A relative (I’ll call her Melanie) recently asked me what I thought about a notice from her Reform Synagogue in the Western U.S. announcing a program exploring the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The program promised to hear all voices, get new perspectives, not place blame, discover creative solutions, and other well-intentioned platitudes comfortingly explored thousands of miles away from the scene.
After responding to Joanie’s question with some platitudes of my own about the benefits of gaining more knowledge and hearing from a variety of perspectives, as well as something about the need to understand history and context, I then wrote much more than Joanie asked for:
On a more general note, the program raised something I have been thinking a lot about lately: When we first started coming to Israel frequently, I would often bring up my concerns about how Israel related to and was perceived by the American Jewish community. I did this because I recognize the importance of that community to Israel and to the future of the Jewish people.
Many of the Israelis I met, including people who made Aliyah from the U.S. and other countries years ago, would often just shrug in seeming resignation, or they would make some dismissive comment.
They seemed to be resigned to American Jews having problems with and not understanding Israel, and to being unable to convince American Jews of Israel’s positions and concerns. Some even seemed to be contemptuous of the American Jews expressing their concerns about Israel’s actions or positions. I could not understand how they could be so dismissive.
Now, after having lived here in Israel a good part of the last decade, I am more understanding. People living here, including me, my wife, and our daughter, have dealt with periodic wars, taking shelter from missiles, sending kids off to battle, cars and trucks driving into bus stops, knifings, and other life-threatening and certainly traumatic events.
In between these “incidents,” people here are living lives just like others in the world: Putting kids through school, dealing with elderly parents, fighting traffic, doing their jobs, trying to afford apartments, shopping for groceries, complaining about prices, enjoying good wine, booking weekends at hotels, listening to music, dealing with Covid, and even, occasionally, arguing and complaining about politics.
They live in a country which, like many other countries, has challenges and things to complain about. But, overall, given the history of the country and the neighborhood we are in, Israelis live in a rich, resourceful, fun, rewarding, meaningful country. They (or we) have much to be proud of.
The Palestinian issue is just one aspect of their world, just like pollution, or water shortages, or the border, or a hundred other issues, are one aspect of the U.S. It’s an important issue, but it is not one on every Israelis’ mind everyday.
Just like Americans, including American Jews, they are busy living busy lives. Maybe when they stop over coffee or wine, they will think about the issue or discuss it with friends. Just like Americans do with the issues the U.S. faces.
Almost 60% of American Jews have never visited Israel. Take Orthodox Jews out of that equation, and the percentage of never-visitors is even higher. Among the non-Orthodox who have visited, many of them are one and done-it’s who came years ago.
Many, if not most, non-Orthodox American Jews know little or nothing about the history, the language, the culture, the day-to-day life of Israelis. They hear and know little or nothing about the achievements and challenges of co-existence between Israeli Arabs and Jews, or about absorbing millions of immigrants from countries without a democratic tradition.
Most American Jews did nothing to show support when Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the south, and much of the rest of the country were being bombarded with four thousand missiles aimed solely at civilians. This is consistent with the impression that many of them seldom take any interest in the country other than if the dispute with the Palestinians is the subject matter, and with the fact that a sovereign Jewish nation in an often hostile and dangerous Middle East must sometimes take actions that discomfort universalistic, tikun olam-imbued American Jews who have never run for a shelter or sent a child off to battle.
They may not be members of a synagogue or of other Jewish institutions or, if they are, their involvement and attendance, and their participation in Jewish life, may very well be sporadic. Many are Jewishly illiterate. It is not their Jewish identity that dominates or defines them or that even enters into their daily life.
Their children and grandchildren’s future as Jews is very much in question as a result of lack of education, lack of observance, and by an intermarriage rate of around 70%. In short, they and/or their children and grandchildren are or are very likely to be marginal Jews, high-holiday Jews, lox-and-bagel Jews.
And now, sadly, they are not just threatened by dilution and assimilation due to an overwhelmingly welcoming and tolerant Diaspora. Now their lives and future as a free and vibrant and safe Jewish community are threatened by growing anti-Semitism and the possible demise of American democracy.
Many commentators say that the threat to American democracy is real and imminent. Several have also said that American Jews have been largely excepted from the diaspora experience that Jews have experienced over the 2000 years of exile, that the exception is about to end, and that American Jews are now going to experience what being in the diaspora is really like.
