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America’s Jews Israel’s Lost Tribe?

At age 50, Israel is obsessed with its own troubles, and American Jews feel pushed away. No wonder no one could agree on a birthday celebration.

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In the beginning, there was a dinner party. It was July 1996, and Ronald Lauder, an impassioned advocate for a broad sweep of Jewish concerns, was hosting a small gathering at his Upper East Side apartment in honor of newly elected Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu had come to the U.S., after his victory in an ugly, turbulent campaign conducted in the shadow of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, to reassure Congress and the American Jewish community that he was committed to the peace process.

Netanyahu had also come to personally thank his inner circle of American friends and supporters -- people like political consultant Arthur Finkelstein (source of the Willie Horton-esque campaign slogan “Bibi is good for the Jews”), real-estate and media titan Mort Zuckerman, and entertainment-business moguls Marvin Josephson and Merv Adelson.

Like most of the guests at Lauder’s party, Josephson and Adelson are members of an elite class of power rangers, men who move comfortably in a triaxial world of business, politics, and Hollywood. They also share an intense passion for Judaism and Jewishness that is perhaps more cultural than religious, more about camaraderie and a kind of robust ethnic pride in their peer group, than it is about spirituality or a divine revelation on Mount Sinai.

Josephson, a longtime supporter of Jewish causes (he’s chairman of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces), is the founder of International Creative Management, one of the most influential talent and literary agencies in the world. Adelson, who also has a lengthy, energetic history on behalf of Jewish causes, is a co-founder and former CEO of Lorimar-Telepictures and one of Netanyahu’s best friends. They have taken vacations together and had Passover Seders together, and Adelson has, over the years, squired Netanyahu around Los Angeles -- dinner with Streisand, an evening honoring Kirk Douglas, and the like -- introducing him to the key people in Hollywood.

“When I talked to Bibi at dinner,” says Josephson, a small, gracious man, sitting in his office overlooking Central Park, “I mentioned to him that I knew he had many more important things to worry about. But Israel’s fiftieth anniversary, in terms of preparing for it, was not that far away. And he said to me, ‘You’re absolutely right. Why don’t you handle it.’ And then he turned to Merv, who’s much closer to Bibi than I am, and said, ‘Merv, you have to work with him.’”

As so it was done.

Perhaps Josephson and Adelson should have been a little more skeptical when they agreed to become international co-chairmen of Israel’s Fiftieth-Anniversary Committee. Even in the best of times, putting together a plan to celebrate Israel’s first half-century with a meticulously orchestrated series of events around the world would be fraught with logistic difficulties. And with Israel riven by internal conflicts and American Jews struggling with assimilation and indifference, these are far from the best of times.

On the other hand, why shouldn’t Adelson and Josephson have been optimistic? The basic mission was so straightforward, its importance so indisputable, that they simply believed that the Jewish community in America and the one in Israel, which have lately been at each other’s throats over a host of religious and secular issues, would jointly rise to the occasion -- just as they have always done in times of crisis.

That things didn’t exactly work out that way is hardly Adelson and Josephson’s fault. In fact, it’s hard to imagine two men more ideally suited for the job. But even their accumulated skill as dealmakers and their experience in the fractious world of Jewish philanthropy could do little to overcome Israeli ambivalence toward them and the entire project.

Political squabbling, lack of leadership, lack of funding, as well as almost inexplicable mismanagement all played major roles in turning what should have been a moment of triumph into a public embarrassment. Nearly all of the major symbolic events had to be canceled. There will, of course, still be celebrations, but they will take place on a much smaller scale and will be administered, for the most part, locally. To understand just how inept the Israeli handling of the anniversary effort has been, it is necessary only to know that in less than two years, there have been five different anniversary-committee chairmen, one of them lasting only three days.

And while David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu’s top aide, told me that the anniversary became a problem “simply because everything in Israel becomes a problem,” the anniversary effort has been plagued by a far more fundamental problem: the widening gulf between Israeli and American Jews.

“There’s no question that there is a deep cultural gap between the two communities,” says Gideon Meir, who is in charge of Israeli-Diaspora relations in Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “We need a new kind of dialogue and new ways to communicate.”

Given the widely held belief that there is an airtight closeness between the two communities, the lack of communication can at times be stunning. While the Americans were enthusiastically racing against the clock, trying to organize star-studded stadium shows, worldwide satellite telecasts, and erudite symposia that would include some of the world’s best minds, they had no idea that the Israelis, struggling through a recession, had little interest in spending money on the anniversary.

With more urgent issues on their agenda -- things like health care and unemployment -- money to party seemed frivolous. The Americans never sensed this, and the Israelis never said it. Budgets were verbally approved at every step along the way, but very little money was actually released. For months, Josephson and Adelson paid whatever expenses they incurred out of their own pockets.

The Americans could have saved themselves a lot of grief if they had realized -- regardless of what they were being told by a few high-level government people -- that the Israelis are simply not in the mood to celebrate. Despite 50 years of extraordinary achievements, Israel is, in this year of its anniversary, a country preoccupied by its internecine disputes: Orthodox vs. secular; left vs. right; Eastern vs. Western culture; theocracy vs. democracy.


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