I write this post with some sense of trepidation, as it is going to be critical of a person and a foundation that I generally admire and respect. The Ruderman Foundation does many good things, first and foremost on issues related to people with disabilities. It also does a lot to foster better ties between Jews in Israel and Jews in the US – a commendable goal. As part of its Israel-Diaspora agenda, the Foundation takes Knesset Members and journalists on educational trips to the US and arranges for them to hear some lectures on the state of American Jewry and to meet with American Jewish leaders. As everyone even slightly familiar with my writings should know, these are all things that I highly recommend. Yet, I have a problem with the way the Rudermans handle this delicate mission. Their intentions I do not doubt – not for a minute – the outcome, though, is somewhat problematic.
This occurred to me as I was reading the latest harvest of articles based on the last Ruderman journalistic trip. “US Jews are leaving us”, declared Yair Ettinger (in Haaretz). Nadav Eyal described (in Maariv) a “growing distance” between US Jews and Israel. In Ynet News, the report from the trip warned that “more and more Jewish Americans are turning their backs on Israel”. TheMarker reported – again, a Ruderman related report, but this one wasn’t based on the latest trip – that “weakening ties with American Jewry will have economic consequences”. MK Ronit Tirosh, a former Chairperson of a Knesset Caucus initiated by Ruderman, said that she “came back from the Ruderman Fellows Program in the US last year with the understanding that Israel is in danger of losing one of its most critical strategic allies”.
As you can see – and there are more examples – the tone is highly alarmist. That’s basically the problem. Jay Ruderman is smart and knows better. He knows – and has recently said – that “these are two very different societies that have deep and intimate ties”. When he launched his Knesset initiative he told me that the MK’s “should know something about this large community that lives on another continent” – an educational goal, that somehow, along the way, morphed into being a scare tactic.
I’ve long ago discovered that battling the misconceptions and the misuses of the so-called “distancing theories” is exhausting. No evidence, no reasoning, no insistence can beat the institutional and ideological forces that advance “distancing” time and again (a detailed analysis of which you can read here). The Ruderman Foundation, armed with the best intentions, is only one notable victim of these tendencies to choose an alarmist path rather than attempt a more nuanced, and more accurate description of the true nature of the evolving ties. A victim – because I’m not even sure if this is what they wanted as they facilitated the meetings between journalists and leaders. It is the writers that chose to focus on the scary headlines – “they are leaving us, they are abandoning us” – and it is the leaders that should have been more careful not to misrepresent the story (of course, some of them just didn’t want to be careful. They wanted to sound an alarm for the above-mentioned reasons).
Yet, the good Ruderman people aren’t just victims, but are also beneficiaries of the alarmist tone. They discovered, as we all do from time to time, that scary headlines grab the attention of the media and the readers, that threats and doom and gloom predictions are the easier way to advertise one's activities. Thus, it would require a lot of self-restraint on part of a foundation for it to refrain from such tactics.
Why do I think they should still do it? Because – and I apologize again for the repetitive message – perceptions matter. As I once wrote: “The distancing discourse has become an instrument serving political, organizational, funding, and denominational interests. Frequent use of the distancing discourse in official venues confers validity on this construct, thus undermining the Jewish People’s agenda, which centers on attachment and closing the distance. Because distancing has not yet been confirmed, and because frequent discussion of distancing may artificially inflate it, becoming a distancing generator in and of itself”.
The Ruderman Foundation wants to do good things; it wants to advance, not to undermine, “the Jewish People’s agenda”. And it is doing a good thing by introducing Israeli legislators and writers to the complexity and diversity of American Jewish life. It is now time for the Foundation to take the next step forward and find a way of doing all this without scaring Israelis and Americans of a coming doomsday. It's time to fight the temptation of easier publicity, and time to devise the trip in such ways that will not make them the generators of a distancing discourse.