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Israelis don’t care that you’re insulted: An open letter to American Jews

American Jews should step back from Israeli security concerns, but lean way in when it comes to the matter of peoplehood
Israeli protesters gather outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem on July 1, 2017, to demonstrate against a government decision to abandon a deal for a permanent pluralistic prayer facility at the Western Wall jointly overseen by all streams of Judaism. (AFP/Thomas Coex)
Israeli protesters gather outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem on July 1, 2017, to demonstrate against a government decision to abandon a deal for a permanent pluralistic prayer facility at the Western Wall jointly overseen by all streams of Judaism. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

We’ve had a rough week, those of us who care about the American Jewish – Israel relationship. As in all relationships, rough patches are painful, but they are also opportunities to think anew, to understand better. That’s what I would like to try to do in this open (and admittedly rather lengthy) letter. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s shameful capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox on the Kotel and conversion issues actually affords us a valuable opportunity. For decades, the Jewish world has been struggling with what, precisely, should be the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Now, we’re primed to talk about it.

We’re not going to settle this issue now – the fraught relationship goes back almost a century. In 1920, Louis Brandeis and Chaim Weizmann had a now famous blowup about Zionist policy, following which Weizmann said, “There is no bridge between Washington and Pinsk.” In other words, we are very different at our cores – let’s not pretend otherwise. Jacob Blaustein (then the President of the American Jewish Committee) and David Ben-Gurion had another explosion in 1950, and their “agreement” was always tenuous at best. Leading American Jews were livid when Israel captured Adolf Eichmann and brought him to Jerusalem for trial. “Who made you the representative of the Jewish people,” they wanted to know. Eichmann, after all, had murdered Jews, not Israelis. He was party to genocide before Israel even existed, so by virtue of what right did Israel kidnap him and try him (and later, execute him)? Did Israel think it represented world Jewry?

There have been periods when Israel did claim to represent world Jewry. And there are other times, like this week, when it acts as if only its own citizens matter. Now is the time to try to figure some of this out.

It’s complicated, of course. On one hand, American Jews are not citizens of Israel, and do not – and should not – have a vote on most of Israel’s policies, domestic or foreign. There is a difference between being a citizen and not being a citizen. On the other hand, though, American Jews have long felt deeply connected to Israel. (That may be changing among the younger generation, but that is the subject of a different conversation. See a long exchange about that here.) You feel pride in Israel’s extraordinary accomplishments, worry when Israel faces frightening threats, and feel ashamed when Israel makes bad decisions.

And Israel, conversely, has no compunction about asking or telling you that you “must” support us. Israeli Prime Ministers have gone to American Jewry to advocate aliyah. Others have gone to raise money, both in times of crisis and at more placid moments. Still others have gone to rally the political troops, at the UN, in Congress or elsewhere. So American Jews are not citizens of Israel, but neither are you entirely non-citizens. Surely, you have a different status than even feverishly pro-Israel American Christian Evangelicals, do you not?

At the risk of annoying every single person who will read this column, I’d like to use this space to sketch some preliminary thoughts on how we might define this relationship. I realize that much of what will follow here will be controversial, and there are elements that I myself still struggle with. Still, I’d like to take a stab at defining ways in which we ought to think about this relationship, by discussing two examples of issues – one on which American Jews should not seek to determine Israel’s policy, and another on which they should – and how they should do it.

The limits of American Jewry’s role

The obvious example of the first is Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. You can call it the “conflict.” You can call it the “occupation.” Whatever. Here, though, are the three main reasons that American Jews have every right to express their feelings, but should not cross the line into trying to affect Israel’s policy.

Reason #1: You don’t have skin in the game. I know you don’t like to hear it, but (with a few exceptions) you and your kids don’t assume the risks that we do. And that matters. Your kids don’t go charging into tunnels risking their lives to protect kibbutzim. You don’t lie awake at night waiting for your soldier-kid to get home from whatever s/he is doing, knowing that the only thing you know is that you can’t protect them – it’s a horrible feeling for a parent, and you’ve never felt it and never will.

