Alan Edelstein
Alan Edelstein

A stomach punch

A few weeks ago I was e-mailing with a friend in the U.S. about Israel’s most recent election and the stalemate in forming a coalition. This friend is not some marginally identified Jew. He is a regular at his synagogue. He has headed up Jewish community organizations. He’s attended AIPAC conferences and programs.  He and his wife sent their kids to a Jewish day school. His family visited Israel on several occasions.

In the course of our exchange my friend (I will call him “Mike”) wrote this:

“I have to admit, and I think I am not alone in this thought, that I have grown farther away from Israel in the last eight years or so. I am just tired of the direction the country has gone in. No, I certainly am aware of the risks involved in a center-left government but I don’t think Yesh Atid really is even moderately left, so why can’t it win an election?

The country is just leaning more and more to the right so it just does not seem to be the Israel that was in my heart nor in my conviction to support.”

My heart sank. A stomach punch.

It is not news that a growing number of American Jews no longer feel as strong a connection to Israel as they or their parents once did. It’s also no secret that while American Jews largely identify with the Democratic Party and a more liberal agenda, Israelis, at least on foreign affairs and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, have adopted what to American Jews is perceived as a right-leaning approach.

But coming from such a connected, knowledgeable, long-time supporter? If we’ve lost Mike, we’re really in trouble. Truly depressing and distressing.

I did not respond. What’s the point of arguing? My friend was not arguing politics. He was expressing feelings that have developed over years of experience and observation. It’s difficult if not impossible to argue with feelings.

The e-mail has gnawed at me. It did occur to me to ask Mike whether, even though he was strongly opposed to President Trump and was greatly distressed at the course the U.S. took under the Trump Administration, had he “grown farther away from” the U.S.? Although he was “tired of the direction” the U.S. had taken under Trump (and, for that matter, under George W. Bush), did he feel that the U.S. “does not seem to be the [U.S.] that was in my heart nor in my conviction to support.”

In short, did worry and disappointment with the U.S. cause Mike to loosen his connection with and concern for the country? Or, as a citizen who loves his country and has a stake in it, did he dig in, get more involved, discuss and advocate, and vote?

I suspect Mike did the latter. He cares about his country and the course it was on. He didn’t “grow farther away.”

The difference in Mike’s reactions to his concern regarding the direction of the U.S. under Trump and to his concern and disappointment with the direction he believes Israel has taken presents what may be an unsolvable problem. It may be the inevitable result of the fact that Mike and others who share his feelings are citizens of the U.S., were born and raised there, raised their children there, and are watching their grandchildren grow up there.

Their  families and their legacies are totally dependent on and intertwined with the destiny of the U.S. In their reality, they sink or swim with the ship that is the U.S. There is no choice but to stay with the ship.

An American Jew may care deeply about Israel. But if you are not a citizen, if you are not living here, if you are not on the ship, perhaps it is inevitable that when you see what looks like a lot of rust, you bail out.

In his book We Stand Divided, Daniel Gordis argues that the growing chasm between Israel and American Jews is not due so much to disenchantment with particular Israeli positions or political direction but, rather, to the fact that the two nations were founded on virtually opposite founding principles and have totally different purposes.

As Gordis explains, the United States is based on a universalistic idea of bringing disparate people together in order to form a new identity and to live peacefully in a democratic society. Israel is based on the particularistic idea of reconstituting the Jewish people’s home in the land in which they are an indigenous people and providing them a secure and fulsome future.

People from countries with such opposing purposes and rationales for existing inevitably will not understand each other, the thinking goes.

I have previously argued that the problem may be the lessening connection American Jews have to Judaism and the Jewish people rather than a particular issue with Israel’s direction or founding principles.

I’ve also argued that regardless of their problems with particular issues or direction that Israel might take, American Jews must see and appreciate Israel as a multi-dimensional, rich, and, in many ways, very positive society which not only provides them a refuge should things go bad in the diaspora, but which has changed the way people perceive Jews and the way they perceive themselves.

I could also argue that this supposed turn to the right by Israel might have some justification. Israelis are not dumb people, and they take their security and their nation’s future seriously. Their children’s lives literally depend on it. Perhaps, I could suggest, there are valid reasons for the positions they take, given their lives, and perhaps it would be helpful to try to understand what is underlying the policies they support.

I could also point out that one must be cautious when applying American labels of right and left, conservative and liberal, to Israeli politics. For example, “right-wing” Israeli politicians would never think to suggest that Israel should not have its universal health care system, and they support subsidies that American right-wingers would denigrate as “socialism.” The right-wing Prime Minister writes a message on Pride Day that would mean political suicide for many right-wing American politicians.

Israelis across the political spectrum take pride in the fact that the entire country came together to fight the coronavirus, and that while Israeli Arabs are about 21% of the total population,  Israeli Arabs constitute 17% of Israel’s doctors, 24% of its nurses, and 48% of its pharmacists.

The student body of the Technion, often referred to as Israel’s MIT, is 20% Arab. Due to concentrated programs addressing remedial education, the dropout rate among first-year Arab students has dropped from 75% to 15% in 12 years.

