For years, Congregation Or Hadash Rabbi Mario Karpuj has been holding weekly sessions on “What’s Hot & What’s Not in Israel.” Until the last few weeks, interested congregants met in his office.
Now, because of all the controversies surrounding the upcoming April 9 Israeli elections, interest has skyrocketed, and the group has moved to a larger room. “I promise to talk about what Israelis are reading in the Israeli press,” says Rabbi Karpuj.
One of the regulars who attends the weekly conversations about Israel is Robin Lewis. Speaking about the Knesset elections, she says, “To me, the parliamentary system in which you vote for parties, not people, is so confusing. Who is in what party? I don’t know which party is what. It’s not my country, so I can’t say how Israel runs its elections, but I will say that I’ll take anybody but [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. I didn’t want [President Donald] Trump and we got him.”
Lewis isn’t the only Atlantan who looks at Israeli politics and sometimes feels she’s viewing a mirror of the U.S. politics. “I see a shadow of what’s going on in this country,” says retired educator Harriet Litzky. Referring to Netanyahu’s move to include a Kahanist-inspired party in his electoral coalition, Litzky adds, “I thought we were past this, with Trump dredging up racism in this country.”
Atlantans drew parallels between the leaders of the two countries. “I read about Netanyahu like I read about Trump,” says Bonnie Cook, who holds both U.S. and Israeli citizenship, and who lived in Israel for a couple of decades. “I struggle when I feel like things Netanyahu does are shooting Israel in the foot.” But Cook, a retired educator, is one of the more avid Israel watchers in Atlanta, skimming two Israeli newspapers every day. She reads not only about the constant political crises there, but also the religious-secular friction.
Cook also expresses the conundrum often experienced by dual citizens living in Atlanta. “I say that when I’m with Israelis, I feel more American, and when I’m with Americans, I feel more Israeli.”
Part of the reason for that duality, Cook says, is her frustration with Americans who are “big Israeli supporters and anti-Palestinian, whatever the hard line is. They say, ‘this is our land,’ and don’t really understand the broader scope. They only listen to one side.” But Cook also has disagreements with her friends still in Israel. “We argue about whether American Jews can have an opinion about Israel, and I say ‘yes.’ We give Israel a lot of money.”
Long-time Atlanta Jewish leader Lois Frank doesn’t hold Israeli citizenship, but she and her husband are often found at a home they own in Jerusalem. Frank believes that there are Atlanta Jews “who care about Israel, care about the election, even those who don’t follow it closely. The young people especially hear about the policies of the Israeli government and find it hard to support. I think we’re losing (the support of) a lot of young Jews because of the politics in Israel. I don’t want to advocate against the government of Israel, but I would love to see a more progressive government in place. It would help the American Jewish community.”
Still, Frank was encouraged that “American Jewry across the philosophical lines” came out against the inclusion of the Kahanists in a far-right party that will enable members who are disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane to be seated in the Israeli Knesset. “It’s good we can stand together,” says Frank. “We have different political views, but we don’t have different moral views.”
Atlanta is home to an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Israelis. No matter their political views or how long they’ve lived in this country, they are still attached to their homeland and pay close attention to the politics there. Like many Israelis, retired inventor Nadav Sivan is not shy about vocalizing his opinions. “Jews need Israel to be strong,” he says. “It’s someplace to go if there are (anti-Semitic) troubles. So Jews should be involved much more. They don’t put their mind into it.”
Sivan’s friend Arie Kohn, a Roswell architect, describes himself as “very involved in what’s happening in Israel,” despite the fact that he has lived in the United States four decades. “Every night I watch live news from Israel.” He says he’s center-right on the political scale and alarmed by the Kahanists. “In my opinion, Likud (Netanyahu’s party) was hijacked by the right wing. The Netanyahu government is the most divisive regime ever.”
It’s that divisiveness that can turn American Jews away from Israeli politics. “Politics is exhausting,” complains Cook. “Sometimes I don’t want to know what’s going on in Israel.”