Building a Bridge: The Changing Relationship Between American Jews and Israel

The United States and Israel share a strong relationship. Bound by cultural and historical ties, the United States was the first country to recognize Israel as a state in 1948, and the first to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017. Israel remains America’s most reliable partner in the Middle East. Yet the time of unquestioning support for Israel is now being replaced with one of division.

While the majority of American Jews are emotionally attached to Israel, there has been a growing debate about Israel’s policies towards Palestinians and the direction of its government. These are some of the factors that have placed the Startup Nation under scrutiny and opened a gulf with the US. As well, there is a widening gap between older and younger American Jews.

Assimilation has affected American Jewry over the decades. Eighty-six percent of Jews strongly identified as Jewish in the late 1920s and early 1930s. That number stayed consistent for almost five decades, until the late 1960s to early 1980s when Jewish affiliation hit a noticeable decline. Now, a full 32% of Jewish millennials identify as having no religion.

There have been other changes, too. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) released groundbreaking surveys that show the gap between American Jews and Israelis regarding President Trump’s approach to Israel to be profound. While 77% of Israeli Jews approve of how the president is handling U.S.-Israel relations, only 34% of American Jews do. But there are negative consequences for both countries if Israel becomes a partisan issue in the United States. So how can we build a bridge to strengthen the relationship of Israel and the American Jewish Diaspora?

It’s important to note that American and Israeli Jews are not necessarily alike. They have different concerns, interests and lifestyles — even a different calendar. Almost every Israeli speaks English, but most American Jews do not speak Hebrew. They don’t treat Friday night as special, whereas more than 60% of Israelis observe Shabbat by lighting candles or blessing their wine before sitting down to a family-centric dinner. At the same time, Israeli Jews have no idea of the experience of Saturday as a big shopping and errand day, or Christmas as a national holiday. It is time we all learn.

Education is the key to getting Israeli and American Jews to understand each other beyond international news reports. It is critical that more American Jews travel, intern and study in Israel. Thousands of young people have been brought to Israel through the Birthright program that helps connect them to their heritage.

On the other hand, how about a “reverse Birthright?” Just as Americans learn about Israel, Israeli schoolchildren and young adults should be taught about Diaspora Jewry in class. Imagine if they were brought to the States to experience the American Jewish community firsthand?

Jewish organizations can take the lead to create dialogues and real engagement between American Jews and Israeli Jews. Earlier this year, Bnai Zion Foundation brought a group of journalists to Israel to tour their capital projects. Addressing the needs of all people of Israel with dignity and compassion, reporters were able to see the inside track to a different Israel, firsthand.

While people will always have different opinions, both American and Israeli Jews hold rather similar views regarding the importance of the U.S. Jewish community and the State of Israel for the future of the Jewish people. In fact, 78% of Israelis and 69% of U.S. Jews agree that a thriving Diaspora is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people. They are, after all, all Jews.

About the Author
CEO of the Bnai Zion Foundation, Cheryl Bier has spent more than 20 years working for Jewish non-profit organizations. She believes in the power of culture to bring together disparate elements of the Jewish community.
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