A couple of years ago at Shalem College, where I work, a student said in a discussion of Homer’s Iliad, pointing to the text, “every Greek reader had to know that this is not a description of war.” He was quiet. Then he said, almost in a whisper, “Because war is nothing like this.”

I watched the students at that moment. A few teared up. A few turned pale. Many of the men (and some of the women, I imagine) were drawn back into moments of sheer terror, moments they’d lived through just weeks earlier, right before school started. The women undoubtedly recalled waiting up at night for news of a boyfriend or fiancé, a husband, a brother, a father. There was utter silence in that classroom – a wave of pain and fear, but something else, too. Determination? I don’t know what to call it, but this I do know. The 18-year-old American students who read the Iliad read it differently. We live very, very different lives. Weizmann’s bridge, again.

Likud MK Amir Ohana-Yonatan Sindel-Flash90
Likud MK Amir Ohana (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s not your fault, but this conflict affects us in radically different ways. And you should have the humility to acknowledge that. Not long ago, an American Jewish woman in Boston said to several Israeli politicians that Israel is losing her and her compatriots because in response to the murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014, Israel killed 2300 Palestinians. MK Amir Ohana (Likud) gave the finest response (see her question at 1:43:49 and his response at 1:52:35). He first corrected her distressingly myopic description of the conflict (born either of horrific ignorance or intentional malevolence), but then he added that if he had to choose between losing one single Israeli soldier or civilian and losing the support of that woman and all the American Jews who feel as she does, he would rather, with great sadness, lose all of them.

He was entirely right. Many Israelis also want to end the occupation, and some are working tirelessly to accomplish that. But when it comes to assuming the risks that that will likely entail, they have cred in this conversation that you just don’t have.

Reason #2: Too many of you opine about “ending the occupation” (or “increasing settlements” – this is true of right as well as of left) while having absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. French Hill, Neve Daniel, Gilo, Ma’aleh Adumim, Shiloh and Karnei Shomron are all communities over the “green line” (which is actually the 1949 Armistice Lines). And all six of them are examples of radically different kinds of settlements, with entirely different demographic implications for both Palestinians and Israelis, and wildly differing security dimensions. Do you know where all those places are? Do you know how they’re different and how each affects Palestinians? Jews?

If you don’t, and most of you don’t, please let’s be more serious. Would you say “Abolish Taxes!”? You wouldn’t, because it’s irresponsible. Someone has to pay for the paving of roads, community hospitals, public universities. “Abolish taxes” is a great mantra for adolescents, but not for grownups. And the same is true of “End the Occupation.” Do you really think that most Israelis want the occupation to continue? Many don’t. We just don’t know how to end it. (Ever wonder what Palestinians think? Check this out.) We’re trapped by reality, and stuck in the details. (Which is why many Israelis, like Micah Goodman in his Catch ’67, are exploring ways of making things better even without a “solution.”) Please don’t demean both us and yourselves by tossing platitudes at us. It makes Israelis think you’re simpletons, and it leads them to want to ignore you.

Reason #3: You’re not going to like this, but it’s true. There is not a single person reading this column who is going to live to see the conflict resolved (or equally unlikely, the occupation ended). I know that doesn’t cohere with the American “every problem is fixable” worldview, but it’s true. As former Ambassador and now Deputy Minister Michael Oren often notes (see his WSJ column on the “Two State Situation,” not solution), the problem is that Israelis’ narrative is one of coming home, while the Palestinians’ narrative is about the Jews’ narrative being false.

There’s a reason that Arafat and Abbas both deny that there was a Temple. There’s a reason that the Palestinians won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish State (which Israel should have demanded in the Oslo accords, but foolishly did not). It’s because to recognize Israel as just a state would be like recognizing Sudan or Micronesia. It’s just fact on the ground. But to recognize Israel as a Jewish State is to acknowledge that the Jews have come home. That, the Palestinians simply cannot do. It would undermine their entire identity, the foundation of their movement.

