When one considers the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel, two different stories emerge. The first is that of a US Jewish community with unusual power – both in its economic abilities and high political involvement – that is able to look out for Israel, and is committed to the well-being of the Jewish state.
This story was well embodied by this years AIPAC conference held in Washington. As always, the annual AIPAC conference was an impressive display of support for and solidarity with Israel. It showcased the commitment by the Trump Administration to the security and strength of the State of Israel.
The second story is more complex, and certainly not all positive. A paper published by the Reut Institute warned in March of a “perfect storm” of circumstances that could collude to drive a growing wedge between Israel and the American Jewish community, possibly to breaking point.
The recent US general elections proved that a real tear exists in the US Jewish community. Less than 30% of Jews in the United States voted Republican, and more than 70% saw Trump’s election as a major challenge to their open, liberal, and tolerant worldview. This is a viewpoint that has traditionally characterized the US Jewish community.
For the minority of American Jews who voted for Trump, the central consideration was their conviction that he was the best candidate for Israel. For the 70% who voted otherwise, the influence of Hilary Clinton on Israel was not a central consideration. Rather, they were guided by their overall left-leaning approach, which traditionally has led most American Jews to vote Democrat. Although feeling good about her commitment to Israel, it was not Clinton’s stand on the Jewish state that influenced their vote.
I was able to witness the deep divide in American society personally. Just days after the election results I undertook a lecture tour at the law schools of four Ivy League universities and met with prominent members of the Jewish community in N.Y and Los Angles.
What struck me was that among Jews the voting pattern in the presidential elections goes almost parallel to the vision they hold regarding Israel. Many of those who voted for Trump favor a more right wing Israeli government, that rejects significant or any compromise agreement with the Palestinians, while the liberal Jews tend to favor a two-state solution.
Israel does not have the privilege of permitting partisan considerations determine levels of support for Jerusalem among the US Administration, Congress or Senate, nor among members of the largest Jewish community outside Israel. Israel’s policy has always been to secure across-the-board support. Yet, developments in recent years, both in Israel and in the US, have raised real concerns on this matter.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is well aware – more than most – that without the commitment and support of the liberal Jewish community in the US, the main Jewish American influence, strategically vital for Israel, would dramatically diminish. Yet, in his own actions, particularly in his blatant partnering with the Republican congress against the former democratic president (over the Iran deal), he broke away from a longstanding principle followed by all previous Israeli leaders; nonpartisanship.
Half of the story is political developments in the US, and the other half is occurring here in Israel. Two key issues are viewed critically by the liberal Jewish communities in the US. The first is the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, which is ongoing and explodes into violence every few years. Not only does there seem to be less hope for a peaceful settlement, but political forces in Israel striving for a one-state solution (under one formula or another) are gaining power and influence. The second trend is that Orthodox rabbinical influences in Israel dominate the state’s relationship with religious matters.
For most American Jews, an extinguishing of the two-state solution is equated with a bi-national state, and they view such a reality as the exact opposite of the Zionist vision of a Jewish-nation state.
Meanwhile, the dominance of Orthodox rabbinical influences on all religious affairs in Israel creates an image in the US Jewish community of Israel as a non-liberal, even a clerical society. Insulting comments made at Reform Jews made by leaders of orthodox parties have echoed across the oceans, creating a rift.
The effects of these developments on US Jewish perceptions of Israel are dramatic.
Additionally, older generations of American Jews, who remember the Holocaust, the struggle to found Israel, and the trauma of existential threats to Israel prior to the 1967 Six Day War, are vanishing. This demographic change means that the younger generations only know a reality of a technologically- developed, strong, economically powerful Israel, despite the many problems that Israel faces internally and regionally.
The growing assimilation of American Jews is also a considerable factor in this distancing from Israel.
All together, these elements create a real possibility of a widening gulf between Israel and American Jews. We may one day wake up and see that the common bond between Israelis and Jews in the United States is dramatically weaker.
It seems that there is little debate regarding the above diagnosis, and not enough is being done to ring the alarm and to jointly work for a strengthened bond, particularly among the more liberal, younger generations. The first step in addressing the problem is acknowledging its existence.
American Jews have a hard time comprehending the complexity of Israeli society, its political system, multiplicity of parties, and the forces that shape internal Israeli politics. Israelis too do not know Diaspora Jews, and hardly identify with them. They are often unaware of the achievements, experiences, and considerations of American Jews.
A large-scale, two-way educational initiative is needed, for each side to become more familiar with the other, particularly among the youth of the respective societies. Focusing on the younger generation will no doubt pay off in the future.
Education would foster an awareness of the fact that there are two components of one people, one in Israel and one (mainly) in the US, and will contribute to the understanding that sometimes, a compromise is needed to ensure identification.
Programs like Taglit, which combat assimilation, and as a byproduct, strengthen ties between Diaspora Jews and Israel, have been very successful in terms of numbers, but the time is ripe to check whether, beyond high-participation rates, a real effect is achieved. The same goes with all other programs that focus on introducing Israel to the Diaspora. There is also a clear need to educate Israeli youth about their brothers and sisters overseas. A major change to educational programs is needed, beginning with what is being taught in schools.
The Israeli Knesset and government should be much more sensitive when it comes to legislation and policy, and take the views of Diaspora Jews into account on internal matters relating to the character of the state.
This would go some way to making American liberal Jews feel that Israeli society reflects its vision of a Jewish state.
But what is really needed is a new “big idea” that would excite the youth both in Israel and the Diaspora. “Tikkun Olam” (repairing the world) is a central concept in Judaism. The goal should be assisting the needy of the world, and this can be achieved under one umbrella through the founding of a Jewish Peace Corps made up of Israelis and Diaspora Jews. They could train together, work alongside one another, and bond.
The Jewish Peace Corp should be the new ‘big idea’ that can inject new energies into young Jews and reinvigorate the bonds between the different components of the Jewish people.
In the past, members of the American Peace Corps expressed enthusiasm for this idea, and noted that 7% of their volunteers are American Jews. It is clear to the American Peace Corps that the Jewish community is open to the idea of volunteering, and giving a year or two to travel to travel globally, providing help to populations suffering from poverty and underdevelopment. Israelis too are known for their assistance in disaster areas around the world.
Such joint initiatives are a step in the right direction for combating the trend currently in place, in which Israeli – American-Jewish ties are gradually and steadily growing weaker.
Edited by Yaakov Lappin