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Bridging gaps, building peoplehood

As the communities move farther apart, a new plan for Jewish unity is needed urgently
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum in Jerusalem, June 10, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum in Jerusalem, June 10, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

American Jewish-Israeli relations usefully may be compared to a pyramid — close at the very top, drifting further and further apart at the foundations. Thus, American Jewish leaders routinely engage Israeli counterparts on virtually a daily basis. When disagreements persist, even when tempers flare, few, if any, will call for disengagement from one another. Conversely, on the Israeli street, little if any attention is paid to American Jewish concerns. Similarly, American Jewish leaders rightfully fret whether the loyalty and passionate advocacy they have mounted on behalf of Israel over many decades will be sustained and transmitted to the next generation.

Thus, in recent months, the “distancing discourse” between American Jews and Israel has intensified. Rarely a day passes without a new report of a “crisis” in the relationship related to questions of egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall, conversion to Judaism, settlements and occupation policies, and the possible clash between democratic norms and Judaic imperatives within a Jewish state.

AJC’s first-ever comparative survey of American Jews and Israelis, released this month, highlighted enormous disparities, particularly with respect to assessments of the Trump administration’s policies towards Israel, the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and even whether American Jews and Israelis consider one another part of their family. More generally, American Jews generally share the values of liberal universalism; Israelis, by contrast, incline towards survivalist and particularistic concerns. The widely-cited “bromance” between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump highlights this divide, given Trump’s high unfavorability ratings among American Jews.

Underlying the divide lies the specter of Jewish assimilation in the United States and the toll it takes on Jewish consciousness and identity. The more distant one is from matters Jewish, the less attached one is to Israel as “nation-state of the Jewish people.” Israelis perceive this assimilation and query why American Jews are discomforted by the relative absence of religious pluralism in Israel when their own glaring weaknesses are so exposed and place at risk future Jewish continuity and identity. Conversely, American Jews underscore the critical role of Israel in ensuring future Jewish continuity, e.g., the Birthright Israel (Taglit) program, and ask why Israel would wish to undermine such efforts by disparaging Reform and Conservative Judaism.

To address what ought to be done about this divide, and as an integral part of AJC’s first-ever Global Forum in Jerusalem, AJC just published a symposium of 25 Israeli and American Jewish thought leaders assessing the divide and suggesting ways of bridging it. Collectively the contributors represent a cross-section of American Jewish and Israeli intellectual opinion. As one might expect, broad areas of disagreement exist in assessing the dimensions of the problem, the reasons for it, and what to do about it. Several recommendations for action do permeate the symposium:

  1. The need for broad changes in education about one another: Israelis must understand that the American Jewish narrative comprises far more than a narrative of anti-Semitism and assimilation. The richness and diversity of American Jewish life, and the narrative of Jewish renewal, co-exist alongside that of Jewish assimilation. Moreover, the passionate dedication to, and advocacy on behalf of, Israel inside American society has been vital to sustaining the special US-Israel relationship over the decades. Conversely, American Jews know little of Israeli history or culture, and need to understand Israel’s great successes over time with respect to building a new society and a Jewish democracy.
  2. Orthodox exceptionalism: Confounding all the prognostications of Orthodox disappearance, Orthodoxy both in Israel and in the US is experiencing significant growth and renewal. The reasons underlying this Orthodox resurgence are straightforward: intensive Jewish education, strength of family, including inter-generational ties and positive birth rates, extended study periods and immersive visits to Israel, and, most importantly, passionate commitment to rebuilding Jewish life after the Holocaust rather than surrendering to the tides of history. The implications for liberal and secular Jews ought to be clear: the identical passion and dedication for Jewish life marshaled by the Orthodox need to be matched within all sectors of Jewish life, both in America and in Israel.
  3. Irrespective of one’s personal politics, the eclipse of liberal Zionism constitutes a serious setback for the Jewish people. First, the special US-Israel relationship historically has rested upon a bipartisan base. Transforming the cause of Israel into a partisan issue places the relationship at grave risk. Inevitably, in the American two-party system, the party out of power today will recapture the machinery of government tomorrow. Even more to the point is the liberal consensus preferred by most American Jews. Given a choice between Zionism and liberalism, many American Jews likely will choose liberalism, given long-standing perceptions of Jewish identity as connoting tikkun olam. Can liberal Zionism be reinvigorated? Possibly, given that Zionism contains a rich liberal tradition of social justice for all, including Arabs, and continuing advocacy for a two-state solution as the sole viable solution, whatever its inherent challenges, to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Conversely, however, American Jews must understand what Israel has confronted for over seven decades — implacable enemies determined to destroy her — a confrontation that in virtually every democracy will warrant some limitations upon personal freedoms for reasons of national security.

A generation ago, at the height of the Oslo years, Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin noted that since the Holocaust years, Jewish unity had been constructed almost entirely on the bases of Jewish vulnerability and threats to the Jewish people. Beilin argued, correctly, that vulnerability posed an inadequate base on which to construct peoplehood — a concept and ethos that rests upon common heritage, teachings, and aspirations. Although dismissed at the time, Beilin’s wisdom remains quite relevant to the current moment in Israel-American Jewish relations. For decades, Israel served to unite the Jewish people. But current differences in the Israel-American Jewish divide threaten to undermine our common base of peoplehood. Constructive, concerted, and sustained action is necessary, and quickly.

About the Author
Steven Bayme is the American Jewish Committee's director of contemporary Jewish life and a founding member of PORAT.
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