Shalom Lappin comprehensively describes what is happening to the U.S. and what it means for American Jews. It’s not pretty, even if many choose to try to ignore it. https://fathomjournal.org/we-shall-be-as-a-city-on-a-hill-trump-progressive-antisemitism-and-the-loss-of-american-jewish-exceptionalism/
While many American Jews may, to various degrees, be aware of and somewhat alarmed by the real and imminent threat to American democracy, most seem to be in denial about the threat to American Jewry. Many appear to have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to the threats and attacks coming at them from both the left and the right.
They seem to have accepted that it is nothing unusual to have guard shacks and fences surrounding synagogues and Jewish schools, to go through metal detectors when attending a Jewish or Israel-oriented event, to have celebrities and members of Congress from the right and the left dig up on a regular basis some of the most blatant Jew-hating tropes of the last two thousand years. Hey, life goes on.
Israel is in a complicated, seemingly intractable dispute with its Palestinian neighbors, despite the fact that almost two million Palestinians live freely as citizens of Israel, albeit not without legitimate complaints, as Israeli citizens. The circumstances of that dispute, while not acceptable to many, leave plenty of blame to go around. Moreover, those circumstances pale in comparison to the horrible conditions and tyranny in much of the world.
In all the conflicts since 1948 that Israel has been involved in with the Palestinians, about 27,000 people, Israelis and Palestinians, combatants and non-combatants, have been killed. That’s 27,000 too many, but it is nothing when compared with much of the world and, in particular, with the Middle East.
Since 1948, millions of Arabs have been killed by other Arabs in horrendous wars, by terrorism, and in suppressing people trying to throw off brutal dictatorships. In the last few years, and continuing today, within 200 miles of my apartment in Jerusalem, Assad has slaughtered a half million and displaced another 10 million. The world is now accepting him back into the community of leaders of nations.
[Something I discovered while writing this piece: Google “Arabs killed by Arabs in the Middle East” or “Muslims killed by Muslims in the Middle East” or “Middle East wars” or almost anything else like this and virtually all the links that will come up deal with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and, more specifically, Israelis causing Palestinian deaths.]
The perspective from here is that much of this region and the world are on the edge of an abyss or are mired in oppression, death, and destruction. Syria, Lebanon, Sudan come to mind immediately. This is not to play “what aboutism” or to say that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute does not need a resolution. It is to say the world has an obsession with this particular dispute and American Jews, willingly or not, are chief participants.
But to a large number of American Jews whose Judaism is in danger due to their own lack of commitment and the threat to the democracy of the country they live in, and who take little or no other interest in Israel, the Palestinian issue seems to become an obsession. It is how they define Israel.
It’s as if they have become inculcated with the obsessive fixation that many on the American far left have with Israel, a fixation that often emanates from a deep-seeded and often long suppressed anti-Semitism that is now surfacing and becoming more explicit in many circles.
As social and cultural theorist/professor/journalist Susie Linfield says and quotes “New Historian” Benny Morris in a recent piece in the Atlantic:
‘Something similar is happening with the delegitimizing charges of “imperialism” and “settler colonialism” that some members of today’s left in Europe and the U.S. hurl against Israel, the historian Benny Morris told me. “The liberal left feels guilty about its past crimes,” said Morris, whose book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 is a canonical work in revisionist Israeli history. “And this is projected onto current conflicts, especially the Israeli-Arab conflict.” He added, “There’s a basic anti-Semitism in the West and a basic obsession with the Holy Land in the Christian West. And these two things make it impossible for anybody to look at Israel in a neutral way.” Seventy years after its founding, Israel is regarded (by Jews and non-Jews, right and left, West and East) as a cause, a tragedy, a miracle, a nightmare, a project—one that is highly provisional and should perhaps be canceled. Is there any other sovereign nation, from the most miserable failed states to those that are flourishing, of which the same can be said?’
It’s sad, but I now have a better understanding of why many of my Israeli friends have resigned themselves to not satisfying American Jews, or have even become contemptuous of the American Jewish community.
Well, Melanie, that’s a hell of a lot more than you asked for, I’m sure. See you at the next Zoom family reunion.