American Jews fell in love with Israel in 1948 when the newly established nation miraculously survived the unprovoked onslaught of five Arab armies. To invoke an overused metaphor, plucky little Israel was then seen as courageous “David,” renewing Jewish pride after the Holocaust. But in 1967, when Israel again survived the onslaught of Arab armies and, in a defensive war, took back territory illegally occupied by Jordan, Israel became “Goliath,” the powerful “imperialist occupier.” For many American Jews, this was the beginning of the end of their love affair with Israel.
Psychology describes the phenomenon above as idealization followed by devaluation or disappointment. Idealization occurs in the first phase of romantic love. Lovers perceive one other as having the perfect characteristics of an ideal mate. Of course, in time we discover flaws, as does our partner. Psychologists caution, “…a romantic ideal shaped by an extravagant desire for commonality may make us intolerant of difference—in which case the dawning awareness that our partner is other than a twin may lead us to fall out of love.”
This disillusionment probably accounts for some of the vehemence and even anger of American Jews toward Israel. They feel that the world’s only Jewish state no longer lives up to what they believed it was or think it should be, an idealized reflection of the Jewish people, our better “twin.” And, although secular egalitarian American Jews long ago repudiated what some considered the embarrassing and anachronistic notion of themselves as a “chosen people,” they still expect Israel to be the proverbial “light unto the nations.” Israel’s failure to fulfill their romantic ideals can be experienced as a painful betrayal.
Does Israel have to conform to American Jewish expectations to continue to receive its support? True love is based on reality, not idealized fantasies or wishes. It should not be shocking that Israel, like all other countries, has flaws. But the tolerance extended to whomever American Jews define as “the other,” including Palestinians, is not extended to Israelis. Israel is held to a higher standard. And yet, Israel, too, is “the other.”
It is noteworthy that despite their passionate opinions about it, most American Jews have never visited Israel nor even met an Israeli. Lacking this firsthand knowledge, their ideas about Israel are formed secondhand from media misrepresentations rather than from real familiarity with Israelis, their history and culture.
American Jews appear to believe that Israel, a Jewish democracy, is a smaller version of America and that Israeli Jews are like American Jews or should be. However, like any other county, Israel has developed its own culture, one that is different from ours in demography, geography and history.
Most American Jews are descended from Europeans. With the exception of those Israeli Jews who were indigenous from Biblical times, so were Israelis. But with the establishment of the modern Jewish state, pogroms initiated in Arab countries resulted in the expulsion of their Jewish populations. An estimated 750,000 Arabian Jews, residents for thousands of years, sought refuge. Consequently, Israel welcomed these Mizrachi (Eastern) Jews-Yemenites, Iraqis, Moroccans, Syrians and others-who have had a significant impact upon ever evolving Israeli culture. More recently, large numbers of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia have also made unique contributions.
Geography deeply affects every people’s world view. America is a huge and powerful country, blessed with natural resources, protected by oceans, with friendly neighbors on our borders. We naturally formed very different perspectives about life than Israelis who live in a tiny desert region with few natural resources, surrounded by people who want to kill them.
History counts too. American Jews know very little about Jewish history. In contrast, for Israelis, Jewish history is not an abstract subject taught in classrooms. Israeli schoolchildren regularly hike, camp and visit the Biblical sites where Jewish history unfolded. Israeli children know our history has been marked by persecution. They know their own country has been continuously attacked and threatened by powerful hostile forces seeking their destruction. They know that one day, it will be their responsibility and that of their children and grandchildren to protect their country.
In contrast, American Jews can breathe freely, untouched by the expectation that their country’s or their people’s existence will one day depend upon them or their loved ones. Without recognition of the impact of these fundamental differences on world view, how can American Jews hope to understand Israeli Jews, especially if they’ve never gotten to know them or visited their country?
Perhaps, the realization that our Israeli “cousins” are products of a different culture is a beginning.
American television, recently covering Hamas’ “March of Return,” showed images featuring Davidic Gazans wielding sling shots, flaming tires and wire cutters to destroy the Israeli border fence. Somehow the press overlooked the horrible devastation suffered by Israel. Incendiary kites sent over the border by Gaza burned acre upon acre of painstakingly planted Israeli forests and crops. Likewise, there was minimal coverage of the trauma endured by Israeli families given 15 seconds to run for cover against Hamas’ missiles. Since Hamas timed its “March” to coincide with Israel’s Independence Day celebrations, the contrast between Gazan suffering, unnecessarily inflicted by the Hamas “March,” and the exuberant festivities in Israel was exploited by the media as visual representations of Israeli callousness.
To understand Israeli culture is to understand that the Israeli capacity to enjoy life to its fullest is not a form of callousness. For example, the two Israeli holidays, Yom HaZicharon (Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) reflect how Israelis can acknowledge the pain of death on Yom HaZicharon and the very next day celebrate the joy of life and the founding of their state on Yom HaAtzmaut.
The paradox and triumph of Israeli culture is that despite being a target of hatred and murderous rage, Israel actually ranks 11th out of 156 nations in the United Nations “World Happiness Report 2018.” Visitors to Israel see that Israelis, a multiracial, multiethnic people, have a vibrant and joyful culture.
But this is not the Israel the media reports. On any given day, there will be some story about the Israel we feel betrayed by, the one that doesn’t reflect our liberal values, the one that mirrors our own problems–the election of Donald Trump and the ascendance of bigotry, incivility and general intolerance.
How can American Jews earnestly confront our unrealistic idealized standards for Israel and accept an Israel with flaws? How can we extend to Israel the tolerance we extend to others whose cultures differ from our own?
Most importantly, how can we learn to respect Israeli autonomy, its right to pursue what it believes to be in its own best interests even when those interests conflict with what American Jews think they should be?
The world’s Jewish population is only about 15 million people, half living in Israel and most of the other half in North America. It is probably true that if either half were wiped out, the existence of other half would be imperiled. Thus, each half is dependent upon the other for the continued survival of the Jewish people.
If American Jewish support of Israel is contingent upon Israeli adherence to our notions of who they should be, the Jewish people are lost.