Hayim Herring
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From generation to degeneration: Declining American Jewish kinship with Israel?

On the liberal values that may be eroding American Jewish kinship with Israel

Over the past five years, my wife and I have spent about six weeks each year in Israel. We’re clearly not Israeli citizens, but we’re more than occasional visitors. Like many, we have family and close friends in Israel, and are intentionally deepening those relationships and making new ones. Whenever we return from a visit, we’re asked, “What did you see this time?” While we enjoy museums, concerts, new wineries, restaurants and archaeological findings, we most enjoy being with family and friends and, for me, getting my spiritual fix.

With more frequent visits, I’ve become more aware of the differences between the American and Israeli Jewish communities. Yom ha’Atzmaut felt like the right time to share some reflections… and to ask you for your opinions.

The modern state of Israel is only 67 years old. Although Israel is the indisputable historic homeland of the Jewish people, in its current iteration, it is young. In fact, my parents are older than the modern State of Israel. Israel is only about 10 years older than my wife and me, over 40 years older than my children, and well over 60 years older for some of my friends who have grandchildren.

Doing this simple, personal math clearly reminds me that within the American Jewish community, there are two generations that can remember the fragility of the State of Israel, and two generations (going on three) that think that Israel is an outsized global powerhouse. Because of such a significant divide, I wonder to what extent the words “from generation to generation,” that imply continuity of values and kinship, apply to the majority of American Jews who are third generation and beyond. They do not have personal living memories of Israel’s vulnerability but are routinely reminded of Israel’s deficiencies. In daily doses of media images and text, they absorb a one-sided, distorted view of Israel, where Israel almost always does wrong and rarely can do right.

And yes—there’s plenty that’s wrong and worrisome and the list of troubling items seems to grow longer with each visit. But seriously, the United Nations General Assembly can adopt 20 resolutions against Israel in 2014-15 session, but only one against Iran, a nation that executes individuals for the “crime” of homosexuality?

As the American Jewish community moves into its fourth and fifth generation away from the immigrant experience, a clear pattern of American Judaism has emerged for those Jews who still engage with Judaism. (I am primarily referring to liberal Jews, those who do not identify as Orthodox.) The bedrock of their Jewish values is a mix of social justice, equality and inclusion. Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank, an intolerable, unacceptable and untenable situation for which both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are responsible, is very inconvenient for maintaining an American Jewish narrative of social justice. So liberal American Jews are left with few choices: disengage from Israel, vocally engage from a place of caring, that may inadvertently undermine Israel’s legal legitimacy, outright hostility toward Israel or apologetics.

The reality is that while many American Jews have strong liberal leanings, many Israelis have moved politically to the right. Territorial withdrawal from Gaza and Lebanon have led to terrorism and war. America’s naïve grand vision of democracy in the Middle East faltered on the quicksands of local tribalism and absence of democratic institutions to support a new approach to governance. Instead, barbaric Islamic fundamentalism has metastasized and reached Israel’s borders. Just as contemporary American Jews can’t understand the complexities of Israeli Jewish life, Israeli Jews increasingly can’t understand both the lack of support from the American Jewish community, and even more troubling for them, the absence of empathy.

My questions to you are:

• Do you think that liberal American Judaism’s narrative of social justice is incompatible with the realities of contemporary Israel?
• What would Israel education in the US look like if viewed through the lens of generational experiences?

Oh…and hope to see you in Israel soon; I already have tickets for this summer and next December!

Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D, is C.E.O. of and an author, presenter and organizational futurist.

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.
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