By Israel Nitzan
(New York Jewish Week) — Within the Israeli foreign service, the Consulate General of Israel in New York is often described as both the friendliest and the most consequential posting for an Israeli diplomat. As I conclude my tenure here, I am struck by just how accurate, yet limited, that description is. My service here, over the past five years, has turned out to be the most meaningful relationship a diplomat could possibly have with a local community. The feeling that resonates, repeatedly, is that we are a family. We have a shared history and a shared fate. We are working on a shared future and it is our duty to continue forging these important bonds.
Even before I arrived, I knew tackling record-high antisemitism was already at the top of our agenda. Nothing could have prepared me for that first October, mere months into my term, when Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue was stormed by an armed perpetrator. After what turned out to be the most lethal antisemitic attack in American history, many were reminded that Jew-hatred remains a murderous cancer.
American Jews were shaken by a torrent of attacks. After Pittsburgh came Jersey City, when four people died in an attack at a kosher store, then Monsey, when five Jews were stabbed by an intruder at a Hanukkah party. Then right here in the streets of New York, in May 2021, Jews were violently assaulted ostensibly because of a conflict that was taking place thousands of miles away in Israel. Antisemitic hate became a daily physical, verbal and online occurrence.
As representatives of the State of Israel to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Delaware, my colleagues and I expressed Israel’s unwavering and continuing support, especially in the darkest of hours. As the homeland of the Jewish people, reborn out of the ashes of the Holocaust, Israel has a historic and moral responsibility to stand by the Jewish people everywhere, especially in times of need. Our words quickly turned into actions following these tragedies. Scores of Israeli private citizens flew to Pittsburgh and other sites of tragic antisemitic attacks, to provide different types of support and begin the healing process. The Israel Trauma Coalition sent therapists and Dream Doctors sent medical clowns.
These professionals came not because they were instructed, but simply because they cared and shared in the commitment of Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of Israel are responsible for each other. This commitment stretches the world over, from Pittsburgh to Kyiv to Addis Ababa. Jews come to each other’s aid because of a deep-rooted sense of commitment and peoplehood. One might even say it’s an instinctive pull.
That’s not to say it’s always easy to help each other, or even possible. A dramatic rupture was, of course, the once-in-a-century COVID-19 pandemic that forced Israel, the eternal home and refuge of the Jewish people, to shut itself off from the world. For the first time in history, the pandemic did not allow Jews to enter Israel freely. Those who wanted, and needed, to come home had to acquire special permission to travel. We all acutely remember this period as heartbreaking. It was a blow to our central role as connectors of families and communities to Israel. Jews from across the world were separated, and although they have since been reunited, the wounds inflicted by this experience will take a long time to heal.
Nevertheless, the innumerable messages we received from American Jews trying so diligently to travel to Israel demonstrated to me how central our homeland was in our collective Jewish identity. It became clear that these actions were unifiers of our people on a grand scale.
Unfortunately, at times, this value of a cross-continental Jewish family has come under threat due less to external hazards than to internal discord. Like every family, ours is no stranger to challenges, disagreements, arguments and complexities. We live in a period defined by polarization. A period in which people do not celebrate their differences, but rather let those differences drive them apart. We willingly live in echo chambers, communicating only with people who think like us, instead of engaging in a dialogue with those who think differently. We do not talk “to” one another, but talk “at” one another.
While we may vehemently disagree on certain positions or policies, it is of the utmost importance to engage, rather than to disengage. It is important for us to stay active and bring others into the conversation and into the relationship. It is our shared responsibility to emphasize the importance of this relationship, to educate our younger generation about being engaged, to maintain Israel as a central part of our Jewish identity. It is further important for Israelis to share in this relationship, and know that they are part of a shared peoplehood. Through it all, we are one family. The willingness of leaders in the American Jewish community to shoulder this burden with us, and to speak candidly about sensitive issues, is a tribute to their dedication to our family and its long-term cohesion.
It is during the most challenging times when I think it is most important to remember what binds Am Yisrael together. We are a family whose unity transcends languages, borders and politics. As we work together to shape our shared destiny, we do best by remembering our commonalities while engaging with each other and discussing our polarities. Shying away or staying silent is tempting, but damaging. Unfortunately, engagement is often only appreciated in hindsight, but families never grew stronger through acquiescence. Our Israel-diaspora relationship rests on substantive conversations and passionate involvement of Jews from both sides of the Atlantic.
I have lived, worked and davened (prayed) among you in the United States for the past five years. I have forged incredible friendships with the entire political and denominational spectra of your Jewish communities. These friendships will no doubt last a lifetime. I am leaving this position feeling more Jewish than ever, with a profound appreciation for the diversity, dynamism and resilience of American Jewry.
Thank you for this experience. Thank you for opening your arms to me, my wife and my children and making us feel welcomed, accepted and at home. It has been the honor of my life to serve this community as an Israeli diplomat. It has been deeply gratifying to serve my country, arm-in-arm with my American Jewish brothers and sisters, in building and strengthening this special relationship. Together, as one family, we safeguard our shared history. Now, we must double down on our work toward our shared future.
Israel Nitzan served as Deputy Consul General and Acting Consul General of Israel in New York beginning in 2018. His term ended on Aug. 24.