I have been spending several weeks in the good ol’ USA, where I grew up and was educated and lived until I made aliyah to Israel with my wife, Amy, 42 years ago. While I am visiting here, I have been reconnecting with family and friends with whom I have had many discussions about American Jewish identity, including the attitudes of liberal American Jews to Israel.
I want to begin with some reflections about the relationship of American Jews to their land, and to the country to which they are loyal and care about deeply.
On a weeklong road trip with my wife in New England in June, we visited friends in Portland (Maine), Cape Cod and Little Compton (Rhode Island). In each case, we were warmly received and hosted, which included beautiful tours of the places we visited. Our hosts love the local landscapes, the ponds, the ocean, the sea breezes, the trees, and the fresh air in these scenic places. In one case, a friend has returned to the city where he grew up, where he feels totally at home; in other cases, they have lived – or summered (a very American concept) — in those places for more than 40 years and feel very comfortable there. On our personalized tours, I was impressed by how much my friends felt attached to their local scenery, similar to how Israeli Jews are attached to the land of Israel. None of these people have any plans to leave their land to emigrate to the land of Israel. They are completely at home, physically, emotionally, geographically, culturally and even politically.
On the political level, many of my friends in the USA are deeply committed to the liberal and progressive political agendas in that country. This included the successful fight to oust Trump from office last year, and now includes the struggle for voting rights for all Americans, and organizing in battleground states for the mid-term elections in 2022. There is an ongoing struggle for the soul of America —between Democrats (who are liberal or progressive) and between Republicans (who are overwhelmingly more Conservative, which means anti-vaccines, pro-Trumpism, Climate Change denial and all the rest). These liberal Jews are intensively involved in American politics and culture.
Is Israel on their agenda? Yes, somewhat. Some of them have not been to Israel in a long time. Others have never been to Israel, and in the age of the Covid worldwide pandemic, are not planning any visits to Israel in the near future. Yet, they all ask me what is going in Israel all the time: How is the new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett doing? Is there a chance that this broad coalition will last? What are the chances that this new coalition government in Israel will do anything useful or productive for Israeli society? Good questions, to which I don’t have any answers yet.
Liberal American Jews are concerned about Israel, but it is just one concern among many other items of interest and importance on their agenda. In most cases, it is not their major concern. They are more concerned about the Covid pandemic in their country (but less so in the world), the issues surrounding racism and police brutality, climate change, immigration and economics. Yet, they are worried about the shift to the right politically in Israel over many years, which includes support of the ongoing occupation of the West Bank, creeping annexation, constant evictions of Palestinians from their homes, home demolitions, and much more.
Moreover, when there are wars, like in the recent 11-day mini-war between Israel and Hamas in May of this year, they were clearly affected by the news reports coming out of Israel and Palestine, by the negative reactions of many Americans to Israeli government policies, and by the concomitant rise in anti-Semitism, some of which is a direct result of disproportional violence by Israel against Palestinians. This includes all too often acts of police brutality, which Americans understand very well from events in their country in recent years.
Many liberal American Jews are worried that the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the USA is very much connected to Israeli policies. Anti-Semitism lately has been very much linked to anti-Zionism, or more correctly anti-Israelism (criticism of some of the policies of the Israel government) since very few people really understand what Zionism is all about. But they do notice that many attacks against Jews in America increased after the last war against the Palestinians in Gaza in May.
There was an attempt last Sunday in the USA to separate these issues by talking about anti-Semitism without reference to the policies of the government of Israel, but it didn’t work. A group of right-wing Jewish organizations, led by an unknown group called Alliance for Israel, duped many mainstream Jewish organizations into co-sponsoring a rally in Washington DC. Other right-wing groups who were behind this were Stand with Us and the Republican Jewish Coalition (the pro-Trumpism wing of American Jewish politics). This was a fake attempt at Jewish unity and most American Jews didn’t buy it. The organizers hoped to get hundreds of thousands of Jews to show up in Washington DC for this Fear Not rally but only about 2,000 actually participated. The attempt to portray Jews as under attack simply because they are Jews—without any reference to provocative and controversial Israeli policies vis a vis the Palestinians – did not work. This is why enlightened, knowledgeable and caring Jewish liberal/progressive groups like J Street or T’ruah (the Rabbinical Call for Human Rights) did not co-sponsor or participate in any way in this farce.
It is impossible to separate out totally the rise of anti-Semitism from the policies of right-wing governments in Israel over many years. These policies are part of the problem–and changing them will be part of the solution – and to ignore them is to be irresponsible and irrelevant. They are not the whole story, but they are certainly an inherent part of the issue.
However, the larger problem is the growing gap between liberal American Jews and Jewish society in Israel which is growing more and more illiberal, conservative, reactionary, right-wing, anti-Palestinian and anti-peace. As long as this gap continues to grow, we will undoubtedly see more and more distancing of large swaths of liberal and progressive American Jews from Israel, especially in the younger generation.
On the other hand, many liberal American Jews still care deeply about Israel and are involved with many progressive organizations, such as the New Israel Fund, J Street, T’ruah, the Abraham Fund Initiatives and many more. Their involvement is crucial to those of us in Israel who are still fighting for the soul of Israel–like our friends in the USA– who seek to live up to the aspirations of our Declaration of Independence of 1948, who wish to live in a society based on the prophetic ideals of justice and righteousness, and who yearn to live in peace with our Palestinian neighbors. I invite all liberal and progressive American Jews to join us in this struggle, even from afar, since our destinies as American and Israeli Jews are inextricably intertwined.