I’ll be a little reserved in identifying the challenges here with the full extent of the growing divide between Israel and American Jews. It says in our parsha this week “v’livkota” (that Avraham cried) with a small kaf. Rav Hirsch said its small because only part of the crying was public (most was reserved to be private). So too, I’m going to restrain the full extent of my personal emotion and take a slightly more removed stance in the interest of exploring these complex dynamics with more light than heat.
At this moment in history, the word of our era is “division.” Everywhere we go, there are stark reminders that populations are divided among many lines: income, sports teams, music, and, of course, politics and world affairs. And to that matter, it is no surprise that even the Jewish community has its divisions, many of them based on faith, but also on partisan leanings and ideological disposition; no one is astounded at this moment to know that the primary divide between the American liberal Jewish community—which represents around 90 percent of the non-Orthodox American Jewish population—and Israel.
Of course, all people don’t perceive or experience this divide the same way. Secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews will encounter vastly different realities just as Republican Jews and Democratic Jews will, as will AIPAC Jews and liberal Zionist Jews. I believe this is actually a significant problem, with the real ruptures yet to come. I don’t seek to propose solutions here. My point, to the contrary, is also not to point blame at the sides at play here. There are way more than just two sides within Israeli Jewish society and American Jewish life. At the same time, there are also Jews in other parts of the world that exist in a separate reality that needs to be explored and understood; this latter point is not in contention. Yet, despite all the popular perception of an irrevocable split between American Jews and their Israeli counterparts, I don’t think we (and by “we,” I mean Jews on both sides of the Atlantic) are doing enough to understand and navigate these murky waters.
To heal the fractures between the American and Israeli contingents of the Jewish world, here are ten of the most common trends I read and hear from Israeli and American Jews as to why the divide is growing:
1. It’s the Trump Factor — It is undeniable that a majority of Israeli Jews love the current president (or at least admire him and his role here), while a vast majority of American Jews despise him. Because of this political reality, and the ensuing warm relationship between the President of the United States and the current Israeli Prime Minister, the distrust and distaste for President Trump carries over to the Benjamin Netanyahu Administration as well. American liberals looked at Obama as fairly mainstream and even positive in his support of Israel (though he did propose his fair share of challenges), whereas Israelis held deep scorn for him. American Jews, by and large, have little clue what Israelis mean when they call Obama “anti-Israel.” Does it imply that they themselves are now anti-Israel even while liberal Jews donate, visit, or lobby for Israel every year?
2. It’s War and Peace — The majority of Israelis feel Israel has done all it can to achieve peace and there is no peace partner to be found in the higher echelons of the Palestinian leadership. American Jews—fairly or unfairly—believe the same. Yet, American Jews also believe that Israel must be moral (and self-interested) enough to find a way to resolve the lingering stagnation of an established Two-State Solution. By now, all parties are exhausted having to explain and defend the continued impediments to peace. Israelis point to events such as the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza which sparked a takeover by the fundamentalist and terroristic Hamas regime and the deluge of rockets into Israel that pour into Israel. All of these elements spark the cynicism of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians while American Jews see no way forward for Israel without a peace deal in place to end the conflict once and for all.
3. It’s Money and Comfort —Israelis feel they must sacrifice more to protect their way of life than American Jews do. Israeli Jews, save for some exceptions, must join the Army and give up comfort so that their citizens can feel safe. Obviously, there is no analog in America for such a system. Likewise, American tourists treat Israel like a living theme park but understand little of the reality on the ground. Israelis resent that they have to put their kids into battle when Americans—from the comfort of their homes—want to express certain views without suffering the consequences. On the other hand, American Jews resent that Israelis want silent obedience while being asked to write checks to different Israeli organizations, all while being told they their opinions on policy don’t matter, American Jews feel that modern Israel largely—or at least partially—exists due to American charity and political support. Israelis acknowledge this role but feel more and more that American and American Jewish support is dispensable and that Americans have an inflated sense of importance.
4. It’s Religion — Israelis, by and large, either want fundamentalist religion imposed on all or want no religion at all. There is a middle ground between those two but it’s small, mostly made up of Israelis originally from English-speaking countries; this middle-ground approach has little influence. American Jews want religion, but a liberal approach to religion, something Israelis know (or care) little about. Thus, American Jews feel marginalized and resentful as fundamentalist Jews in Israel push them out and secular Israelis pay no attention to them. If the Chief Rabbinate represents Judaism in Israel and they tell American liberal Jews that they are invalid (fake) Jews, then these alienated Jews often want nothing to do with the Israel project. Liberal American Jews are deeply uncomfortable with Charedi [ultra-Orthodox] Jews even if there is some put-upon nostalgia for the shtetl to be found through pop culture or stereotype. The Charedi population is growing at a significant rate, which is forever going to change the landscape of Jewish influence the world over; it’s overwhelming for liberal Jews to consider.
