Israel's Relations with the American Public: Three Key Points
Why I chose, as Consul General in New York, to engage primarily with Democrats, the Latino community, and the diverse Jewish community, and what Israel needs to do to remain relevant in the Biden administration era
President Biden arrives in the White House, January 20 | Official White House Photo by Ana Isabel Martinez Chamorro (US goverment work)
Relations with the broad civil society and people to people relations are a key aspect of Israel-US relations, and a way to bring Israel to the American public. It’s important for Israel to not only maintain its bipartisan status among lawmakers in Capitol Hill, but also reach out and engage with the broadest possible spectrum of people in the US – even if it means leaving our comfort zone.
As Consul General in New York in the years 2016-2020 with five states under our jurisdiction – New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Ohio – my team and I worked with a diverse range of communities, groups and individuals to familiarize them with our country and people.
The most important decision was determining the audiences I want to prioritize in my work, because if you spread yourself thin and just make small inroads here and there, you ultimately achieve very little. After a few brainstorming sessions and a look at the local demographics, we set out both to strengthen relations with our supporters and to gain new ones among three main groups. We focused on our heritage – ties with America’s Jews; the local political landscape – relations with Democrats/Liberals; and the future – the Latino community.
The Latino community
Looking at the future of Israel-US relations, one of my first choices was to put significant efforts into reaching out to the large Latino community in our jurisdiction, for several reasons.
Before diving in, though, I wish to explain why a large and important population group – African-Americans – was intentionally left out of our considerations as the leading ethnic community to engage. At face value this does not make much sense, but in many ways, Israel has essentially “lost” the African-American population. By not investing attention and resources in building bridges with that demographic group 30 years ago, it is today quite decisively anti-Israel – despite the fact that American Jews played an important part in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Consequently, our ability to sway positions in that community has diminished significantly, and in many senses, it is too late to change that.
According to widely accepted projections, Latinos will constitute some 30% of the American electorate around the year 2060
I am certain we should not make a similar mistake with the Latino community, which I made my priority. Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States – in New York City alone they already make up 29% of the population, and according to widely accepted projections, will constitute some 30% of the American electorate around the year 2060.
The reason to build bridges into Latino communities today is that while first- and second-generation immigrants tend to concentrate their interests in areas that are relevant to immigrants, such as employment, housing, education, and immigration itself – the third generation, and for sure the fourth, are regular Americans and interested in everything other American are, including foreign relations and the Middle East. If we reach out to the community now, we stand a better chance of influencing its opinions on issues that are relevant to us.
Finally, while the decision to prioritize the Latino community was largely a rational one, I admit that it was also a personal matter for me. I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, speak fluent Spanish and understand to some extent the Latino way of thinking. With some chutzpah, I branded myself in New York as the “first Latino Consul General of Israel in New York", which worked because I was indeed one of them. Latino leaders in New York, many who were already born in the United States, always joked that it's a shame that I speak better Spanish than them. We call each other hermano, which means “brother,” and of course this makes relations warmer. Once again, it shows how person-to-person relations matter in diplomacy.
Like anywhere else, reaching out to the Latino community requires finding similarities, though it’s important to remember that the community is very diverse. Latinos in New York, for example, are primarily Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, in Florida there are mainly Cubans, and in Texas and California the majority are Mexicans. Each group is different – Cubans, for example, are much more conservative and Republican-leaning than the Mexicans and the Puerto Ricans. There are also obviously Evangelical Latinos and Catholic Latinos, but I wouldn't characterize the community as especially religious.
Good outreach means showing you care about the wellbeing of the community. We did a lot of work in the Bronx, like bringing Israeli entrepreneursto the borough to coach young Latino entrepreneurs on establishing their businesses and publicized our work extensively.
The second thing that we did to become relevant in the Latino community was covering Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico lies within the jurisdiction of our Consulate General in Miami, but we in New York decided to informally “annex” the Territory. We did a lot of work in Puerto Rico and found out that publicizing everything that you do there is amplified tenfold in New York and brings you significant support.
Given its centrality and significance, Israel should assign a special envoy to the Latino community. Unfortunately, that's unlikely to happen
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017 and devastated the island, the first thing I did was call Jerusalem and ask for a rescue mission. Unfortunately, it wasn't possible because Puerto Rico is sovereign American territory, and the Trump administration didn't ask for foreign assistance there.
Instead, we resorted to the second-best option and collaborated with “IsraAID,” an Israeli NGO that operates all over the world. Fortunately, the word “Israel” in its name makes it very clear who they are, and Israel was basically the first to arrive in Puerto Rico. The NGO is still working there. They have done work in Patillas, a remote village in southern Puerto Rico, building a water purification plant that works without electricity. We brought dozens of prominent New Yorkers, Latinos and others, to see what we did in Puerto Rico. While assisting those in need, we also earned a lot of points for Israel in the Latino community in New York.
