Four young MKs flew to the US last week to learn about the American system and Jewish community, and plan to return in a week with insights to enrich their work in the Knesset.
MKs Amir Ohana (Likud), Sharren Haskel (Likud),Merav Ben-Ari (Kulanu) and Itzik Shmuly (Zionist Union) were in the US – first in Washington, then New York, and on Monday will travel to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, before returning to Washington. The trip is sponsored by the International Visitor Leadership Program, a project of the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
The lawmakers, freshmen except for Shmuly who is serving his second term, and all below age 40, learned about the US government system from academics and consultants, and are expected to meet members of Congress. They also met with leaders of AIPAC, J Street, the American Jewish Committee and the Arab-American Institute.
Shmuly spoke to The Jerusalem Post from New York about the trip that he said he found fascinating and eye-opening.
The Zionist Union MK said two topics were frequently raised: The two-state solution and Jewish religious pluralism.
“In every meeting, with almost everyone we met, [the two-state solution] came up,” he recounted.
“The good thing is that in America, it doesn’t matter who the president will be, the country is totally committed to the idea of two states… even though on the Israeli side there are opinions for and against it.”
Shmuly said that it is clear that the US is focused on other things with a presidential election coming up later this year, but that the two-state solution is the only longterm strategy as far as Americans are concerned.
As for tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel, Shmuly said: “We met with representatives from all different backgrounds in the Jewish community, and grew to understand how this [issue] is a central element of Israel’s relations with the Jewish community in America. Not everyone had the same response to the issue, but it came up constantly.”
Many of the Jewish Americans he met were “hurt and insulted” as a result of this conflict, a feeling that was “justified,” Shmuly said.
“It can’t be that you’re Jewish enough to make aliya and serve in the army, or Jewish enough to support Israel from afar, because the advocacy and lobbying work is a great contribution to our security, but not Jewish enough to be recognized by the State of Israel as such,” he argued. “We talked to people here who have a record of decades of activism for Israel and Jewish communities [in the US], and understood how important the topic is to them.”
Shmuly said that while being an MK is “never boring” because of security issues and his commitment to lowering the cost of living, he plans to add religious pluralism to his priorities.
“We need to push more on these topics and understand the strategic and moral importance of our connection with the Jewish community in America and around the world,” he said.
Last week, the Social Guard, a Knesset watchdog NGO, ranked Shmuly as the MK who deals the most with social issues.
Against that background and focus, he finds the current US election campaign fascinating – especially Sen. Bernie Sanders’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination – though he did clarify that as an Israeli lawmaker he is not endorsing anyone.
America is lacking in “things that look obvious” to Israelis, Shmuly said.
“It’s true that there are things that need to be fixed in the Israeli economy… but there are things that we take for granted, like public healthcare, basic welfare services – even if people are trying to reduce them,” he stated. “I respect that individualism is very important to Americans, but I have a lot of questions. What makes [Americans] live as a community? Doesn’t there need to be a level of solidarity in every society? These things are fascinating to learn about.”
According to Shmuly, Sanders’s appeal comes from such questions, from “middle-to-lower class people, young people and people from the weaker sectors who cannot fulfill the American dream as well as they should. They are creating the momentum toward Sanders.”
The Zionist Union MK did criticize Sanders’s exaggeration last week of the death toll (initially, he said 10,000) in Gaza during 2014’s Operation Cast Lead, and noted that it come up in major American news sources.
“The minute a candidate throws a number like that in the air without checking it is definitely disturbing,” he said. “I hope this was just a mistake of numbers and that there isn’t something else behind it. If someone is coming from a point of view of wanting to solve a complex problem, he can’t just throw abstract ideas in the air. It needs to be taken seriously with in-depth understanding.”