Do American Jews really care about Israel? Have they always? Is Israel part of their “Jewish identity”? Is Israel a unifying cause or a divisive issue for American Jews? How so? Does it all matter?
There is a false and misleading premise, adopted conveniently by most Israelis and some in the American Jewish community according to which American Jews wake up in the morning, spend their productive day and go to sleep at night thinking about Israel and what they have done for it today. That was never the case.
It is reassuringly true that a significant majority (~70%) of American Jews feel “very” or “somewhat” attached to Israel, as is evident in the 2013 seminal Pew Research study: “A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Overview”.
But the trajectory and trend are worrying. A major tectonic rift is taking place and shape and while Israel remains a central issue – whether unifying or contentious – for American Jews the evidence points to disassociation.
American Jews are in the midst of “A waning love story” with Israel, as author Steven Rosenthal put it, and are experiencing “Trouble in the Tribe” as is the title of Dov Waxman’s (relatively) new book.
We take American Jewish affinity for, and support of Israel as an immutable law of modern Jewish history. It is not, nor has it always been that way.
Before 1948 American Jews were in a unique, often strange situation wherein they were the only ethnic-religious group in America that had no “homeland”, no old country to idealize, romanticize about and long for, as did other immigrant groups. This characteristic, combined with the Holocaust, is of tremendous importance in understanding the evolution of American Jewish perception of and relations with Israel.
The majority of American Jews, before 1948 were by and large either indifferent or outright hostile to Zionism. They came to America to become Americans. Their ethno-religious identity was formed and shaped by American life, American circumstances and American culture. They wished to succeed and blend into the American melting pot, not fight for Jewish independence and sovereignty in an ancient barren land surrounded by (then) 120 million Arabs.
Israel remains an omnipresent theme in American Jewish life, but a generational change is taking shape and form, and Israel is increasingly losing centrality in the minds of American Jews under the age of fifty. Not only were Zionism and Israel not a part of Jewish identity, American-Jewish self-image, self-perceptions, cosmopolitan approach and ethical and moral value systems all developed prior to the establishment of a Israel.
Furthermore, the cultural development, socialization, assimilation and blending in American society and culture were distinctive American Jewish attributes and qualities having nothing to do with Israel, as neither a place nor an idea after 1948. Most American Jews were relative latecomers to Zionism, and only reluctantly embraced it as an artificial “Homeland”, one they’ve never visited.
Then came 1967 and the Six Days War.
1967 transformed Israel into almost a civil religion, an “Ersatz Religion”. An astonishing military victory after a perceived existential threat created a different Israel in American Jewish minds and hearts. It encompassed the entire mainstream Jewish establishment: Organizations, Federations, groups, synagogues of all Jewish denominations and streams.
It eventually led to the emergence of a slogan: We Are One. While used as a call-for-action conscription tool and sales pitch to solicit contributions and commitment to organizations and projects, also had a major substantive consequence: Turning Israel into the single biggest unifying cause, and in the process making it almost the raison d’être of organizations and their respective activities.
Concurrently, the US and Israel forged a political and military alliance that, while emanating from Cold War considerations, was gradually cemented and characterized as a value-based special and unique relationship. This made Israel an even greater element in American Jewish identity and politics.
This love affair lasted for two or three decades, but a series of events and developments affected the contours and essence of the relationship. The “Who is a Jew” controversy, the Pollard affair in 1985, the Rabin assassination in 1995, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian impasse and the emergence of a younger, urbane, liberal and more skeptical generation all took their toll.
Israel was no longer the shining brochure your parents showed you, it became increasingly inconsistent with a traditional liberal-Zionist set of values.
Two major issues precipitated the gradual change: The intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the reality of decades of Israeli occupation and the dismissive, inconsiderate and and times arrogant Israeli attitude toward Reform and Conservative Jews, comprising 80% of the American a Jewish community.
Politically, Israel is not in the top five issues influencing American Jewish voting patterns and considerations in US elections, as numerous surveys indicate. Israel-related and pro-Israel activities, organizations, projects and rallies proliferated, yet American Jews tend not to place Israel prominently when it comes to how they vote.
Their concerns are indigenously American and their active involvement and participation in American politics is not — generally — motivated by Israel driven causes.
Israeli Jews do not fully understand nor respect the American Jewish natural proclivity for religious diversity, liberalism and inclusiveness. American Jews do not fully appreciate the insecurities, anxieties and siege mentality that Israelis feel. They fail to reconcile Israel’s immense power and success with Israeli fears.
Yet despite the gaps and the detachment, Israel remains the best, perhaps the only, hope for a durable American Jewish identity that is not exclusively religious.
Israel is both unifying and divisive, but that’s ok, as long as a dialogue continues. Whether such a serious dialogue exists is another question.