There are a plethora of other reasons, including the fact that in the decades prior to independence, the Jews built all the infrastructure of a state-in-waiting (see my Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn for details), while the Palestinians have not. This is not the setting for a lengthy disquisition on why Palestinian national aspirations are many decades from being realized (Israeli policy is not the primary reason). But suffice it to say that when you make your primary engagement with Israel an “end the occupation” engagement, it’s more a Don Quixote imitation than anything else. It moves nothing forward.

What, then, should American Jews’ attitudes be when it comes to Israel and foreign policy? It’s pretty simple. I think American Jews ought to recognize that the State of Israel is by far the most extraordinary Jewish accomplishment of the past 2,000 years, and that it has changed the existential condition of being Jewish everywhere. It also faces existential threats. Your job, more than anything else, is to help us stay safe and alive. You can agree with what we do, you can also disagree (many of us disagree) as much as you like. But what you owe the Jewish people is to help us keep the bad guys at bay. Help us make sure that members of Congress understand what Israel is, the values that it shares with American democracy, the fact that the Arabs and then the Palestinians turned down peace offers time and again. That doesn’t mean that Israel is right about everything it does. Obviously, it is not. So share your moral disquietude when you feel it. Let’s talk and exchange views – because that’s what has always been at the heart of Jewish communities. But don’t imagine for a moment that you’re going to influence Israel’s policy – because you’re not, and you shouldn’t.

Where peoplehood is concerned

So, does that mean that American Jews should just write checks and shut up? Absolutely not.

There are many other cases where I think American Jews should get involved, and this week’s Kotel and conversion bill controversies were perfect examples. Here, too, allow me to give you three analogous reasons.

Reason #1: You do have skin in the game. Israel was always meant to be the homeland not just of the Jews who live there, but of the Jewish people. The Balfour Declaration stated that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” while Israel’s Declaration of Independence opens by stating that “the Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people” and continues with the plea “We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.”

To be sure, the citizens of the State of Israel could pass legislation that would effectively change the essence of what Israel is. For a variety of reasons, beyond the scope of this essay, very few of us want to go there. Hillel Halkin has said “so what?” when he acknowledges that the two communities are growing farther apart, but I disagree. I think our relationship is critical to both sides. And I think that many of you do too. So when Haredi politicians play hardball because they think your Jewish way of life is utterly illegitimate and has no place in the Jewish state, you have the choice of letting them have their way (you’ve seen how mainstream Israeli politicians will fold at the first sign of pressure) or you have to fight. Not all Jews are citizens of Israel, but all Jews have a stake in the kind of country Israel is, particularly when it comes to its attitude to Jewish peoplehood.

Reason #2: If when it comes to the conflict most American Jews do not know nearly enough to be thoughtful partners in the conversation, on the matters of religious pluralism and the value of Jewish peoplehood, the opposite is the case. Many Israelis have never had a serious encounter with the idea of religious pluralism. Ironically, one thing that many observant and non-observant Israelis have in common is their assumption that non-Orthodox forms of Judaism are simply fraudulent. I have my disagreements with progressive Jewish movements on many issues (just as I often disagree with the religious right, as well), but to say that the people who belong to them are not part of the Jewish people is absurd. Pluralism of all sorts is key to what America is and what America teaches (or at least did until recently, I suppose). Here, American Jews have a rich vocabulary that can, and should, shape Israeli discourse – in large measure because they can preserve peoplehood as a core value of the Jewish state.

Remember, no one is trying to take away the men-only and women-only sections of the Kotel. Liberal movements are not trying to rob the Haredim of the place that they already have. The issue is whether the State of Israel will stand for the notion that there are a variety of ways in which Jews define Jewishness. Haredim do not want to consider people converted by Reform rabbis Jewish? They don’t want those converts marrying their children? That’s their right. They do not want to pray at the part of the Kotel where women and men worship together? Also their right.

