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American Jews are suffering. Can Israel help without patronizing? 

With the pandemic's devastating and disproportionate toll on centers of US Jewish life, a historical dynamic of aid-giving is reversed
Bodies are seen on shelves in a refrigerated container at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Bodies are seen on shelves in a refrigerated container at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

In a week when Yom Hazikaron and Yom ha’Atzmaut coincided with the easing of the corona crisis in Israel, I mourn the personal tragedies of many, including close relatives, while I am extraordinarily grateful and happy that the Jewish state has protected its citizens from far worse possible scenarios.

Yet my joy is diminished by the legitimate criticism of Israel’s behavior published lately by two strong supporters, both of whom are from New York where the pandemic has taken a monstrous toll. Why, they ask, haven’t the state and its citizens reached out to their American Jewish brothers and sisters in their time of need?

“Israel could have done more to help crisis-stricken communities,” wrote Ronald Lauder, a leading philanthropist and president of the World Jewish Congress. “The gap between stanching-the-spread of the virus in Jewish Tel Aviv and succumbing to the virus in Jewish New York has rankled.”

American Orthodox educator Rabbi Elchanan Poupko made a direct emotional appeal to Israelis in the Hebrew weekly, Makor Rishon: “We sit alone, not a sound is heard…, not the Israeli organizations that solicit funds as testament to our solidarity with our Israeli brethren…, not the Israeli politicians that laud the deep and unbreakable bonds…, not the Israeli rabbis so eager to interfere in our internal matters….”

With American Jewry’s constant expressions of concern for Israel’s safety, asks Poupko, “how does one explain solidarity with Israel to fellow Jews when Israel has deserted us at our lowest point?”

I am deeply saddened by the visceral sense of abandonment expressed in these articles. But it is not too late to correct the situation, especially as the circumstances here improve. Certainly individuals can help. I have already heard from colleagues that even a phone call or a message makes a big difference. And broader grassroots initiatives that meet specific needs will go a long way. But the bigger question is how the State of Israel responds. 

The starting point is to build upon the foundation that is enabling Israel to weather the health storm domestically. Israel must concentrate on the practical ways it can provide assistance and support. This help may include sharing expertise in physical and mental health, spiritual support, supplies, educational and religious materials, and possibly entertainers and artists who can provide relief and enjoyment. 

But even more significant than the exact kind of assistance offered is the question of how it is presented. On this score, Israel’s track record is not good, with efforts to engage American Jewry causing more resentment than appreciation. Such was the case when the Ministry of Absorption launched an “anti-assimilation” campaign in the context of soaring rates of intermarriage. Even greater outrage was sparked after the October 2018 murderous attacks on Jews attending synagogue in Pittsburgh, when visiting Israeli officials questioned the overall stability of Jewish life in America and presented Israel as a more secure alternative.

That message was irksome for American Jews, who, throughout the previous century, acquired enormous confidence in the security of their position. They left aside old fears of accusations of dual loyalty and dismissed local antisemitism as a peripheral phenomenon. Today, openly observant Jews sit as full partners at the pinnacles of political, economic and scientific power, and Jews and Judaism are part and parcel of American intellectual and popular culture.

The unprecedented status for Jews within this free democratic society, often called “American Jewish exceptionalism,” may be debatable, especially in light of recent rises in violent antisemitic incidents, but American Jewry still views itself as the protector of those brethren throughout the world whose positions are more precarious. 

And nowhere more than in the State of Israel. The last decades have certainly witnessed sharp internal fissures over specific Israeli policies as well as the rise of voices that question an axiomatic connection between their Judaism and Israel. Yet for the majority of American Jews, a relationship to Israel that is expressed most concretely through philanthropy, activism, tourism, and education remains a foundation of their Jewish identity.

This role as the exceptional American protector has benefitted Israel tremendously. Yet it reflects an imbalanced relationship. Going back as far as the tensions between Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and the American Jewish leadership, American Jews have always begrudged any insinuation that Israel was a safer or healthier environment for Jews. So much so that the very idea that American Jews would gain from inculcating aspects of Israeli knowledge and worldviews, has been met with skepticism and anger.

The Corona pandemic is not a specifically American Jewish problem. It impacts the entire global population, including Israel. For that matter, the vast majority of American victims are not Jewish. Nonetheless, as both Lauder and Poupko testify, the toll on urban and suburban centers of American Jewish life has been devastating and disproportionate. Indeed, the tragedy is seen starkly when compared with the relatively low levels of severe illness and death among Israeli Jews. So much so that, uncharacteristically, the Americans have called out Israel for not being there in their time of need.

Such circumstances demand a caring response. But can Israel address American Jewish suffering without being perceived as patronizing and insensitive? My answer is yes, but only if the Israeli efforts express sympathy and understanding of core aspects of American Jewish collective identity, and do not come across as taking the opportunity to highlight the futility of Diaspora life. Israel must reach out while avoiding any expression of ideological perspectives other than the principle that when one Jewish community is in need, those who at that moment are more fortunate and able must find ways to help.

About the Author
Professor Adam S. Ferziger holds the R.S.R. Hirsch Chair in the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University and is co-convener of the Oxford Summer Institute on Modern and Contemporary Judaism. His most recent monograph, Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism (Wayne State University Press, 2015), won the National Jewish Book Award in the category of American Jewish Studies. He is co-editor of the new volume Yitz Greenberg and Modern Orthodoxy: The Road Not Taken (Academic Studies Press 2019).
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