Israeli Americans now see themselves as a bridge that can help close the widening gap between Israeli and American Jewry.
By Alex Traiman, JNS
More than 3,000 Israeli Americans gathered to celebrate “Israeliness” and to profess their unconditional support for the State of Israel at the fifth annual Israeli-American Council convention for three days in Hollywood, Fla.
A population of first- and second-generation Israelis soaring to more than 10 percent of the overall Jewish population in the United States—at 600,000 and growing—Israeli Americans now see themselves as a bridge that can help close the widening gap between the Israeli and American Jewish populations.
IAC chairman Adam Milstein told JNS: “We are a new power in the Jewish Diaspora. We are here to create a Zionist Diaspora. We are creating a community nationwide, from coast to coast with two big missions. The first is to ensure that our next generations are Israeli Americans, which includes being Jewish, and the second is to be a Zionist power that strengthens the State of Israel from abroad.”
Now in its 11th year—and its fifth as a national organization—the IAC has quickly burgeoned into one of the Jewish community’s most prominent organizations, with an annual conference that is now among one of the largest in the Jewish world.
For the IAC, the growth has come largely at the hands of philanthropists and mega-donors Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, who had already committed a substantial $63 million to the organization.
The Adelsons played a prominent role, attending the entire three-day conference and often taking the stage. During a “fireside chat” at the convention’s final plenary session, Miriam Adelson, who was born in Israel, committed an additional $13 million to the organization, solidifying the organization’s growth trajectory for the next several years.
A nonpartisan organization
While the Adelsons are among the most politically conservative Jewish philanthropists in the United States and Israel, they and IAC organizers made certain to stress that supporting Israel must remain a bipartisan issue, and that the IAC was a nonpartisan organization.
The Adelsons insisted that the conference schedule “remain balanced” so as “not to give the feeling that the IAC supports any political party over another.”
Liberal Jewish mega-donor Haim Saban, himself an Israeli American, similarly participated in the convention’s final plenary session; he donates a considerable sum—albeit less than the Adelsons—to the organization. Saban hosted a question-and-answer session with Democratic Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Democratic Speaker-designate of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi.
Both legislators stressed the importance of the mutually beneficial U.S.-Israel alliance, with Schumer asserting that “there is no country outside the United States that does more to prevent terrorism and keep America safe than the State of Israel.”
The Democratic leaders provided a counterbalance to the convention’s keynote address by U.S. Vice President Michael Pence, whose attendance was a tribute to the prominent role that the Adelsons—sizeable backers of U.S. President Donald Trump—played in the conference. Less than two weeks before the IAC, Dr. Miriam Adelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her professional endeavors combating addiction and substance abuse, for her long history of philanthropy, and for being an active and committed member of the American Jewish community.
Pence stressed the unwavering support of the current administration for Israel, stating emphatically that “no president has done more to strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance than the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump,” and committing that the administration “will never allow the Islamic Republic of Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.”
He also noted the work of IAC. “Support for the Jewish state is not a partisan issue, it is an American issue,” said the vice president. “Few understand that truth better than the men and women of the Israeli-American Council.”
And while statistics on American Jewish voters would likely indicate that many of the conference attendees did not vote for the Trump ticket, Pence’s remarks received a thunderous standing ovation.
The Israelis in the audience appeared to have put aside differences about Trump, Pence and the current administration, and recognize the significance of a government in place that supports Israel and treats its leaders with respect, regardless of the administration’s party affiliation or positions on domestic and even some foreign issues.
Asked to weigh in on whether the current Israeli administration prefers that the current U.S. administration remain in office long-term, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, himself son of an Israeli mother who emigrated to the United States, stated, “You are not going to catch me wading into the American political debate.”
Yet the Israeli-American audience appeared more than willing to cut through the political noise surrounding the current administration and celebrate Trump’s overwhelming support for Israel, which includes leaving the ill-fated Iran nuclear deal signed by former President Barack Obama, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and ardently supporting Israel in the anti-Semitic hotbed that is the United Nations.
Dermer noted that Trump had promised during the presidential campaign to address these three particular issues, and so far has “followed through” on his commitments.
The ability of the Israeli Americans to parse support for Israel from other wider political issues stems from their intrinsic appreciation for their homeland. Unlike many American Jews, who have spent relatively little time in Israel and have fewer family members living there, the conference attendees explicitly consider America to be their nation of residence, while Israel remains for them the one and only nation-state of the Jewish people.
“Israel is the only Jewish state we have, the only state that can protect us from another Holocaust, the only country that can provide refuge if we are in danger,” said Milstein. “Who are we to criticize the State of Israel?”