One of our most significant achievements in the community is our excellent relations with the new Congressman from South Bronx, Rep. Ritchie Torres. He represents the very low-income 15th district, which has virtually no Jews. It’s also heavily Democratic, so the winner of the primaries is assured a seat in Congress. Last year was a five-way race after the incumbent, Jose Serrano, resigned and didn't run for re-election. Out of the five candidates, three Latinos and one African American were personal friends of mine and staunch supporters of the State of Israel. The last, a lady endorsed by progressive Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was anti-Israel.
Congressman Ritchie Torres. "The Zionist AOC" | Photo: Official House Portrait (public domain
Rep. Torres, who won, is 30 years old, Black, Puerto Rican, gay, very progressive – and an incredible supporter of the State of Israel. He will be a big star in American politics. Some say that Ritchie will be “The Zionist AOC”, but I hope he will one day be the Zionist Barack Obama. He and I have wonderful professional and personal relations, and his unequivocal support for Israel is a great thing for us.
Finally, when I arrived in New York there were four Latin American countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel. We assisted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ hard work in renewing relations with Nicaragua, Bolivia, and the (unofficial) Guaido government in Venezuela. The only one left is Cuba, which was difficult to advance under the Trump administration, but with a new Democratic administration we should strive for renewal of diplomatic relations with Havana.
Ultimately, I think we made good headways into the Latino community in the US during my tenure. Unfortunately, I still don't have a replacement in New York to maintain that connection as my deputy has been Acting Consul General since I left in August.
In my opinion, given its centrality and significance, Israel should assign a special envoy to the Latino community . However, given the dire situation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the political turmoil in Israel, that seems unlikely to happen.
Politically speaking, it’s clear that a Consul General in New York must engage actively and warmly with the Democrats (or liberals; today, the definitions are essentially interchangeable.) While the Israeli government clearly sided with President Trump and the Republican party during my term, I am a staunch believer that Israel must remain a bipartisan issue in American politics. Those who assume our country can rely only on one side of the aisle are simply mistaken, and with the new Democratic-controlled White House and both houses of Congress, that's become quite clear.
It’s important to emphasize that Israel’s actions began alienating parts of the Democratic party even before President Trump entered office in January 2017. For example, the Congressional Black Caucus in the party is very critical of Prime Minister Netanyahu for what they perceive as his disrespect for the first African-American president. This remains true to this day.
It’s also noteworthy that the erosion of its bipartisan status on the Hill is not entirely Israel’s fault, because almost nothing is bipartisan anymore in America: abortion, gun control, health care, tax cuts, global warming, wearing masks to protect against COVID-19. The joke is that if you see the forecast in CNN and it's too hot for you, go to Fox News – it’s cooler there. There is only one issue today in American politics that is bipartisan: animosity and suspicion toward China. Consequently, keeping Israel bipartisan is indeed objectively challenging.
I was already in New York when Trump was elected in November 2016, and it was clear to me that the job of my colleague in Washington DC suddenly became much easier – and my job in New York had just become inherently more difficult. New York is a democratic and liberal city, and there was a feeling that everything Trump touches becomes toxic in the city.
We should see the new administration as an opportunity to repair relations with the Democrats and promote shared interests
To deal with this situation, I told my staff that for every Republican I meet, I want to schedule meetings with five Democrats. Most senators and congressmen from the five states in our jurisdiction were Democrats, as were three of the five state governors (New Jersey later also became blue). We started doing legwork and meeting with one after the other, presenting Israel’s positions, and minimizing, in a sense, some of the damage that the complete embrace by PM Netanyahu and our embassy in Washington of the Republicans and the Trump administration.
Reaching out to the established Democrats was possible, but engaging with the more progressive wing of the party proved challenging. For example, I did not meet Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who represents parts of Queens and The Bronx, though not for lack of trying. I made significant efforts to arrange a meeting through various contacts, and almost succeeded. But when Israel denied entry to her two colleagues, Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, in 2018, our chances of meeting became zero.
I believe that President Biden and Vice President Harris represent the best ticket Israel could have expected in the Democratic Party, and that we should see the new administration as an opportunity, among other things, to repair relations with the Democrats. We also share common interests – for instance, in weakening the radical wing of the party.
But against this backdrop, and from a diplomatic perspective, the fact that we now have an Ambassador to Washington who is also our Permanent Representative to the UN is regrettable. I cannot stress enough how much we need to properly embrace both the new Administration and Congress and the UN institutions. Yet because of political considerations, Gilad Erdan – who, to be clear, is a very capable individual – will spend only part of his time in DC and part of his time in New York. That is wrong, and it’s an issue which isn’t discussed nearly enough.
To make the new administration understand Israel's policies, Israel must make an effort to understand the "New Democratic Party"
It’s not only that Erdan needs to build relations with a new Democratic administration, some of whose members are suspicious, to say the least, of Israel’s current government. But the US will also soon have a new Permanent Representative to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who no one in Israel knows. We must forge a strong working relationship with her in very challenging times, but how can you do that when you’re almost exclusively tied up in Washington?
