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Ayelet Shaked’s toughest task yet: Explaining Israeli politics to American Jews

As she begins a new position in the business world, the former justice and interior minister said she plans to ‘conquer America’ as she works to strengthen ties between Israel and the Diaspora at a fraught moment in the relationship

Ayelet Shaked was once the darling of Israel’s right-wing, secular political camp. Rising to power alongside former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and serving first as minister of justice and, more recently, as minister of interior, the 46-year-old was a high-profile – and sometimes controversial – member of the country’s governments for the last seven years.

Now Shaked, who failed to make it into the Knesset following November’s national election, is putting her skill set to good use: explaining the chaotic and often theatrical world of Israeli politics to Diaspora Jews.

“Basically, I have been explaining that most of what is being said about matters of religion and state is just politicians looking to create headlines,” Shaked told Jewish Insider, referring to sentiments expressed by some members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government that Israel needs to tighten Jewish immigration laws and reverse decisions to recognize the Reform movement’s conversions to Judaism.

Speaking from Boca Raton, Fla., where she was wrapping up a series of lectures to organizations including the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Federation of Montreal, Shaked said she did not believe the government would really make any big changes in these areas, though contentious plans to overhaul the legal system would likely go ahead.

“I know all those who are in the government,” she told JI. “I worked with all of them, and I know what they really think. I do believe there will be changes to the justice system but not in the relationship between religion and state or anything that will impact Israel-Diaspora ties.”

Shaked has been a staple of the Israeli political scene for more than 10 years, working first as director of Netanyahu’s office before entering politics and becoming a member of Knesset for the right-wing, largely religious, Jewish Home party in 2013. Following the election in 2015, Netanyahu appointed her as justice minister, a position she held until after new elections took place in 2019. In 2021, Shaked joined the government of Bennett and former Prime Minister Yair Lapid – a broad coalition that included some far-left political parties – as interior minister. It was a decision, some analysts have suggested, that contributed to her losing support among right-wing voters and causing her not to be reelected last November.

Now, post-politics, Shaked, is gearing up to work in the business world – she was recently appointed as chairwoman of Kardan Real Estate, one of the largest such companies in Israel – and, she told JI, she also has high hopes of “conquering America, talking to American Jewish communities and explaining Israel, as a way to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the United States.”

“When I was a minister, I also tried to strengthen the Israel-Diaspora relationship, but I did not have as much time to focus on it,” Shaked admitted. “Now I am delighted to work to strengthen ties; this is something that is very important to me.”

Heading back to Israel after her trip to the U.S., Shaked said her next stop is Australia to engage with the Jewish community down under and explain the complex political outlook in Israel.

“It is true that some Israelis do not know or understand how important the relationship is between Israel and the Jews in the Diaspora,” the former minister said. “They do not realize how important Israel is for Jews in Diaspora or how important Jews in the Diaspora are to Israel.”

“I always say that the Jewish community in America is a type of protective shield for Israel,” Shaked continued. “I’ve seen this at conferences such as AIPAC and feel that a strong and vibrant Jewish community in America only helps to protect Israel’s interests.”

Ayelet Shaked

“The relationship between Israel and U.S. is an alliance that rises above political interests,” she explained. “It does not really matter who is in the White House or who is the prime minister of Israel, the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is deeper than one government or another, and the fact there is a strong Jewish community in the U.S. undoubtedly stabilizes and strengthens that relationship.”

Shaked said she recognized there is a lack of awareness in Israel about the diversity of Jewish communities around the world but pointed out that politicians must strive to educate themselves about the importance of Israel-Diaspora ties.

Among the points she said she raised during her recent series of presentations in the U.S. was a realization she reached not long after the war started in Ukraine nearly a year ago. As interior minister, Shaked was required to make quick and tough decisions regarding allowing Ukrainian refugees – Jewish and non-Jewish – into Israel. She faced criticism for attempting to cap the number of Ukrainian refugees at 5,000, a decision that was eventually rejected by Israel’s High Court.

“I had no end of conversations with the Ukrainian ambassador in Israel – he was always pushing for Israel to take in more non-Jews, saying that the conditions for refugees in Israel were the best,” recalled Shaked. “It was then I realized something amazing; during the Second World War, the Jews had nowhere to go, but now, they are the most privileged. They have a place to go that will give them citizenship, a passport, social welfare and everything.”

“That is the important role Israel must play now – ensuring that every Jew always has a place where they can go,” she added.  

Recognizing concerns raised by Jews in the Diaspora over some of the proposed reforms of the new government, Shaked is also quick to point out, however, “They don’t live in Israel and therefore can’t decide what happens there. Our main responsibility is to receive them and make them feel that they are an important part of us.”

“I think it’s OK for Jews in the Diaspora to criticize Israel, but they must always remember that in the end, Israel has its own unique character and we decide its fate,” she said.  

On the matter of proposed judicial reform by Israel’s current Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, Shaked said that she spent a great deal of time explaining to the groups she met in the U.S. how Israel’s legal system differs from America’s, especially the process of selecting judges.

“I believe these reforms will happen, but it will be an agreement between the sides,” said Shaked, adding, “even if we change the process of how judges are selected, it is not the end of democracy in Israel. Israel has a very strong democracy and there is no need to panic.”

Shaked did, however, recognize that there is a growing dissonance between certain sectors of Israeli society over this issue and said, “I just hope that, at the end of the day, the government also works to unite the nation.”

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