A society celebrating ‘Israeliness’
While the conference schedule was filled with American and Israeli politicians, in addition to some of Israel’s leading newspaper editors and correspondents, and addressed some of the most serious issues affecting Israel and the Diaspora, the spirit of the conference was positive—a celebration of Israeli Americans’ coming of age in a country where they were not immediately or easily integrated into the American Jewish community.
In that sense, IAC membership represents a large and varied society, with the mood of the conference akin to an extravagant, three-day group function celebrating “Israeliness.” Each of the three days featured Israeli musicians, and the Saturday night after-party ran into the early hours of the morning.
Moreover, while the conference plenaries and more than half of the breakout sessions were conducted in English, the unofficial language of the conference was unmistakably Hebrew.
Sessions focused on some of the most pertinent topics affecting Israel and the Jewish community, including Iran, Syria, Gaza and regional security; a growing tide of anti-Semitism worldwide and in the United States; the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; the battle for Israel on university campuses; and repairing the frayed Israel-Diaspora relationship.
Opposite tone to recent Federation gathering
The IAC convention comes less than two months after the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, held this year in Tel Aviv.
The theme of that conference, titled “We need to talk,” focused on key socio-political issues playing themselves out in Israel that “bother” the American Jewish communal leadership. The tone of the conference was one of disappointment in Israel, according to many, and similarly left Israelis disappointed in what appeared to be the petty nature of an American Jewish leadership that is seemingly judging Israel from afar.
At the same time, a solid contingent of Israelis felt it failed to successfully address key issues affecting Jews in the United States, including rampant assimilation and intermarriage, declining support for Israel among Jewish college students attending school within a hostile campus environment, and an inability to maintain consistent bipartisan support for Israel in Congress.
In a session focused on repairing the Israel-Diaspora relationship, Barry Shrage, who led Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston’s Jewish Federation, in the position of its president for more than 30 years, called the recent JFNA conference “a depressing moment” for the Federation structure. Ted Sokolosky, president of UJA Federation in Toronto for 10 years (from 2004-2014), called the General Assembly (or GA, as it is known) “one of the most disappointing” Federation gatherings to date, noting that the GA used to be, but is no longer, one of the highlights of the Jewish communal calendar, meant to connect and not to divide.
While the JFNA conference sought to poke its finger in the eye of issues that seemingly divide Israelis and American Jewry and begin an intramural blame game, the tone of the IAC conference was unwavering in its support for Israeli concerns and constructive in its willingness to put the critical issues squarely on the table, while looking for commonalities and solutions to bring the two communities closer together.
“Our No. 1 priority is the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” said Milstein. “For other organizations, Israel may not be the first, second or [even] third issue.”
Armed with millions of dollars in Adelson funding, the IAC now seeks to fill the gaping void of support for Israel that declining Jewish communal support has created. Milstein told JNS that the “IAC’s unconditional support for Israel has attracted many non-Israelis” into its ranks.
Can funding buy results?
IAC now has an unfamiliar problem in the Jewish communal world: how to figure out what to do with tens of millions of dollars in funding and turn the advance capital into measurable results. Led by successful Israeli business leaders, Milstein says IAC is up to the challenge.
“Part of the limitations faced by the Federations and other Jewish organizations is that they are led by nonprofit professionals who are not trained in entrepreneurial thinking,” he stated. “The inherent ability of the IAC leadership to take meaningful pivots, from our experience as businesspeople who have been forced to try new things in order to succeed, is a significant advantage for IAC.”
IAC is also growing a lobbying arm.
“While AIPAC focuses on passing pro-Israel legislation in Congress, IAC is also working on the state level to pass anti-BDS legislation,” described Milstein. “We take our cues from AIPAC and try to support what they do, but then we are able to work more broadly and take actions AIPAC is unable to.”
“We don’t seek to replace AIPAC or the Federations or any other Jewish organization,” he added. “Rather, we encourage our members to take active roles, even on the boards of these organizations,” while noting that he himself is “one of the largest donors to AIPAC.”
The IAC leadership—ecstatic with the overall feel and feedback from the conference—is ready to grow the organization further in the coming year and beyond, with plans to open new chapters across the United States.
“When we first created this organization in Los Angeles, we had no idea we could take it to the entire United States,” said Milstein.
Yet it remains to be seen whether the American Jewish community will acknowledge the role Israelis are now committing to play in the United States. Time and additional funding will determine whether IAC can transform itself from a society of Israelis celebrating communal life across America into a new powerhouse in the American Jewish establishment.