5. It’s Universalism — Americans, more or less, invented a phrase called “Jewish values” and those values are more-or-less analogous to moral values while Israeli notions of Judaism are completely different, being more rooted in the particular. Israelis, by and large, value Jewish life for, better or worse, higher than gentile life. American Jews, by and large, are so universalistic that the majority marry gentiles. The boundaries of “us” and “them” don’t even exist, except in memory. Israelis mostly see refugees in Israel as a security (and demographic) problem whereas American Jews see them as the solution to actualize the Israel mission to be “a light unto the nations.” Dialogue between Jews and Muslims is increasingly popular in America as these groups come closer (though with trepidation still existing on both sides.) Arab-Israeli dialogue, on the other hand, is still on the fringes and, in many circles, still taboo and radical.
6. It’s Nationalism — If you live in Israel as a Jew, you’re likely to be a nationalist (in other words, a Zionist). This notion makes sense. Connected to the first point listed in this piece above, nationalism is one of the greatest evils of liberal America. So now, the problem itself is the foundation of the state. If Zionism was about Jewish security, we have that in other places of the world now. If Zionism was about a socialist, universalistic dream of actualizing the gifts of our culture, some also feel that was abandoned in favor of “Start Up Nation” (e.g. technology, business, and capitalism). The rise of anti-Semitism in America pushes many American Jews to hold a militaristic post-holocaust orientation that “the goyim [gentiles] will always hate us” and pushes many other American Jews in the opposite direction where, in their opinion, the problem is more universal in scope with those like the evangelicals and neo-Nazis hating Jews in addition to other disenfranchised populations. Therefore, if Israel is an idea that protects the Jews from all of the other nations, it falls flat to many Americans who see their current situation in a more universalistic light. For Israelis who live in a country where they are a majority, however, such universalism is quite foreign.
7. It’s the Far-Left & the Far-Right in the U.S. — Jews who lean towards the reactionary side of the political spectrum scare the majority of Jews and push them further from engaging with Israel at all. They scream that you’re a “self-hating” Jew if you disagree with Israeli policies. Far-left Jews also scare the majority of Jews and push them further from engaging with Israel at all. They scream, “Fight the occupation or you’re a moral sellout” and the majority of American Jews know there is a real problem but find this second approach also to be distasteful.
8. It’s natural for love affairs to end — American Jews loved Israel for a long time. But as the Holocaust became further and increasingly politicized by both the political left and the political right, and as the dreams for the State of Israel changed from their original intent as a pluralistic safe haven for the world’s Jewish populations, the love affair crumbled; this process is always natural, given time. It used to be that the major trauma (Holocaust) and the big glory (the Founding) were the great uniting forces for the global Jewish community. Now, these are the two most divisive issues. It may be that the modern construction of “a united people” was itself an illusion that was unsustainable and the history of divisions is inevitable, normal, and even an imperfect, pragmatic reality we need to accept as historically normal for today.
9. It’s generational — Building off the previous point, to understand why American Jews in their 20s are in such a different place from American Jews in their 60s/70s for example, is to understand the drastic changes in American Jewish life at large and the changes in America in regards to religion, politics, and identity. And here is part of the “marketing” problem. Is Israel “strong as hell and ready to nuke anyone who messes with us” as some t-shirts on Ben Yehuda Street display? Or is Israel a “small, weak, post-Holocaust, bullied, fragile place that could crumble at any minute” as many fundraisers explain. Do young American Jews have an orientation toward ethnic, national pride, toward victim-hood or to neither?
10. Epistemology & the News – The current moment means people absorb different facts and notions of truth to come to their conclusions. American Jewish liberals read the New York Times if they read the news at all and The Forward if they are more actively engaged as liberal Jews. Israelis do not. Rather, Israelis prefer publications such as Yisrael Hayom which is fully funded by casino magnate and Republican Party supporter Sheldon Adelson. The framing, not to mention the facts and foundation for the debates, are understood completely differently. The vulnerabilities that produce shame and discomfort are derived from different wounds. The pride that produces social capital are derived from different wells of identity. Aside from a desire to communicate, there are language barriers as well since American Jews don’t know Hebrew and there is a common misperception that all Israelis read American news (or any American Jewish news at all). We simply don’t have that shared language.
There are many responses we can give to these problems and many constructive solutions we can propose. But first, we need to embrace the extent of the challenge and ensure we diagnose the complexity correctly. Like all relationships, there will be times of tribulation and times of absolute joy. Right now, the American and Israeli Jewish relationship is in a lull, but that doesn’t mean it’s fractured beyond repair. There are problems and there are divisions, to be sure. But there is also hope and connection. And it’s these latter qualities that will heal the global Jewish community and bring us closer together. It won’t happen in the short term, but looking towards the future, we must stay positive that we will be able to recapture the spirit of true unity. It is our burden, our task, but also the redemptive action that will spark the light of a new era of peace and understanding.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of seventeen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.
The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.