In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed 110,000 Americans and sickened hundreds of thousands more, the depression-level economic collapse with more than 40 million Americans unemployed, the continuing murder and mistreatment of African Americans by police, the growing demands for greater racial economic justice, educational opportunity, universal health care, criminal justice reform, a restoration of the social safety net, a growing national opposition to an American president who is incoherent about everything, and our preoccupation with the upcoming November election, it’s often difficult for American Jews to focus our attention on anything other than the multiple crises facing the United States today. However, there’s another crisis that has been growing over the past few years within the liberal American Jewish community that needs our attention, our relationship with the State of Israel, and it’s this crisis upon which I wish to focus here.
Though American Jewish support and sympathy for Israel remains strong, a Gallup Poll released in 2019 revealed that American Jewish sympathy towards Israel dropped 6 percentage points from a poll released only a year before (65% to 59%). This is the lowest level of support for Israel recorded in a decade (see – https://www.timesofisrael.com/new-poll-americans-support-for-israel-declines-to-lowest-point-in-a-decade/)
There are many likely reasons for this shift in American Jewish attitudes and sympathies towards Israel.
Historically, American Jews have voted Democratic over Republican overwhelmingly for decades (80% regard themselves as politically moderate or liberal and 20% as conservative – 65% of Jews identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, with 30% identifying with or leaning toward the Republican Party). Consequently, the political values of the American Jewish community majority opposes the policies of an increasingly more conservative and right-wing Israeli government, the settlement enterprise, Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, Netanyahu’s threat to annex parts of the West Bank after July 1, the Israeli Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s suppression of religious pluralism and its vilification of non-Orthodox Jews and liberal Judaism, and the close relationship between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu who cares more about the American right-wing Christian evangelical movement and right-wing Jews than he does about the majority of the moderate and liberal American Jewish community.
Worried over the trend of alienation from Israel especially among young adult American Jews, I wrote a book entitled Why Israel [and its Future] Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation (New Jersey: Ben Yehuda Press, 2019) and agreed to be the co-editor with Rabbi Stanley Davids of another volume called Deepening the Dialogue – Jewish-Americans and Israelis Envisioning the Jewish-Democratic State (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2019).
On Leil Shavuot, Rabbi Yoni Regev of Temple Sinai of Oakland, California hosted in a zoom webinar Rabbi Davids and me to discuss Deepening the Dialogue before his congregation. Rabbi Regev is Israeli-born and raised, and was one of the translators of this volume.
This book is novel and unique, described by the CCAR this way: “Using the vision embedded in Israel’s Declaration of Independence as a template, this anthology of 20 Israeli and American thought leaders presents a unique and comprehensive dialogue between North American Jews and Israelis about the present and future of the State of Israel. With each essay published in both Hebrew and English, in one volume, Deepening the Dialogue is the first of its kind, outlining cultural barriers as well as the immediate need to come together in conversation around the vision of a democratic solution for our nation state.”
At the conclusion of our webinar discussion, Rabbi Regev asked Rabbi Davids and me this important question: “What do you hope to see happening in the future relationship between American Jewry and Israelis?”
In my response, I listed a set of aspirations and goals that I believe can enhance the relationship between liberal American Jews and Israelis while embracing the core values articulated in Israel’s foundational document, the Declaration of Independence (see – https://www.knesset.gov.il/docs/eng/megilat_eng.htm).
I said then that I hope
- that the relationship between Israeli Jews and American Jews draws closer and that a commitment to social justice in each of our countries binds us together in common cause;
- that religious pluralism prevails in Israel (as it does in America) and towards that end that the state’s Chief Rabbinate is eliminated thus clearing the way for the development of non-Orthodox Judaism in the state;
- that a negotiated, secure, and just two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is achieved thereby preserving Israel’s Jewish majority and its democratic character and that all efforts at unilateral Israeli annexation of the West Bank be resisted;
- that the existential threat from Iran and its client terrorist organizations is contained;
- that the 20% of Israel’s citizenry that is Arab-Palestinian attains full rights, privileges, and benefits as promised in the Declaration of Independence, and that the Israeli-Arab population helps to govern the state as partners with Israel’s Jewish majority in a shared society;
- that the peoplehood of Israel becomes a central source of American Jewish identity thereby linking American Jewry to Israeli and world Jewry and that American Jewry emphasizes Hebrew literacy as the language of Jewish peoplehood;
- that American Jewry knows the history of the State of Israel and the role that progressive Zionism has played in the development of the Jewish state, and that Israeli Jewry knows the history of Diaspora Jewry as we have struggled to maintain our Jewish identity while being full citizens in our respective home countries;
- that American liberal Jews visit Israel often and spend extended time there learning and developing personal relationships with Israelis and that Israelis visit American Reform synagogue communities whenever they visit North America.
If fulfilled, I believe these goals can avert the growing crisis of alienation that many American Jews feel towards Israel and augur well for the future strength and commonality of purpose for the Jewish people in Israel, America, and around the world.