But that’s not the issue. The issue is whether you will fight for the principle that you, too, should matter to this country, because you are part of the Jewish people.

American Jews are not going to succeed in making pluralism a widespread Israeli value. It will never happen among the Haredim, is almost as impossible among centrist Orthodoxy, and among Mizrachi Jews, who are now a majority of Israeli Jews, the concept is entirely foreign. The Mizrachi community, passionately Zionist and deeply loyal, is also culturally very conservative (on matters such as peace with the Arabs, the role of women, non-Orthodox Judaism, issues related to gender and sexuality, and more). In the long run, that is going to make your work even more challenging. The notion that Reform or Conservative rabbis are going to alter the way that Mizrachi Jews see the world is silly. American Jews who care have to be prepared to fight long and hard – not to change minds, but to safeguard policy.

Reason #3: Finally, here you can make a difference. When Israelis see physical danger to themselves or their children, they simply do not care what non-Israelis think. The purpose of any state is first and foremost to keep its citizens safe, and non-citizens will not influence how citizens decide to protect their children.

But most Israelis have no vested interest in giving in to the Haredim or to cynical political leadership like Netanyahu. So if you create a political problem for the Prime Minister (this one or any PM who follows), they will care. Not because your principles matter to them, but because your power makes a difference.

This is what you need to understand. Your righteous indignation will get you nowhere. Israelis don’t care that you’re insulted. They don’t even care that you’re angry. They will care if your indignation affects them. That’s life in the big city. It’s certainly life in the Middle East.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.)
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.)

And that was why, in my recent Jerusalem Post column, I called for American Jews to begin to use the power of their purse. I’m told that American Jewish money flowing to Israel amounts to more than 5% of Israel’s GDP. That’s a huge amount of leverage. The question is whether American Jews have the unity and stomach to use it. Before the government arrived at an interim solution to the crisis, I proposed that American Jews consider withholding money they give to Israeli hospitals. If Netanyahu wants to put a Haredi man who is openly hostile to non-Orthodox Jews in the position of Minister of Health (itself a joke, of course, since Litzman never went to college for even a single day), that is his right. But then, the Health Ministry should suffer. Israelis have to be so afraid of what the halt of American money will do to their health care that they will make it clear to Bibi that Litzman is toxic. If the Prime Minister puts Litzman or his like somewhere else, then the pressure moves elsewhere.

Same with Consul Generals, the Prime Minister himself and other Israeli officials. They can’t have it both ways. If they are part of a coalition that is willing to say that you don’t matter, why would you possibly so much as sit in the same room with them? It’s time for you to be serious. Which is why I thought that the Chicago Federation’s decision to do just that was fabulous.

An El Al airline plane at the Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport-Tomer Neuberg-Flash90
An El Al airline plane at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

To many people’s chagrin, I also pointed out that just by refusing to fly El Al, American Jews could bring the airline to its knees. I have nothing against El Al. (I fly El Al to the States 15 times a year.) But El Al is a critical security issue for Israel. No Prime Minister can let it fail, and El Al survives only on the margins. Simply by buying tickets with United or Delta, American Jews can create a huge problem for any Prime Minister. Here, the name of the game is “Who Creates the Larger Problem?” Will it be the Haredim or you? If you want to win, you’ve got to play to win.

After she read my column, Rabbi Jill Jacobs tweeted that what the Chicago Federation and I had in common was that we were giving ammunition to BDS. Many others also suggested that my position was now the same as that of BDS. That, of course, is ludicrous.

In my Jerusalem Post piece, I specifically encouraged non-Orthodox Jews to come to Israel en masse to show that their support for Israel is unwavering. BDS’s goal, on the other hand, is to destroy Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Have you ever looked at their website? They insist that Israel should be boycotted until it commits to “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.” And how many such refugees are there according to UNRWA? About 4.5-5 million. Insisting that Israel must allow all those people to return is simply an elegant way of destroying Israel as a Jewish state. They know it, and so do many of their supporters.

