The notion of a widening rift between Israel and the American Jewish community has become somewhat of an axiom in recent years. Public debates over non-egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, Conversion, and the criticism by US Jewry over the relationship between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu pointed in that direction.
However, it is becoming more and more apparent that while the majority of American Jews are critical about Israel’s policies, they are not drifting apart from Israel. A recent survey commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation and conducted by the Mellman Group found that a third of American Jews felt their connection with Israel was stronger than it was five years ago, and almost half felt is has not worsened. These findings clearly show that despite events shadowing the relationship between American Jewry and Israel in recent years, the former still feel connected to Israel and even strengthened in their attachment to Israel.
The survey, which was one of the largest ever to be conducted among the American Jewish community, also found that while many are critical towards Israel at various levels, they still identify as pro-Israel. The relationship between Israel and American Jewry has become more layered and complex. In fact, 57% were “somewhat critical” or “very critical” of government policies. At the same time, two thirds also felt connected emotionally to Israel, even among younger Jews and unaffiliated Jews.
In other words when the majority of Jewish Americans were asked for their opinion, they expressed a connection and attachment to Israel that has not weakened, refuting a sense of crisis or drifting apart. Our survey revealed a reality that is different from mainstream arguments about irreconcilable differences and animosity toward Israel coming from American Jews. Our survey also suggests that criticism does not mean lack of empathy or love for Israel. It means that American Jews care enough about Israel and its society to encourage different policies, regulations, institutions and norms. As American Jews, we feel as connected to Israel as we have in the past, but we are also more knowledgeable and familiar with events and policies in Israel. While criticism has been perceived as alienation in past years it should be viewed as growing interest in the Israeli State and society.
The majority of American Jews experience the relationship through their personal experiences, not through questions of policy. Our survey found that 33% of American Jews have family members living in Israel, and 44% of them have visited or lived in Israel. For many Israelis their professional life – in academia, hi-tech, sports or culture – involves working with Jewish counterparts in the US. These relationships are rarely reflected in the traditional public discourse, which is based on organizational and political stakeholders and narratives. This must change.
Recently we took a big step in our efforts to diversify the conversation. With President Reuven Rivlin as our host, 200 people gathered in Jerusalem to hear leading professionals from Israel and the US talk about why this relationship is important to them. The speakers, and most of the audience, were not the people you usually see at such conversations. A glance at the participant list highlights this change: Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, award winning author Nicole Krauss, Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu, Olympic Medalist Arik Zeevi and the President of Harvard University Professor Lawrence Bacow were only some of those taking part in the conversation.
After decades in which the conversations between Israel and the American Jewish community were led by a tightly knit group of people, it is time to take it to the public. We must strive to diversify the conversation. We must bring new speakers, fresh perspectives and reach larger audiences. At the same time, we need to start talking more about the areas of agreement and unity. Once we have a common language and understanding of the importance of this relationship, then it will be easier to address the differences of opinion among us.