Let’s Listen

Now that President-elect Biden has been named the presumptive winner, I find the accusations being made from Israel to the US about a lack of Jewish loyalty to be extremely ignorant.  Jews in the US did not abandon Israel. The latest Ruderman Family Foundation survey found that eight (8) out of ten (10) Jewish Americans are pro-Israel.  Sixty-seven percent (67%) said that they were emotionally attached or very attached to Israel.  And still Jews in the US overwhelming voted for President Elect Biden whereas Israeli Jews overwhelmingly supported President Trump.

There are many factors for the divide between Jews in Israel and the US. Instead of tossing accusations, perhaps it is time for Jews on both sides of the divide to better understand one another in an authentic attempt to bridge the divide. It is a topic I am extremely interested in and have been investigating for a long time.

The divide goes back to the very foundation of the modern Zionist movement.  At the time when Theodore Herzl was proposing a Zionist state for Jews to be the majority to eradicate the Antisemitism found in Europe, he believed that all Jews would emigrate.  However, another man, Asher Zvi Hirsh Ginsberg, born in Ukraine and emigrated to London in 1908 and wrote about Zionism under the name of Ahad Ha’am had a different perspective.

Although not religious, Ahad Ha’am believed that any Zionist state had to be a Jewish State, not just a state of Jews; also known as Cultural Zionism.  He also believed, differently from Herzl, that not all Jews would emigrate to Israel. There would remain centers of Jewish life in different parts of the world.  In many ways his vision was achieved. Today those two centers are the US, and Israel.  The divide between Ahad Ha’am and Theodore Herzl that predate the State of Israel by over 40 years still exists today between Jews in the Diaspora and Israel.

Rabbi Arthur Herzberg expanded on this divide in his classic work The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader.  In this work commissioned by the State of Israel first published in 1959, Arthur Herzberg, a practicing pulpit Rabbi, Scholar and Historian, collected voices of Zionism from 1798 to his present time.  Before sharing this works, Rabbi Herzberg provides us with a one hundred (100) page introduction highlighting the divide between the Israeli view of Herzlian Zionism and the Zionism of the diaspora centered around Ahad Ha’am’s beliefs.

In 1997, a second edition was published which include an Afterword by Rabbi Hertzberg in which he filled in the gap between the first book and 1996.  I believe his last paragraph sums up the divergence:

“The Jews of the Diaspora are not sitting by and watching these (Israel’s) struggles from afar.  They are in the battle, as the were a century ago in the early days of Zionism.  These questions do not belong to Israel alone. They are concerns with which every caring Jew anywhere in the world is deeply and very personally involved.  At the beginning, Zionists chose to identify themselves as socialist Zionists, or religious Zionists, or ultra-nationalist Zionists, and they spent their energies on creating institutions both in Palestine and the Diaspora that reflected their own particular visions. More and more, that pattern is followed today. In the future, the relationship of Israel and the Diaspora will be not one relationship but many. Each school of thought and each of the strongly held values that are present in the Jewish world as a whole will draw closer to its counterparts in Israel and the Diaspora.  The greatest task of Jewish statesmanship is to find a way to make this complicated, very plural, and often very angry set of factions reach some lasting accommodation. At this moment of writing, in the summer of 1996, each group and opinion is fighting hard for its own program and slogans, but the time will come, in a decade or two, when the need for peace with each other may well up among the waring groups.  A reconsideration of the past of Zionism, and of the ways to work together, which conflicting ideologies did once find, may help to create a more hopeful future.”

I find Rabbi Hertzberg’s vision to be very inspirational; however, not yet realized.  The reason for this may be due to the fact that the differing perspectives on Zionism may not be the only factor in the differences between Jews in the US and Jews in Israel.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis, Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem authored a book published in 2019 highlighting the differences between Jews in the United States and Israel entitled, We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel.  There have been many scholarly works on this topic over the years.  I found this to be an excellent summary and an easy read highlighting and summarizing forces that drive the differences.  In it, he highlights a major cause that fosters the difference is the particularism of Israel as a Jewish state to the universalism of the United States with the lofty goal of human rights:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

Although the United States has yet to realize this lofty goal, it is still an ideal instilled into all Americans during their primary and secondary education.

Of course, he goes into other realities and situations on the ground.  To me, this is one of the biggest factors in the divide are that Jews living in Israel are under constant threat and danger.  Wars have been fought in an attempt to annihilate Israel. Missiles have been fired from Lebanon, Gaza and even as far away as Iraq to terrorize Israelis.  And even with the promise of peace from Oslo Israelis understood that Middle Eastern culture was to accept what they can get today and get the rest in the future.  That is why when Yasser Arafat spoke on May 10, 1994 after the signing of the Oslo accords, in a Mosque in South Africa, he was recorded saying:

“This agreement, I am not considering it more than the agreement which had been signed between our prophet Mohammed and Koraish, and you remember the Caliph Omar had refused this agreement and [considered] it a despicable truce.” 

The agreement between Mohammed and Koraish, who ruled Mecca, allowed Mohammed to pray in Mecca. Two years later, Mohammed abrogated the agreement, slaughtered the tribe of Koraish, and conquered Mecca.  Arafat’s meaning was quite clear; he entered the peace to get as much as he could today and he would try to get the rest at a later date!