No one can imagine for a moment that I advocate ending Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. My record on that is more than clear. My point was that you are in a unique position to make Israel’s democracy stronger by making sure that religious pluralism and Jewish peoplehood are always in the minds of Israel’s decision-makers, whether they like it or not. Some people wrote me to say that I should have not proposed the El Al idea, but instead, should have encouraged you to make aliyah, to live here and to vote. I’ve got nothing against aliyah (some of my best friends have done it), but that suggestion misses the point. The challenge here is to get Israelis to take Jewish peoplehood and Jews who do not live here seriously.

To be sure, there are risks to these tactics, so if you think you have better ideas, let’s talk about them. But let’s start to talk. About how you are going to fight, and on which issues your efforts will – or will not – make a difference.

These two cases certainly do not exhaust all the issues we have to figure out. There are many issues in the middle that will be harder to define. If American Jews feel that Israel is mistreating its Arab population or Palestinians, should you say something? Try to pressure Israel? Give money to Israeli groups trying to influence policy?

Matti Friedman

We’re not all going to agree about those. Yet if and when you protest Israeli behavior that embarrasses or angers you, let’s remember the wisdom of the Mishnah in Nega’im 2:5 – “A person can see any blemishes, except for his own.” Just a year ago, when Peter Beinart (our joint podcast, Fault Lines, discusses many of these issues) led a group of American Jews to the West Bank and several of the participants were arrested after they refused military orders to move from where they were, Matti Friedman (to my mind, one of the best Jewish writers alive) wrote on Facebook, “This isn’t going to help Israelis or Palestinians, obviously, but it does seem like a good solution for American Jewish adults who miss summer camp and can’t find Baton Rouge on a map.”

It was hilarious, and also true. Whatever American Jews may think of Israel’s conduct on the West Bank, their outrage would sound more genuine if they were as active in protesting the horrors unfolding in America. That, after all, is the country of which they are citizens. That, after all, is where they vote. That, after all, is the society for which they are responsible.

Alton Sterling being shot to death. July 5, 2016, Baton Rouge (Screen shot)
Alton Sterling being shot to death. July 5, 2016, Baton Rouge (Screen shot)

Yet did these socially conscious American Jews go anywhere other than the West Bank to protest? Did they go to Baton Rouge to stand and be counted? To any of the other cities in which African Americans have been gunned down by police? Have they read Naomi Schaefer Riley’s The New Trail of Tears about how Native Americans live now? They haven’t. Have they read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me to see what an African American father thinks he has to teach his son so that his son stays alive in contemporary America? Do Upper West Side American Jews care more about Palestinians (many of whom unabashedly insist that they want to destroy Israel) or about Native Americans, who live not far from them, and among whose male teenagers suicide is the leading cause of death?

“A person can see any blemishes, except for his own.” It’s time to stop the hypocrisy. We Israelis would take your protests much more seriously if American Jews were as insistent that America improve as they are that Israel improve. Many of us (myself included) are thrilled with the way that Nikki Haley is taking the UN to task for its double standard about Israel. It’s time, though, to take some of you to task, no less. Why your double standard?

It is never going to be easy to define our relationship. What we do know is that “we’re Jews so everything you do is our business” and “you’re not citizens, so stay out of our hair” are both superficial, damaging to the Jewish people and dangerous to our future. How should we think about this going forward? That’s the conversation we need to have. Our prime minister has (clumsily and unwittingly) brought this long simmering subject to the surface. Perhaps this essay can contribute to renewing that long sputtering conversation.

Daniel Gordis is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, just received the National Jewish Book Award as the 2016 “Book of the Year.”

About the Author
Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His book, "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn" (Ecco/HarperCollins), won the 2016 Jewish Book Council "Book of the Year" award. His most recent book, "We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel," was published in September 2019.
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