Obviously, the main task of our diplomats will be to make the new Administration understand Israel's policies. But to do that effectively, they must make an effort to understand the "New Democratic Party". Social justice issues are no longer fringe topics: they are the core of the New Democrats. As I once recommended, our leaders and diplomats should learn to speak fluent Democrat rapidly.
One of the most important issue for the State of Israel is its relations with world Jewry, which are being systematically neglected and are in urgent need of revamping.
When I arrived in New York, I made a it a point to meet with representatives from all spectrums of the Jewish community, from J-Street liberals to conservatives to the anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Satmer Hassidim. Indeed, I was asked once why I would dance in a Satmer wedding but not meet with the activist group “Jewish Voice For Peace.” Is that not hypocritical?
There were two reasons I reached out to Satmer. The first is that while they are not Zionists, they will never ever collaborate with antisemitic groups to attack Israel. They will never join forces with the Palestinians or Iranians or others to rewrite history. The second reason is perhaps more relevant: though I’m probably a bit too optimistic, I think ultra-orthodox anti-Zionists are slowly moving to embrace the State of Israel, and that in a generation or two will no longer be de facto anti-Zionists.
The main issue inhibiting progress in this area, as I see it, is the indifference in Israel towards world Jewry. If you ask ten random Israelis what are the most important issues that concern them, I doubt even one will mention relations with world Jewry. I see that as almost a betrayal of our mission as a Jewish state. The late former Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, said in 1948 that "the sea is not the border of our people," but we act unfortunately as if it is. And indifference to their interests and values leads to a growing disconnect across the Atlantic. To be clear, in no way is this the only factor – a significant part of the blame for the distancing lays on the American side of the Atlantic. But I was taught to first introspect and only then inspect your partners.
The "Tree of Life" synagogue in Pittsburgh after the October 2018 massacre | Photo by Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
During my tenure, I sometimes thought found mainly Israel responsible for these crises. In 2017, the Israeli Government, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties, decided to freeze the understandings regarding prayer by non-Orthodox Jews in the Western Wall. This step understandably drew harsh criticism from Reform Jews and other Jewish communities and deepened the rift between them and Israel.
On the other hand, when President Trump was due to announce the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem in December 2018, the Reform movement published a statement opposing the move. It was an appalling act in my opinion that offended almost all Israelis across the political spectrum. As I told my friend Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the Reform President: "Sometimes you forget that we Israelis have feelings, too."
We eventually overcame all these crises, but what bothers me most is not next week's headlines about our relationship. What really kept me literally awake at night, and still does sometimes, is the thought that the 21st century may be remembered as the one in which the Jewish people split into two unconnected tribes, or worse – that we lost one of them.
I returned from New York a different person in terms of my commitment to the issue of Israel-World Jewry relations. I hope other Israelis change their minds, too – and soon
I once spoke with PM Netanyahu on the issue. He was very pessimistic about the future of the non-Orthodox Jewish American Community; he said that there are demographic and cultural forces too strong to counter, and essentially felt that the non-Orthodox Jewish community has no real future. I replied with a tale, whose moral was that even when the situation is dire, you cannot give up on your brothers; on the contrary, under those circumstances is even more imperative to act.
While there are differences between the diverse denominations and congregations, there is also solidarity among Jews. Sadly, it is often antisemitism that reminds us of this, the likes of which we have increasingly seen in the US in recent years. After the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist rally, I visited the local synagogue and a congregant told me that the fact that it didn’t end in a pogrom was no less than a miracle.
In December 2018 I spent a week in Pittsburgh after the “Tree of Life” synagogue massacre, attending funerals, arranging Israeli trauma units to help with psychological counseling, and tending to other affairs. The following Shabbat, exactly a week later, there was a huge, very emotional service in a Reform synagogue. Thousands of congregants came from all parts of the Jewish community, and even non-Jews participated out of solidarity. It ended – and I still don't know whether spontaneously or by design – with the entire crowd singing one, and only one, anthem – “Ha’Tivka.”
I returned from New York a different person in terms of my commitment to this issue. I hope others change their minds, too – and soon.
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The Consulate General in New York is Israel's largest diplomatic mission in the world. It was a huge privilege for me to be at its helm for four years. However, I returned from my mission worried of the future of the American society, harmed by extremism and polarization, and of the black clouds interspersed in the skies of our bilateral relation. The first is a domestic issue in which we have no means, nor the will, to interfere, even if it affects us; the latter is a wake-up call for our decision makers and society. The time to act is now.
Dani Dayan served as Israel's Consul General in New York from 2016 to 2020. Between 2007 and 2015, he was chairman of the Yesha Council and its foreign relations delegate. For 20 years he was a CEO and chairman of several high-tech companies specializing in information technology.