Opinion

Rogel Alpher, American Jews Don’t Occupy Israel - or You

Advising AIPAC to 'get a life and stay out of mine,' Alpher accused U.S. Jews of an 'illegitimate takeover.' But non-Orthodox Jews in America often confront the thesis that the Israeli government can do no wrong.

J street
Bob Nesson

Dear Mr. Alpher: In your recent screed in Haaretz against AIPAC (“Dear AIPAC, get a life, and stay out of mine,” September 24), after advising AIPAC to “go screw itself,” you accused American Jews in general of a “hostile, anti-democratic and illegitimate takeover” of your life and exhorted them to “get a life” of their own.

Believe it or not, American Jews already have a life of our own, which is very different from what you imagine. American Jews, through AIPAC or not, neither “control” the American political arena as you suggest, nor what happens to you and me in Israel. I say this as an American Jew who has lived in Israel for years and indeed shares many of your gripes about this place.

Yes, U.S. politicians do make ritual obeisance to AIPAC, as they do to the NAACP – thereby garnering Jewish and black votes to enable their intra-U.S. agendas. And yes, a few super-wealthy American Jews donate conspicuously to political parties and candidates. Some, like Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, have Israel-related agendas in addition to their intra-U.S. interests. But by themselves they neither explain America’s substantial support for Israel, including for its current government, nor represent American Jewry and its interests.

All U.S. administrations have supported Israel, not always uncritically, because of their own geopolitical interests. So what about American Jews and Israel? Many mid-20th century American Jewish families of Eastern European origin had an idealistic Great Uncle Moishe from Russia who went to Palestine to build a kibbutz, or a Holocaust-survivor Aunt Regina from Poland who settled in Tel Aviv. Zionism was a family affair as well as a social context transcending neighborhood synagogues.

For the historical American Jewish elite – Sephardi families there since the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th and German-Jewish families who came slightly later – Zionism has never been an absolute motivator. They directed their giving and interest locally to hospitals, the arts or centers like the Settlement Houses on the Lower East Side that “Americanized” their embarrassingly “foreign” fellow Jews, just off the boat from Eastern Europe. My parents, aunts and uncles benefited from this largesse – and when we, their baby-boomer children, came of age to contribute our time and money and promote the dearly-held value of democracy, we identified with the huddled masses yearning to get into Palestine/Israel (from Soviet Jews to the Ethiopian immigration) alongside the civil rights struggle closer at hand.

Today, among Jews in America and, alas, to a considerable extent among American Jews in Israel, “Zionism” has largely become conflated with the self-satisfaction of holding political power and with one, Orthodox way of being Jewish.

However, among Reform, Conservative, “unaffiliated” Jews and mixed families, there are far more critical views of Israel and a confrontation with the thesis that the government of Israel can do no wrong. See the establishment of alternative Jewish lobbies like J Street.

Alpher’s vision is small-minded, very much in the whiny victimized mode that Israeli politicians and pundits all too often adopt and vastly conspiracist. (That AIPAC Mafia again). Perhaps he can take some comfort in the fact that at least for the next couple of months, meddling American Jews will have issues other than “literally ruining [his] life” on their minds.