On the Ground in Miami

By | Jun 28, 2021
Israel, Jewish World, Latest
Jewish politics and power
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1. In Surfside, desperate families pin hopes on Israeli rescuers

A block west of the pile of rubble that was once a 12-story luxurious condominium building, Rabbi Eliot Pearlson stood holding a prayer book. He walked over to the site, crossing the yellow lines set up by the police, to fulfill a promise he had made to one of his congregants at Miami synagogue Temple Menorah—to read a chapter from the book of Psalms near the collapsed building, and to pray that those buried underneath the masses of fallen concrete and steel are still alive. 

A few hours earlier, a ten-person rescue team from Israel landed in Miami and had already made its way to the collapse site. This was probably the best news Pearlson heard this past week. “It makes me very confident that our people—our people—are coming to help,” he said in Hebrew to a group of Israeli reporters standing nearby.

This is a sentiment shared by many in the heartbroken Jewish community of Surfside—the hope, and belief, that when disaster strikes, Israel can help.

On Friday, I spoke to Nachman Fried outside the local community center, which initially served as the family reunification center. He was searching for his best friend, who has been unaccounted for since the collapse, and was furious at the slow pace of the rescue operation. “They need to do more, they’re just not doing enough,” he said, visibly frustrated. “Why don’t they bring in the Israelis?”

Israel has a reputation as a world leader in post-disaster rescue, and in this small town north of Miami, the Israelis’ arrival is enough to spark some desperately needed hope. It is also an illustration of how the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community is a two-way street. The notion, grounded in the early years of Israeli history, that American Jews were there to help and support Israel with their dollars and political power, and that Israel is on the receiving side, has long been upended. This was one of those instances in which a strong Jewish community in the most powerful nation in the world asked Israel for help.

And though the Israeli effort is largely symbolic, and even though all are aware that even the best rescue team cannot perform miracles, the Israeli presence provided a spark of hope in the dark days that have fallen upon this community.

2.  Is it Israel’s time to give back to American Jews?

Aware of this unique moment, the newly formed Israeli government decided to send not only a rescue mission but also to dispatch Nachman Shai, Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs. Shai’s mission was to reach out to the Jewish community and to offer support. “We’re here today to tell the Jewish community: We are standing with you,” Shai told me as we stood at the perimeter set up for the press across from the fallen building. “It’s not something we should take for granted. There are many days in which we need them, and when the day comes when they need us—a handshake, a warm shoulder—they need to know that in these moments, Israel is with them.”

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3.  Israel’s most diaspora-minded president bids farewell to U.S. Jews

Hours later, in New York, a similar message was delivered by Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, who is preparing to leave office next month.As his first stop on his farewell trip, Rivlin chose a sit-down with leaders of the American Jewish community. The hour-long meeting Sunday evening was a chance for Jewish leaders to shower praise on Rivlin, and for the Israeli president to reiterate a theme that had shaped his presidency: the idea that diaspora Jews are Israel’s “fifth tribe” (in addition to the four equally sized “tribes” that Rivlin famously outlined: secular, national-religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab).

More than any of his predecessors, Rivlin, Israel’s tenth president, viewed his position as encompassing the entire Jewish world, not only Israel. In a country dealing with growing intercommunal friction, Rivlin sought to remind Israelis that they are also part of a larger Jewish community and that concerns and interests of Jews living outside Israel should be taken seriously.

This is not to say that he succeeded in leveraging his largely symbolic role as head of state to advance the cause of religious pluralism in Israel, an issue that has been plaguing Israel’s relationship with Jewish Americans for decades. But by giving diaspora Jews a voice and a seat at the table, Rivlin used his symbolic role to set a foundation for the future.

4. Rivlin’s legacy

In a recent op-ed published in Haaretz, philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon argue for building on Rivlin’s legacy and expanding it to create a more robust Israeli presidency that would play a leadership role in promoting Jewish peoplehood. The idea of a “president of the Jewish people” could, as the authors note, fill a much-needed void in the communal lives of both Israelis and diaspora Jews.

But with all the work Rivlin put into trying to promote a more inclusive, civil-rights-minded, Jewish-pluralistic Israel, his efforts also highlighted the limits of operating from outside the partisan political system.

At the end of the day, having a moral voice in Jerusalem, and one that Jews across the world can rally behind, is a great idea; but without real political clout, it’s difficult to make change in Israel. Think for a second about some of the issues American Jews have been struggling with: Did prayer at the Western Wall become more pluralistic? Have conversion laws changed to be more welcoming to non-Orthodox denominations? (actually yes, but thanks to a Supreme Court ruling, not thanks to presidential intervention) Did Israel provide American Jews with the needed political backing when they faced right-wing anti-Semitism during the Trump years?

Change is hard, and changing things without having the necessary votes in the Knesset is even harder.

5.  Herzog’s hurdles

When it comes to Israel’s relationship with U.S. Jewry, Rivlin’s legacy is likely to be maintained and advanced. His successor, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, checks all the boxes, and then some. He is a grandson of a chief rabbi and son of a former president, fluent in English, well-versed in Jewish traditions, and, above all, comes to the presidency directly after serving as chairman of the Jewish Agency—the largest and best-known non-governmental organization tying Israel and the diaspora Jewish communities.

He is also coming into office at a time when politics in Israel seem to welcome a potential change in relations with U.S Jews: For the first time in decades, ultra-Orthodox and ultra-right-wing parties, which have fought against expanding Jewish denominational pluralism and against adopting liberal policies more in tune with those of American Jews, are not part of the coalition. 

But even if Herzog adopts the idea of serving as “president of the Jewish people” and demonstrates the will to advance these issues, the politics will still be difficult to manage. 

There is no assurance that Naftali Bennett, the prime minister who comes from the national-religious ranks, will back legislation and policies that would infuriate his political base. As for the more liberal elements of this coalition government: Yair Lapid, Israel’s alternate prime minister, as well as leaders of the Labor and Meretz parties, are clearly supportive of reshaping relations with American Jews. But do they want to expend political capital on doing so? With a fragile coalition, made up of so many diverse parties and dealing with such a broad array of hot-button issues, the idea that Lapid, or Merav Michaeli (the chairman of Israel’s Labor Party), or Nitzan Horowitz (the chairman of Meretz Party) would like to pick a fight on conversion rights or on Western Wall prayer rights seems unrealistic. To move on this issue, they’d need a lot of prodding.

Who could be that force pushing them to action? Perhaps the next president. Maybe that’s the role history has designated for Herzog. But for that, he will have to make a clear decision—that he is entering the president’s mansion not only to serve as a uniting figure, but also willing to take on some unpopular fights.

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