Why Israelis Don’t Understand Jewish Americans

Jewish students with Muslim friends, female kippah-wearing rabbis, growing up in a peachy, free society. What do those Americans want from us?

Recently, Newsweek published their annual list of America’s Top 50 Rabbis. As I was perusing the list, I couldn’t help but imagine how Rabbis often are front-in-center in American Jewish Life, providing advice and serving as community leaders to many American Jews. This is quite different to many of the secular Israelis that living in Israel. In Israel, rabbis often serve as the center of Orthodox life, but not to the large amount of Israelis who are secular. As I was reading the list, I couldn’t help but think, “What are, really, the big differences in perception of Judaism between Israelis and American Jews?”

For most of my life, I’ve lived, geographically, in the United States. Figuratively, though, it is a different matter. I grew up with Israeli parents who associate mainly with other expatriate Israelis. I learned Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel, before I learned the The Star-Spangled Banner, and I grew up watching Israeli television via satellite TV. It should come as no surprise, then, that I’ve been privy to many conversations about Israelis and their interactions with American Jews.

U.S. students visiting Jerusalem - Haim Tzach / Baubau - Sept. 30, 2010
Haim Tzach / Baubau

Although most Israelis can relate to American Jews, my experience has shown me several points of tension between them, which give rise to deep misunderstandings between the two communities.

First, American multiculturalism simply baffles Israelis. Many Israelis live relatively close to Arabic speaking villages and cities. However, the interaction between Israelis and those residents, particularly Palestinians, is sparse or nonexistent. In addition, there are vast political machines on both sides dedicated to ensuring that the barrier between the two cultures seems insurmountable. So, for Israelis it can seem confounding to see an American Jew being a close friend of an American Muslim. They find it difficult to imagine a world where religious barriers don’t define political identity — either because of the nature of the Jewish state, or the history of Jewish persecution. Israel is by definition a multicultural state, but religiously, it is homogeneous, which contrasts starkly to the United States’ “melting pot” of varied religions, ethnicities, and races.

Some branches of Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism can also confuse some Israelis, particularly older, secular Israelis. For many who have grown up in Israel, one is either religious or isn’t. While this perception is certainly changing with time, Israelis often do not see, for instance, women wearing a kippah. To many Israelis, these kinds of images are jarring and don’t fit into what they consider “religious.” Therefore, some might view American Jews who call themselves religious but follow a different tradition as being disingenuous.

Israel and Zionism are sensitive subjects to Israelis, who can find it frustrating to see how American Jews handle their love for the Jewish state. Many Israelis don’t understand how, if American Jews love Israel, why they don’t make aliyah. The influence of Zionism is widespread in the Jewish State, and a basic tenant of Israel being the Jewish homeland resounds with Israelis in this matter. As evidenced in the recent Eretz Nehederet comedy show clip, Jewish Americans visiting Israel on Taglit Birthright are viewed with a relatively high level of skepticism — they come, donate their money, take a few pictures, and leave.

Finally, Israelis don’t understand how American Jews can criticize Israel so heavily. Most Israelis have lost a friend, relative, or other acquaintance (or all three) to either terrorism or war. For them, criticizing Israel’s military or foreign policy is immediately met with, “Well, you don’t live here, so you don’t know.” How could a foreigner possibly understand the complexities, and the losses suffered, by people who grew up in a land plagued by warfare? That’s how Israelis justify keeping Americans out of domestic issues.

While I realize not all Israelis fit into these stereotypes, and that even those who do might only espouse these thoughts partially, I feel, nonetheless that it is these points of friction that most frequently come between Israelis and American Jews.

This is a shame, because Israelis and American Jews have many common goals, and without fully engaging with each other, they will have no opportunity for complete cooperation. How often have American campaigns in Israel toward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or toward social reform utterly failed? Too many to count.

At the same time, Israelis need to understand that, despite their different upbringing, American Jews have been the strongest supporters of Israel in recent decades. Since the Camp David Accords, the U.S. has provided Israel with an enormous amount of aid - politically and economically. Israelis should understand that while it is fair to criticize others’ opinions and habits, it is not okay to bite the hand that feeds you by making them feel that their opinions are illegitimate.

Perhaps if each party opened their hearts and minds to the other - making an effort to comprehend the complexity of each one’s perceptions and problems - the two largest Jewish communities in the world could engage more effectively. For, without understanding, there will be little change.

Look out for Part two of this two-part blog next month, on why Jewish Americans don’t understand Israelis.


Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.