Although many Jews in the US still believe in a two (2) state solution, many Israelis, especially after the second (2nd) Intifada have come to the conclusion that there is no Palestinian party to make peace with at the current time.  Arafat said no to President Clinton and Prime Minister Barak in 2000 and Mahmoud Abbas said no to Ehud Olmert in 2008.  This comes after a long history of Arab “No’s” starting with the Peel Commission Report in 1937, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine Report (UNSCOP) Partition Plan of 1947, and the famous 3 “No’s” of the Arab League issued in Khartoum  after the Six (6) Day War:

-No Peace with Israel
-No Recognition of Israel
-No Negotiation with Israel

This led the erudite Foreign Minister of Israel, Abba Eban to state,

“The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Security also has a very personal meaning for Israelis.  In order to ensure the safety and security of the nation, parents send their children, at the time when they are just beginning to emerge into adulthood, to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).  Most young men serve for three (3) years and most young women serve for two (2) years.  For many, their service continues through the age of 40 participating in reserve duty which includes activation on an annual basis.  There is not a family in Israel who cannot tell you of the loss of a loved one through the many years of conflict that Israel has faced.

And yet, let us recognize the contributions that American Jews have made to the State of Israel. Early on, there was very little military nor financial support from any governments around the world.  In 1948 Golda Meir was sent to the United States and landed with $20 in her pocket. At the end of her mission, she was able to return to Israel after raising seven (7) million dollars.  This was the early history of such organizations as United Jewish Appeals and Israeli Bonds providing critical funds to the State of Israel.

Israel relied greatly on funds from the Diaspora, especially in the early years, from the US and Canada.  The arms that defended Israel in 1948 were funded in large part by contributions from North America.  The Jews there also purchased Army surplus and in violation of US law, clandestinely shipped these arms to Israel.  Al Schwimmer, the founder of Israel Aerospace Industries, was arrested in 1950 violating the US Neutrality Act for smuggling surplus warplanes to Israel in 1948.

It is also important to remember that the issues of primary concern for Jews in the Diaspora are different from those in Israel.  For many Jews in the US, Israel falls much lower down on the list of priorities when assessing which candidate to vote for in an election.  This proves the Antisemitic trope of dual loyalties is false.  Jews in the US are prioritizing domestic and national issues ahead of Israel.

I for one, am extremely grateful for all the financial and political support that Israel has received from Jews around the world, especially from the US. However, sometimes that support has come with a price.  In 2018, the Jewish Federation held their General Assembly in Tel Aviv.  The General Assembly invites leaders from all across North America’s Jewish Federations to meet and discuss the most pressing issues in their communities and in Israel. The venue and theme of this conference was “Let’s Talk!”

I watched and followed many of the main tent speeches at the event.  As an Oleh Hadash, a new immigrant to Israel from the US, I was extremely disappointed at the leaders of the convention.  My impression was that many talked down to Israel telling Israelis what they should be doing as if they were the big brothers from North America. They were not engaged in conversation, but in Mussar, telling Israel how they should be acting.  I found this to be very condescending.

I think it is about time we change the dialogue from “Let’s Talk” to “Let’s Listen.”  The holiest prayer in Judaism starts with the word “Listen.” And we are taught in Pirke Avot (4:1):

בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר, אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קיט) מִכָּל מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי כִּי עֵדְוֹתֶיךָ שִׂיחָה לִּי

Ben Zoma said:Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: “From all who taught me have I gained understanding” (Psalms 119:99).

To listen, we must first seek out the perspective of the other view.  To do this, I start with books.  I try to find books to understand different perspectives.  For Jews in North America, I suggest they start by reading #IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution written by Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs. Through extensive research, these two demonstrate where Jewish attitudes and Judaism is heading in Israel as compared to the Diaspora, especially in North America.  It is an excellent way to understand the breadth of being Jewish in a Jewish state.

And of course, there are as many perspectives that you can find in North America as well.  My search to understand those that I differ with led me to The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World by Robert H. Mnookin, a Harvard Law Professor.  He clearly demonstrates his love of Judaism and of Israel and yet he also succinctly calls out his differences with the State of Israel as he sees it today.

I doubt these, or any other books will change your mind about the important issues of the day. My suggestions here are not meant to change your beliefs.  I want this to be a first step in learning about and understanding differing views.  From that first step perhaps, we can begin to intelligently discuss our differences. Reasonable people of good intentions can disagree over matters of substance. I urge everyone during this time of extreme polarization on many issues, to instead of making accusations on social media to those who differ in opinion from you, take the time to learn and understand their beliefs and use that understanding to learn to respect one another.  From that point, we can begin to build on our commonality to forge a future together.

About the Author
Alan was born and lived in the US until he made Aliyah on July 4th, 2017 with his wife and dog to join his three adult children. He is an avid reader of Jewish, Israeli and Zionist history and contemporary issues. He is an active in hasbara on Facebook and in other forums. He currently resides in Jerusalem with his wife, Robin, dog and cat.
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