David Kreizelman

Tension in the Tribe: The Jewish People is drifting apart

There's a built-in tension between the Diaspora's wandering Jews and the Zionists conditioned to stand their ground
Pioneers build a new settlement in 1949. (Courtesy KKL-JNF/Avraham Malovsky)
Pioneers build a new settlement in 1949. (Courtesy KKL-JNF/Avraham Malovsky)

We’re not “losing” the next generation of American Jews. Really. For the most part, we’ve already lost them. And it has little to do with hawkish Israeli governments. Even if Israel were to sign a peace accord tomorrow with the Palestinians, leave the West Bank and recognize the rights of Reform Jewry, it wouldn’t change this.

It’s a process that began over a century ago and was more or less completed by the turn of the millennium. In the 2004 US presidential elections, Dr. Eric Uslaner of the University of Maryland concluded that only 15 percent of American Jews said that Israel was a key voting issue for them when they cast their vote. In 2012, the Public Religion Research Institute reported that only 4% of Jews cited Israel as most important to their vote. How much more is there to lose?

But there is another way to look at the above — Israeli Jewry, writ large, is on a different trajectory from its American Jewish family and the rest of Diaspora Jewry for that matter.

The early Zionist pioneers wanted desperately to change the paradigm of Diaspora Jewry as they saw it. These primarily young, secular and fervently ideological Jews envisioned themselves as warriors and workers — productive members of a healthy society. The very antithesis of the Wandering Jew of the Diaspora from the Pale of Settlement in the 19th century, whom they perceived as feeble and morbid.

Amongst them, the highest level of popular prestige in pre-state, early 20th century Palestine was no longer heaped upon scholars or business leaders – even early kibbutz pioneers weren’t at the top of the ladder. The “Work Battalions” that traversed the country doing backbreaking work like building roads were the embodiment of the Zionist dream. Zev Chafets paraphrases Malcolm X’s categorization of African American slaves by referring to Israeli Jews as “Field Jews” and American Jews as “House Jews”. Field Jews — that’s how those early pioneers saw themselves. And though their numbers didn’t represent Jewish masses, they created the role model and dominant ethos of the nation building process, as Anita Shapira points out in Israel: A History. Could they succeed in breaking the paradigm of the business-savvy, scholarly, Wandering Jew? Eventually, I believe, they actually did.

When Jews opted to stand their ground

The first serious test came in 1942, in the heat of World War II. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox — to that time the greatest strategist of armored warfare of all times — was ripping across North Africa, proving again and again his superiority over the Allied Forces. The Allies’ British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery got set to face off with him in what was to be the largest armored confrontation till that time — at El Alamein, west of the Nile Delta.

The British, entrenched at the time in Egypt, Palestine and much of the remaining Middle East, had to consider the possibility that they would lose the battle. Had that happened, they would inevitably have had to retreat from Mandatory Palestine – to Iraq, or even India. This posed a major problem for the Jews of Palestine, known locally as “the Yishuv”. What should they do under those circumstances – retreat with the British, hoping to eventually return to Palestine if and when the Brits returned? After all, with all due respect to “the New Jew”, the largest defense organization of the Yishuv, the Hagana, was hardly a match for the German Wehrmacht. Nevertheless, the pre-state governing body of the Jews at that time considered the alternatives, and decided that the Jewish community would stay put. Amazing! The story of Masada pales in comparison. The Jews in Mandatory Palestine did not only face certain defeat at the hands of the Germans, but annihilation as well. This was indeed the paradigm changer in effect – no more the “Wandering Jews” of the Diaspora, but a determined, committed community, standing its ground despite the consequences.

Of course, I’m generalizing. There are plenty of Israelis today that are still infused with the DNA of the past thousand plus years of being mobile. Indeed, that mobility is one of the key elements responsible for the survival of “the Tribe” in the Diaspora. And let’s not forget that conversely, there are also American Jews who are quite busy reinforcing the new Israeli Jewish paradigm. Many of the people I’ve met over the past decade associated with AIPAC, for example, can be counted among them. But for the majority of both Israeli and American Jews, the approach of each to the other is invariably: “What in God’s name are they thinking?”

The tension between the American and Israeli Jewish communities shouldn’t be surprising. American Jewry is often understandably uncomfortable with the behavior of Israeli Jewry. Almost two millennia in the Diaspora have tempered Diaspora Jewish behavior to concentrate on avoiding upsetting the ruling majority, while – when possible — aspiring to strengthen admirable liberal causes that call for the equal inclusion of all groups (themselves as well) into mainstream society. In an environment such as exists in America today, where Jews are generally not threatened, constant striving towards the moral upper ground is often the norm. It’s certainly more comfortable to be liberal and progressive than to deal with living under a “fortress-under-siege mentality” as often exists in Israel, to use imagery offered by Ari Shavit. Furthermore, Jonathan Bronitzky, speaking of the apparently growing lack of support of American Jewish youth for Israel, points out that “it’s impossible to champion worship at the altar of multiculturalism (referring to the education of Jewish youth in America in line with Jewish values), and then expect individuals to leap to the defense of something so exclusive as a Jewish nation-state”. There are even post Zionists who contend that a Jewish nation-state contravenes Jewish history, since by their nature, the Jewish people are a Diaspora people.

American Jews who care enough to have an opinion on Israel also have to keep in mind accusations of dual loyalty. Add to that a natural (and often — even to many Israelis — understandable) discomfort with some or many of Israel’s policies, which often strengthens their “Diaspora selves”. In Israel, conversely, Jews have been tempered both by a century-long, violent struggle for survival as well as a desire to flourish as a successful and positive society. Some in the Diaspora, and many in Israel feel that the Israelis have done an admirable – even a remarkable job. Others are critical – some are exceedingly critical.

