Has Israel Become the Black Sheep of the North American Jewish Family?

As Israel grew from being an adorable child into a problematic adult, U.S. Jews chose to disengage. But just because it's a point of contention doesn't mean Israel should be disavowed.

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Black sheep (illustration)Credit: Dreamstime

Nothing brings a family together like a new baby. The tiny, fragile miracle that once was merely an idea becomes a reality and starts to grow and develop. All who are connected to it guard and nurture the new creation as it grows, marvelling together at every milestone. Their mutual love and concern is a sturdy glue that helps bond their relationships to one another as strongly as their attachment to the child

The State of Israel has long played the role of beloved common project for North American Jewish communities.

Support and concern for it has brought together Jewish communities. They may have been divided between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, in prayer, and between those who choose day school and those who send their children to public schools when it comes to Jewish education. But they have traditionally come together to rally and stand together for Israel, to raise money for emergency campaigns to help distressed Jewish immigrants settle there or rebuild after war and strife took its toll. Their precise views on Israel may not have been identical, but basic underlying support of the state of Israel was something most everyone in the family of Jews could agree on.

Israel has also been used as an appealing tool to bring young people into the community. Religion can be complicated and demanding, Holocaust guilt - while compelling - is dark and sad. Israel programming has been the fun and sexy side of Jewish communal life - falafel, flag-waving and folk-dancing and David Broza songs around the campfire. The whole premise of the Birthright program is the belief that dynamic young Israel is an attractive gateway drug into Jewish life, a uniting and bonding experience.

But kids don’t stay young and adorable forever. They grow into adults whose actions don’t always please the people who nurtured them. They behave in ways that sometimes embarrass and shame some members of the family - while other family members feel their actions are utterly justifiable, and even when they don’t, they point out, aren’t family members supposed to love each other unconditionally through thick and thin?

Arguments over the errant spawn take place until finally, one day, it has become clear that the creature who brought the family together has become precisely the thing that is driving it apart. They are no longer invited to family gatherings for the sake of peace and harmony. When they aren’t around, the family decides either deliberately, or make an unspoken agreement, not to poison the atmosphere by discussing their latest escapades.

It’s been a rough year since the family of North American Jews came together around the dinner table of the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly. And most of the strife has revolved around the place that once united the family - Israel.

It was a year of kidnapping and killings, Hamas rockets, tunnels and indelible images of Gaza civilians killed by Israeli bombs, in the aftermath of the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and punctuated by incessant sniping between Jerusalem and the Obama White House and between Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbis and the Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements in Israel and overseas, of debates over boycotts, divestments and sanctions.

As a result, Israel has visibly shifted from being a uniting force into being a disruption to North American Jewish life, the black sheep, the uncomfortable topic that nobody wants to talk about because discussing Israel means fighting about Israel. On college campuses, the BDS debate is doing damage to the feeling of unity that campus Jews used to feel coming together at Hillel houses, with Open Hillel challenging the national student organization and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations faced off over whether to allow J Street in as a member because of its positions on Israel.

This has all taken its toll. In its major feature dealing with the High Holy Days, the New York Times chose to focus on the difficulty of rabbis penning their sermons - not only on what they should say about Israel - but whether to say anything at all.

It has become fashionable to attribute the fact that North American Jews are increasingly cutting Israel out of their Jewish identity for political reason - the extensive “Liberal Zionism is untenable debate” that came on the heels of Operation Protective Edge.

But I think it runs deeper than that, and has as much to do with the heart as with the head. I have come across many North American Jews from across the political spectrum who grew up in synagogues, went to Jewish summer camps and have visited the Jewish state who are turned away as Israel became a source of discord and bad feelings. And so even as national organizations urge them to “engage” with Israel, their deep desire to preserve unity in their local Jewish communities pushes them to disengage.

This trend should be deeply unsettling for Israelis - and it is for those of us who are paying attention. Whether North American Jews - our overseas family members - have adored us or been furious with us, we are used to having them pay attention to what we are doing and caring deeply about it. We need to understand that seeing them turning away is a bigger problem than coping with their criticism, no matter how scathing. It can be a frighteningly short journey between being considered a problematic high-maintenance family member and no longer belonging to the family at all. 

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