So it has come to this: Prominent American Jews are warning that if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu carries out his campaign promise to annex parts of the West Bank, they will stop supporting Israel.
Full disclosure for anyone who doesn’t know me—I did not vote for Netanyahu. I wrote a whole book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” that shows why his policy of exaggerating external threats to Israel and blasting “treason” of the non-existent Israeli Left is destructive, misguided, and just plain wrong.
Despite that, I am proud to say that as a result of a democratic process that is unparalleled anywhere in the Middle East (and most of the world), Netanyahu has been elected, and so he is my prime minister.
But he is obviously not the prime minister of American Jews. They don’t vote here. So why are American Jews so tied up in Israeli politics that they reinforce or weaken their support for the only Jewish state in the world, based on who the Israeli people choose to lead them?
It’s partly Israel’s fault. We have led American Jews to believe they are equal partners in what goes on here. I remember being especially uncomfortable covering a UJA reception at the Israeli President’s Residence in the “We Are One” times of the 1980s. There were lavish tables piled with food for the big American donors, and the President shook all of their hands, one by one.
A worker put his finger on why I was uncomfortable. He observed, “I pay taxes, I serve in the army, I’m bringing up my kids here on a shoestring. Why doesn’t the President shake my hand?”
And there was the disaster of “Project Renewal,” where we allowed donors to believe they had a decisive role in planning projects here, and they even “boycotted” one because they didn’t get their way.
Now it’s time to reset our relationship. American Jews need to realize that they do not decide for us, and we Israelis need to realize that American Jews are fellow Jews who deserve our respect and support.
“We Are One” was a mistaken and misleading slogan for fundraising, even 30-plus years ago when it surfaced. As long as Israelis are the people putting our lives in the line to defend the state, we could never be “one” with Diaspora Jews.
All the more so today. The factors that led to that mistaken slogan have changed. At that time, Israel counted on the donations of American Jews to build hospitals, universities, synagogues, and more.
That’s over, or it should be.
Israel today does not need the donations of American Jews. Appropriated properly, Israel has enough resources to fund its own projects. I have even made the case that Israel would be better off without American military assistance, but that’s another subject.
While donations from American Jews were irreplaceable in getting the Jewish state off the ground and helping it establish itself, and US military aid literally saved the state from destruction in the 1973 war—today the situation is the opposite.
Today, American Jews are facing the challenges of a free, well-off, modern society, with pressures that cause so many young Jews to abandon their religion and heritage. The default position of Israelis is to laugh derisively at the failure of American Jews to hold their own against the threat of assimilation. That’s the opposite of what we should be thinking and doing.
The aid effort must be turned around. After 70 years of support from American Jews, now they need our help. It costs tens of thousands of dollars a year for American families to send their kids to Jewish day schools. That means only a small minority of Jewish kids get this most effective vaccination against assimilation. We in Israel can help. There are Israeli teachers in the US, but many are funded by the Jewish day schools, which pass the cost on to the parents. Not good enough. Israel can fund and send teachers to the schools in large numbers. That would make a huge impact there, and it could help reverse the trend of assimilation.
So let’s change our attitudes and behaviors on both sides of the ocean. American Jews must stop preaching to us and reach out to Israel for help. Israel must replace derision with cooperation and give aid in the spirit of helping a family member for the sake of the whole family—the Jewish people.
We are not “One,” but we must be partners.
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Correspondent MARK LAVIE has been covering Israel and the Mideast since 1972. In his new book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” he walks readers through his years in Israel and reaches a surprising conclusion.