How Israelis hear US Jews’ criticism

To claims that the American Jewish community's decline is our fault, we say: Look in the mirror
People participate in the Celebrate Israel Parade in the rain on June 5, 2016 in New York City (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/AFP)
People participate in the Celebrate Israel Parade in the rain on June 5, 2016 in New York City (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/AFP)

For some years now, conventional wisdom has it that Israel’s policies toward liberal streams and Palestinians are to blame for the rift between us and American Jews. I would not deny that the treatment of liberal Jews at the hands of Israel’s religious establishment, with the tacit complicity of Israeli governments, is a disgrace; every Israeli should be ashamed of it. This demeaning, offensive attitude plays a very real role in the growing alienation from Israel felt by Jews in North America. Yet I believe it is worthwhile reflecting to the Diaspora what it is about their own behavior that is causing the two communities to move even further apart and Israelis to feel so indifferent or estranged from American Jews.

Speaking about “communities feeling” may be inaccurate or fail in rough generalities, but I believe that many of the ideas that I’m bringing here reflect the deepest [often hidden] and painful feelings of many Israelis regarding their American Jewish peers. I realize that this article might come across as offensive and create a sense of unease among American readers; that is not my intention. I deeply believe that if we are going to mend the current rift between both communities it is imperative that our American brothers and sisters realize the underlying state of mind of many Israelis. Only by accepting each other’s points of view will be able to create genuine dialogue between us.

The State of Israel and hundreds of Israeli associations and institutions living thanks to American Jewry philanthropy should feel grateful to the role played by the Jewish American community over the last generations in contributing to the shaping of the Jewish state and the American political support to Israel. Meanwhile, many Israelis feel disappointed that more American Jews have not made aliyah in order to actively participate in the most significant chapter in the history of the Jewish people in the last 2,000 years. Instead of taking a central, active role and contributing in numbers and quality what no other Jewish community in the world can, the community for the most part used to support Israel from behind — missing the opportunity to play a more active role in the Zionist endeavor and thereby conveying to Israelis and the whole world that the Zionist enterprise is nice to have, but not essential in the shaping of the Jewish people’s future.

On Israel’s 70th Independence Day, “The Forward” ran the headline: “It’s time for Israel to Recognize That Diaspora Jews Are Already Home.” This kind of defiance is wholly at odds with the ethos of classic Zionism that the Diaspora ultimately leads to assimilation, anti-Semitism, or withdrawing into the confines of Orthodoxy. In light of German Chancellor Merkel’s remarks this week about rising new anti-Semitism in her country; anti-circumcision legislation that was adopted by the European assembly in 2013 [PACE] and is close to becoming law in Scandinavia and Iceland; Belgium’s Wallooon parliament’s unanimous vote to ban kosher meats by outlawing the slaughter of animals that have not been stunned, which will go into effect in September 2019, the petition in Le Figaro against rising Islamic anti-Semitism; and what we know of increasing assimilation in North America — one cannot help feeling saddened by these headlines and estranged from voices that ignore the complexity and temporariness of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

Israelis also expect Diaspora Jewry to respect our democracy. Freedom of speech in Israel is practically unlimited; anyone who thinks that the present government is taking the wrong path is quite free to try to persuade Israeli citizens to opt for change. For some decades now, the Israeli polity has been voting for a certain political view and the opposite camp has successfully convinced many American Jews that the present government is illegitimate. The attempt to “save Israelis from themselves” is a grave error. The democratic processes and choices of the Jewish state should be respected by Israeli and certainly by American Jews.

The Israeli public is also dismayed at the dwindling and assimilation of the largest Jewish community in the world, [58% in general and with over 70% intermarriage in the non-Orthodox population]. Israelis are taken aback by attempts on the part of some Jewish leaders in America to ignore the severity of the problem or, even worse, to blame Israel itself for assimilation in America, “since Israel’s turned out to be such a disappointment.” The fact that some American Jewish leaders will not assume responsibility for their failure in this also distances Israelis from American Jews. In this context it is worthwhile quoting Elliott Abrams, prominent Jewish intellectual and strategic adviser to several presidents, who recently wrote that the real reason for the drifting apart of American Jews and Israel has nothing to do with Israel, but is rather due to the change in the nature of the American Jewish community. It has increasingly assimilated into its non-Jewish surroundings, with fewer affiliated Jews. Jewish education is declining, intermarriage rising.

In conclusion, many Israelis pay a heavy daily price — existential, physical, financial — to “protect the home” and make it flourish. They enact the daily miracle of living in Hebrew: Hebrew language, literature, culture, defense, economy. They find it hard to listen to voices that claim that the American Jewish community is no less a center of the Jewish people than Israel is, equally important as the State of Israel for ensuring the continuing existence and strength of the Jewish people. In addition, from a formal point of view, according to the Law of Return, the State of Israel is the homeland the Jewish people. Each Jew who decides to make allyah can immediately get Israeli citizenship. No other place in the world can pretend to have this status, not even the United States. That alone is what should make Israel the uncontested center of the Jewish people.

Close ties and unconditional mutual commitment between the two communities is an invaluable strategic asset for the survival and continuing strength of the Jewish people. This requires an ongoing respectful dialogue which should be sincere and honest, beyond political correctness, even if it can sometimes be stormy and painful. Two major obstacles stand in front of a significant rapprochement between the two communities: Israel’s political and social constellation that gives intolerable power to ultra-Orthodox parties and forces governments to enact offensive policies toward liberal Jews. And the other: the failure of the American Jewish community to ensure continuity of the Jewish people that is dwindling and assimilating.

Here’s a possible solution to both issues: half a million American Jews should make alyah as a living bridge to bolster ties between the two communities, influencing the State of Israel from within. As Herzl said, we can make it happen.

Dr. Eitan Chikli heads the TALI Education Fund for Jewish education in schools and is lecturer in Jewish Education at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies. This article reflects his own opinion.

About the Author
Dr. Eitan Chikli has been the Susan and Scott Shay Director General of the TALI Education Fund since 1994 and a lecturer at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.