I’m purposely not taking into account PEW surveys of American Jewish responses as to whether they’re very, somewhat or not at all attached to Israel. I don’t believe the answers express honestly qualifiable considerations. What does “attachment” mean? Will something terrible happening in Israel lead one to action? ruin one’s appetite for dinner? not even that? And what does that attachment mean during regular times? The majority of American Jews never visit Israel, and the numbers of those that do would seriously decrease were it not for the free trip offered by Birthright.

When Israelis face mortal threats

Let’s get back to that pre-state decision to stand their ground in the face of advancing German forces (one can still see remnants of fortifications prepared by the Hagana for the final battle in the Carmel Mountain Range just south of Haifa). Quite inspiring. But that was a different time. What about after the establishment of the state?

When reviewing a number of flashpoints in Israel since 1948, it’s actually not difficult to check. After the Six Day War, there was an extended period of shelling and terror in the town of Beit Shean, in the Jordan River Valley. From the mid 70’s, the northern town of Kiryat Shemona, close to the Lebanese border, had several periods that were equally horrific. And in this millennium, the same can be said of the town of Sderot, near the Gaza Strip. In each case, a visit to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics in Jerusalem shows that the population of each town has steadily grown, with only slight dips (less than 6% per year at the worst of times) during the periods of violence. In fact, Sderot, which still is in the zone of violence and some say probable near future conflict, has more than trebled its population since the Six Day War, and has a larger population today than ever.

But that’s the periphery, one might say. Not the same “hedonistic” fold that resides in the Tel Aviv area. Actually, the people of Tel Aviv were also put to the test. In January of 1991, during the first Gulf War, some 38 missiles were launched by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – mostly on the Tel Aviv area. Israel was bracing itself for chemical warfare. The reaction – masses of people left the city at night, when most of the launches took place. Many stayed with relatives or at hotels outside of the Tel Aviv area. But most would return in the mornings to go to work and school – gas masks at their sides. Tel Aviv’s popular mayor at the time, Shlomo “Chich” Lahat, a former general, severely criticized this nocturnal migration as “cowardly behavior” (his words). But it continued for the duration of the conflict anyway. Yael Dayan, later to become a member of Knesset, parried in a press conference that if Saddam Hussein has missiles that are mobile (referring to mobile launchers), she saw no reason why the people of Tel Aviv shouldn’t be mobile as well. There was no population dip in Tel Aviv that lasted more than a few hours.

“Why on earth do they stay?”

How does this all fit into the idea that the two Jewish communities are on different trajectories? For just over the past decade, I worked in the Jerusalem office of AIPAC, an American organization dedicated to strengthening US-Israel relations. One of its activities is to conduct educational seminars for varied American groups, with the purpose of serving the above goal. There are also occasional seminars for lay members of AIPAC. The latter are not surprisingly very pro-Israel and highly motivated groups. During this period we would often visit communities near the Gaza Strip that have been suffering from ongoing rocket attacks. Members of these communities tell the seminar participants about what it means to be living under constant threat. And really, it is terrible.

One of the constant and candid takeaways of these very pro-Israel seminar participants after the visits: “Why on earth would these intelligent, seemingly responsible people continue living, with their families, in this dangerous place? They could move half an hour away and be relatively safe.”

Some of the participants would even pose the question to their hosts. Invariably, they would receive answers like: “We’re tired of running; we grew up here; our families and roots are here; we hope for peace; this is our home…” — all sounds good. Truth be told, my first gut reaction to this was that it sounds a bit like grandstanding. Playing to the crowd. But on the other hand, it is a fact. They aren’t all moving away. Taking into account modern Israeli history over the past century, this is simply an additional manifestation of the paradigm change initiated by the early Zionist pioneers. And it was clearly far from the default thinking of many of the enthusiastic Jewish-American visitors.

* * *

It’s all the above that leads me to the conclusion that we are indeed looking here at the two largest groups of the same people on separate trajectories. This, of course, is reinforced by periodic discrepancies between how the Israelis feel they must proceed politically at any given moment and how American Jewry reacts to the same. But that’s only reinforcement. The movement apart is more than simply the result of one or another policy on the ground.

The question arises as to the implications of the above for the future of American support for Israel. Whether it will increase or decrease, an argument can be made that American support for Israel is more and more a mainstream American than a predominantly American-Jewish one. And in a period in which massive small dollar political contributions is a growing phenomenon, the calculus of another important aspect of the role of importance of American Jewry to the relationship may be changing as well.

These different trajectories create a natural tension within the Tribe. Israeli Jews have become different from American and other Diaspora Jewish communities. We’re all still family – just once removed. That’s the way it is. I’m not quite sure whether to mourn or to celebrate this. Maybe both. Maybe it’s simply the result of natural growth. Hopefully, understanding this may lead to less judgmental behavior from both sides towards the other. But the tension shouldn’t surprise anyone or be attributed to any short range set of events. It’s more like the movement of tectonic plates.

David Kreizelman was, till recently, a Foreign Policy Associate for AIPAC in Jerusalem. Prior to that, he was the Deputy Director of the Israel Government Press Office in the Prime Minister’s Office, and also worked at the Weizmann Institute of Science. He has lived in Israel for 50 years.

About the Author
David Kreizelman has lived in Israel for over 50 years. During that period, he was the Deputy Director of the Government Press Office, served as Foreign Policy Associate for AIPAC in Jerusalem, and was a major in the IDF.