For all of the bad press the Netanyahu government gets for its attitude toward the Arab community, some of it deserved, the fact is that the current government has provided more targeted assistance to Arab communities than any previous government.

The evidence that this is a rich, vibrant, decent society that American Jews should be proud of and feel connected to goes on and on. But, is there a point to making these arguments or to trying to bridge this divide?

Perhaps there is nothing that can be done. Perhaps the “growing farther away from Israel,” as Mike described it, is simply inevitable. Perhaps it is simply the difference from being on the ship and having to bail versus viewing the ship from a distance and seeing the rust.

We just got through the Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance), then Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day for those who died in the army and the victims of terror attacks), then Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day).  As I have written before, it is a period of strong, mixed emotions.

On Yom HaShoah we mourn the devastating murder of six million Jews and the attempted annihilation of our people, and here in Israel we note that today this would not happen. Today we have a nation to protect us. Today we are not victims. We control our destiny.

The day before Yom HaZikaron we took a beautiful drive up to Rosh Pina in the north. We drove up the Jordan River Valley, then through the Gilboa Forest, and then had lunch at the Spice Farm Restaurant near the base of Mt. Gilboa.

That evening we attended Rosh Pina’s community Yom Hazikaron ceremony. It started immediately after the nationwide sounding of the siren. It was simple. The recitation of the names of those from Rosh Pina who had fallen in battle.

Far too many names for a small town. Several last names stated more than once. Brief words by a dignitary. Some music. Over in exactly a half hour. Whoever was in charge of that ceremony should be in charge of all ceremonies in Israel and perhaps in the world.

We went to Rosh Pina for Yom HaZikaron because our friend Shimon, who is 81, has been asking us for several years to come up to a Yom Hazikaron ceremony he organizes there. Shimon is on the right side of the political spectrum, and he has researched and written about pre-state activities of political and military groups on the right.

This ceremony originated as a memorial to the first Jew hung by the British, who was from Rosh Pina. The attendees are Shimon’s old Beitar/Etzel friends and a few other people connected in one way or another. A local band of junior high school age musicians provided the music. The ceremony was basic, a little improvised in places, and moving.

Two of Shimon’s four kids, three of his grandchildren, and a son-in-law attended. One of his grandsons, a tall, good-looking young man, told me he made a point of coming because he wanted to learn about the ceremony and the history so that he might continue the tradition when Shimon cannot.

After the ceremony, just Shimon’s family, two young women who do their national service with Shimon, and me and my wife went to the site of the destroyed Mishmar HaYarden (the Jordan Guard), which was a settlement founded by Beitar members in the 1880’s and which was wiped out by the Syrians during the War of Independence in 1948.

As we arrived a group of soldiers was finishing up memorial service at the site and were listening to a lecture on the history. We placed flowers at the memorial.

Shimon’s version of the history is that the left-wing settlements in the area would not provide the personnel and supplies the Beitar members needed to defend the settlement, and the Irgun leader Menachem Begin was too busy saving Jaffa to lend a hand.

Shimon did a great job explaining the situation, but it came with his political perspective. I did wonder if the soldiers’ lecturer would agree with Shimon’s version. Regardless, the determination and sacrifice of the inhabitants for a country at its birth is moving and deserving of our respect.

After Mishmar HaYarden we went to the local military cemetery. The ceremonies had ended. Just a few families were still in the parking lot. Lots of graves with very young people in them. One fighter was 17 years old when killed.

One of Shimon’s cousins is buried in this military cemetery. Shimon explained how his cousin died in the War of Independence.  He was one of five or six fighters that were so scarred that they could not be identified, so they buried them next to each other and put stones up for each one. But no one knows if the markers actually mark the right grave.

We joined Shimon, his kids and his grandchildren in saying Kaddish (the mourners’ prayer) for a cousin Shimon knew when he was a young child and none of the rest of us knew at all. Three generations, mostly strangers to the deceased hero, paying respect to a young man who died for a country most of the world thought would not survive, a country comprised of remnants of a people.

In Israel, this is personal. These kinds of experiences drive home to you how people have sacrificed so that Jews can determine their own fate in their own country. But war and death and territorial disputes, in the past and now, are not all of Israel. It is a rich, multi-dimensional, complicated, fun, frustrating, fascinating, spiritually rewarding country.

And it is filled with people, some great, some good, some not-so-great, arguing over its direction, its politics, its culture. But mostly what they are doing is carving out a life, and together determining a destiny for the Jewish people. Perhaps to fully appreciate it, to not grow distant when its politics veer in a direction you do not like, to stay completely and personally connected and invested, one must be here, to experience it in all of its dimensions.

Perhaps no amount of education, bridge-building, visiting will keep one from growing “farther away” when one grows “tired of the direction” unless their future and the future of their children is completely intertwined with and determined by the fate of the country. In short, to be on the ship.

About the Author
Alan Edelstein was a lawyer and lobbyist in California for 30 years. He currently lives in Jerusalem and Sacramento, California and consults on governmental affairs, communications, politics, and business development. He blogs at Inquiries regarding speaking engagements: