Different Sides, Same Questions

Two new books explore the increasingly fraught relationship between American Jews and Israel.

"Why don't Israelis take any interest in what the Jews in America think or do?" In almost four years of writing about Israel and Diaspora affairs, I long ago lost count of the number of times this question has come up in conversations with concerned, well-meaning Jewish-American leaders. It echoed in my ears continuously while reading two new books that address the complex and frustrating relationship between the two most successful Jewish communities in history.

Though I doubt either author would agree, there is a clear symmetry between the two books. One is by a seasoned political operator, the other by a veteran journalist; one in Hebrew and targeted at an Israeli audience, the other in English for Americans.

Israeli and U.S. flag, April 8, 2011.
Courtesy of Howie Hecht

Jeremy Ben-Ami has long been a member of the "Democratic wing" of American Jewry. On the other hand, as a journalist Shmuel Rosner has never nailed his colors to any political mast, but he is perceived by many of his readers - and certainly his critics - as being somewhat right-of-center. But they both address the same central issue from different sides of the divide.

But what I found intriguing while reading Rosner's "Shtetl, Bagel, Baseball," essentially a user's manual of American Jewry for Israeli readers (not to say, American Jews for Dummies ) and Ben-Ami's "A New Voice for Israel," the impassioned case for J Street by the organization's founder and president, is that while Rosner gives a generally sympathetic hearing to J Street's critics in his book, both writers essentially seem to agree on the bottom line: That there has been a fundamental shift in the way a new Jewish American generation relates to Israel and that the landscape between the two communities, separated by an ocean and a continent, has changed, perhaps forever.

The question of American support for Israel and its policies, and the way that Jews over there feel about this strategic relationship, is the mainstay of Ben-Ami's short and semi-autobiographical book. However, it's only part of the wider range of issues that Rosner, Haaretz's former chief correspondent in the U.S. (and twice upon a time my boss ), tackles for his Israeli readers.

Aside from politics, Rosner also addresses the thorny questions of Jewish identity, religion, demographics, the cost of Jewish living, and much more. His book also has a purpose. As he states in his introduction, "We have the duty to know" the challenges facing our Jewish brothers and sisters in the land of the free, and he comes full circle in the concluding chapter titled "Why we can and should love American Jewry."

But while he expertly chronicles the reasons for the growing divide between Jews in America and Israel, in my opinion he fails to convincingly argue why - save for the obvious - we should be giving a damn, on either side of the chasm. He does give one clue, though, when he terms Jewish life in America "our alternative story," the one we could have found ourselves living if our great-grandparents had made different plans.

But even if he has succeeded in convincing us of his case - and I would imagine that most of the Israelis who already took the trouble to purchase and read his book are already to a large extent of the view that the relationship is important, if not already quite knowledgeable on the subject - he does not offer any ways of building bridges over the chasm.

Neither does Ben-Ami. In what is basically a straightforward exposition of J Street's raison d'etre, he explains why cajoling (he doesn't like the word "pressure" as it has been tainted by the right-wing ) Israel towards relinquishing the settlements and ending the occupation of the West Bank is the correct Jewish and Zionist thing to do and also in the best interests of both Israel and America's security.

It's definitely not a hard-sell for this reader but what's missing from his book is a convincing explanation of a fundamental question: If all the data that both writers present points to the fact that an overwhelming majority of American Jews support a two-state solution, why does "the loudest eight percent" (as Ben-Ami calls them ), opposing any but the most timid American attempts to encourage Israel towards such an outcome, have such a stranglehold over both the Jewish leadership and Congress? Why is there no clamor among so many like-minded Jews, especially those younger ones who hold liberal and left-wing values even dearer than their elders, to change this state of affairs?

I have referred to J Street three times in this column without explaining what it is, the assumption being that you are a reader who does not need it spelled out, that J Street is the young and controversial lobby that bills itself "pro-Israel and pro-Peace," and has been giving the old Jewish American establishment and the Israeli Embassy in Washington a major headache since its foundation three years ago.

You would hardly be spending your valuable time reading this column if you were not already reasonably acquainted with those facts. But that also places you in a minority. As I said last year upon receiving the B'nai B'rith Award for Diaspora reportage, there are so few Israeli journalists interested in writing about the Jews of the world, that they have to offer them prizes to do so. And whether the chicken or the egg came first, it doesn't matter, the Israeli media and the Israeli public both find the subject yawn-inducing.

I see that Rosner's book has gained a foothold at the bottom of the non-fiction best seller list at one of Israel's largest bookstore chains, but I don't see it motivating a generation of Israelis to suddenly sit up and take notice. Of course, I can't predict what kind of a stir Ben-Ami's book - set to come out in August - will create, but I have the professional writer's inbuilt cynicism towards the effect of anything we publish.

Ben-Ami and Rosner both accurately portray the current state of apathy and disenchantment among young Jews in America and Israel. If that were not the case, there would be a healthy and constructive relationship between the two sides and a greater openness towards Israel taking necessary risks in its quest for peace. So far, neither journalism nor the limited success of J Street has proved an antidote. It has dawned on me that this column is guilty of the same offenses I am pinning on the two authors. This is not the first time I have trotted out the "no one gives a damn about the Diaspora" line and not offered any alternatives of my own. Next week, I will try.