jewish-American community. We live in a new reality right now.  The only way to deal with this new situation is to become united and come together as one voice. That goes beyond politics and denominations. We also have to be proactive. We have to find new ways to fight anti-Semitism with everything the law allows us here as citizens. We need to work with law enforcement and elected officials and make sure anti-Semitism in 2018 and in the future is unacceptable. 

JJ: How will what happened affect the tenor and themes of the IAC’s upcoming conference? 

SN: It’s going to be there. But the conference was already planned. With that said, we’re looking at anti-Semitism and ways to combat it all the time. So we’re covering the same topics that we planned to but we’re just going to be even more intricate and more focused. 

JJ: What is the main focus of the conference? 

SN: It’s a cliché, but we have to stop talking about it and start doing it, which means bringing unity to the American-Jewish community. There are so many challenges that we, as a community, are facing right now. If anyone feels they can beat the challenges alone, they’re dead wrong. We have to do it as a coalition and that’s what the IAC is all about. We’ll have more than 3,000 people representing a very wide spectrum of political views, socioeconomic and other different backgrounds, Israeli Americans and Jewish Americans from East and West. 

JJ: What are some of those challenges? 

SN: I think that right now if you ask me why I’m not going to sleep well at night, I think it’s the connection between Israel and the Jewish people, particularly the younger generation in the United States. The fact is that we see more and more communities that are stepping back from Israel. It’s not that they stop loving it, but they’re loving it with some conditions. My fear is that when you look at the next generation of Jewish Americans, if they’re not there for the Jewish state, it’s going to be in trouble. But we don’t have the privilege or the right to think we can give up on one or the other. We need to stop creating division and emphasizing the gaps between Israel and American Jews. 

JJ: What do you feel is creating those gaps?

SN: If you look at what happened after Pittsburgh, in articles in newspapers, the chief rabbinate of Israel, it was reported, didn’t mention the word “synagogue.” The narrative was that the chief rabbi didn’t accept that it was a synagogue because it was Conservative. But, of course, if you read the real quotes, there definitely is the word synagogue, and it’s mentioned that it’s not important what denomination of Jews these were. He said exactly the opposite of whatever was trying to be portrayed. This is counterproductive. It’s unfortunate that, in some cases, in some parts of our community, this is done to create division and damage. I don’t want it to be permanent damage. We need to focus on what brings people together, focus on shared values between Israel and Jewish Americans and the important benefits Israel provides to Jewish-Americans. 

JJ: What do the Israeli and Israeli-American communities have to offer with regard to discussions around anti-Semitism here in the United States? 

SN: We’re bringing our background as Israelis and Israeli-Americans to the discussion. We bring knowledge that exists in Israel on how to deal with threats that Israel is dealing with constantly, unfortunately. The situation here reflects many of the same challenges of the daily reality in Israel. This is an opportunity to leverage the fact that we have a Jewish state and to use this knowledge and this energy in this time to fight anti-Semitism in the United States. 

JJ: You’ve spoken about a generational disconnect. Will the conference have a younger feel? 

SN: The reality is the conference is a young conference. The average age is 37 and we have people coming from campuses across the nation with over 100 high-school and middle-school students. They’re going to feel like they’re in Israel, like they’re in the center of their people. We’ll be creating discussions around issues in a very Israeli way, where people will debate often and loudly, but all in a clear context — under the umbrella of love and connection to Israel. 

JJ: Are there any speakers you’re particularly excited about? 

SN: I don’t want to focus on one speaker in particular. You have the Minister of Justice, the Speaker of the Knesset, and you have an Israel Prize winner. There will be Democratic and Republican elected official members of Congress, many people from the high-tech world. But going back 11 years to when we just started IAC in Los Angeles, no one wanted to speak with us. The Federation said your place is in Israel, not here. They looked at us as a problem, as a bug in the system.

JJ: What changed? 

SN: We just said the same thing for 11 years. We’re here only to give to the Jewish-American community. Now, we have what seemed an impossible scenario with all these prominent speakers. This is what happens when you don’t look at issues and just look at the vision of where you want to be.