With nine Israeli government ministers and other MKs in New York this past weekend for a couple of media conferences and the annual Celebrate Israel parade, the usual script between Israel and diaspora Jews was momentarily flipped. Rather than American Jews traveling to Israel and encountering Israelis, last week featured Israeli officials encountering American Jews on less familiar ground instead of on their usual home court. Unsurprisingly in light of the general friction between American Jews and right-wing Israeli governments and the particular friction that has been playing out for months related to the government’s proposed judicial overhaul, these encounters were not uniformly smooth. 

Simcha Rothman, the chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee and one of the co-architects of the judicial overhaul proposals, was followed by demonstrators wherever he went, from a park bench in Brooklyn on Thursday, to the streets outside the synagogue in Teaneck, New Jersey where he spoke later that evening, to the sidewalks of Manhattan on Friday night. The latter interaction ended with Rothman grabbing a megaphone out of a protester’s hand and marching away with it, resulting in a complaint to the police filed against Rothman that was closed the next day, and Rothman’s wife giving an interview to Israel’s Channel 12 where she said that she had felt assaulted and under attack by those protesting her husband. Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli was also targeted by protesters during Sunday’s parade, and at one point responded with a gesture captured in a photo that looked to some like Chikli giving his interlocutors the middle finger while Chikli insisted he was gesturing to the protestors to smile (click the link and decide for yourself).

Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli by Reuven Kopichinski, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)
MK Simcha Rothman by Shmuel Shneider, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (License linked to image)

All of this has naturally raised the temperature in the already-simmering relationship between American Jews and Israel. Some groups demanded to have Rothman banned from Sunday’s parade following Friday night’s megaphone incident, and Chikli has been widely lambasted as a woefully inappropriate Israeli government representative to the diaspora. On the other side of the divide, Rothman’s Religious Zionism party chief, Bezalel Smotrich, accused the protestors of destroying Israeli democracy and called for New York prosecutors to bring charges against them, while Likud MK Tali Gotliv maintained that it was Rothman who had been assaulted by the megaphone wielder.

For many observers, this is a slow-motion train wreck that could have and should have been easily avoided. Most American Jews do not want to hear from prominent members of the most far-right government in Israel’s history, and even less so from one of the two people most associated with the judicial overhaul. It was inevitable that Rothman would be confronted by protestors, and equally inevitable given his comments about protestors in Israel and his reputed inability to control his emotions that he would react as he did. Many American Jews support Israel despite this government rather than because of it, and—as odd as this may sound to those not in tune with the intricacies of the Jewish community—view this government’s ministers marching in a parade celebrating Israel as a poke in the eye. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reportedly told visiting ministers and MKs to think about keeping a low profile while in New York so as to avoid clashes with American Jews, leading to the conclusion that maybe they should not have come at all if the aim is to improve relations between Israel and the world’s largest Jewish diaspora.

Celebrate Israel parade participants marching in support of Israeli Democracy, June 4, 2023

I, however, would like to see the building blocks of this past weekend—though without the physical confrontation aspect—repeated as many times as possible. I want Rothman, Chikli, and even Smotrich here again and again. I don’t view the clashes between the Israeli visitors and those protesting them as regrettable or something that is best avoided, and it is not because I think this government should be shunned or disrespected. Having Israeli government officials in the U.S. and interacting with American Jews may look ugly in the short term, but it is a necessary component in building a better relationship between Israel and its American Jewish supporters.

Many of the Israelis who came to New York are not ones who are terribly familiar with or to American Jews. How many have heard from or met Rothman? Despite her good English, what firsthand experience does Galit Distal Atbaryan have with the American Jewish community? Has Meir Porush interacted outside of Haredi circles in New York? Does Amihai Eliyahu have a real idea of what American Jews think of his Otzma Yehudit party, its head Itamar Ben Gvir, or its spiritual forebear Meir Kahane? While some of the Israeli officials who came to the U.S. last week, such as Nir Barkat, are more familiar with the situation here and more comfortable speaking with American Jews, this was not the usual crowd of Likud stalwarts who have been in Netanyahu’s circle for decades. There is a growing tendency on the Israeli right to think that liberal American Jews are assimilating out of existence or are Israel-haters, that the American Jews they see in Israel—Orthodox Jews who are largely a political minority among American Jews writ large, and leaders of American Jewish organizations who have literally dedicated their lives to sustaining strong relations between American Jews and Israel come hell or high water—are representative of American Jewish views. This is particularly exacerbated by the parties in this coalition, who outside of Likud have historically not engaged with American Jews and know barely anything about them. It is no different than American Jews who take a trip to Israel, spend half a week in Tel Aviv and half a week in the few square blocks of Jerusalem between the Old City and King George Street, and return home with a distinct and narrow view of what Israel looks like.

MK Meir Porush

The biggest obstacle in Israel-American Jewish diaspora relations is a lack of knowledge. For all of the frequent criticism of American Jews for not understanding Israel, the blind spots are even larger going the other way. The first step towards a better model of engagement between the two sides is actual engagement, and that means Israeli government representatives getting to see American Jewish life and hear from American Jews where they live. People like Rothman and Chikli need to come to New York and experience the good, the bad, and even the ugly in order to bust their assumptions about who American Jews are and break their ignorance about what American Jews think. I am not naïve in believing that this will solve all problems; there are fundamentally deep, if not outright unbridgeable, divides between Israelis and American Jews. But if many Israeli officials do not even understand what the actual divides are and, more importantly, why they exist, they will proceed to misunderstand American Jewish support for Israel, the role that the American Jewish community plays in Israel’s security and prosperity, and why American Jews care about what takes place in the Jewish state.

I hope that Rothman took something away (aside from the megaphone) from his unwanted but unshakeable entourage wherever he went in New York, and comes back soon rather than try to avoid having to deal with American Jews again. I hope that Chikli learned something about cross-cultural dialogue with American Jews (and for what it’s worth, I don’t actually think he was giving anyone the finger) and keeps engaging. I hope that the ministers and MKs who unobtrusively went from private meeting to private meeting decide to make their presences felt next time. The more time they spend listening, even uncomfortably, to a much broader spectrum of American Jews than the ones who populate the David Citadel and Inbal lobbies, the better off Israel and American Jews will be for the long haul.