Last month was the most exciting of my professional life. The book I spent five years writing about the Promised Land was published in New York and welcomed with open arms. America opened its gates to me. The American Jewish community opened its heart. Something electrifying has happened. It was not just the book and not just its writer, it was a new Israel conversation that had suddenly burst forth.
Five weeks of unique events led me to a few conclusions about what unites the two largest Jewish communities in the world, and what divides them.
First, American Jews still love Israel deeply. Certainly the right wing and the Orthodox. But liberal Jewry as well, in all is varied forms, still needs Israel as an anchor for its identity and as an essential energizer.
Even Jewish Americans who prefer U.S. President Barack Obama over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look toward the Jewish democratic state and ask that it be sufficiently democratic for them to identify with. The memory of the (Eastern European) shtetl or the (Moroccan) mellah we all came from has not yet been erased. The trauma of the 1940s has still not been forgotten. The longing for Ari Ben Canaan from “Exodus” has changed, but not disappeared. Even the Jewish left longs to see a reincarnation of the old Labor Zionism that it so loved to love.
Second, for a very long time Israel has not made it possible for progressive American Jews to love it. The West Bank settlements contradict the core values of all liberals in the United States. Ultra-Orthodox politics put off everyone in North America who is not ultra-Orthodox. The alienation of sabras, native-born Israelis, from the Jewish Diaspora is an obstacle to maintaining a sense of kinship. As a result, what was once a great bonfire of love has become a weak flame of perplexed and confused love. For millions of American Jews, Israel is an impressive yet somewhat incomprehensible and sometimes embarrassing relative, who makes it very difficult for those who so want to embrace and take pride in him.
Third, the real issue is the young. People 60 and up cannot do without Israel. Those who are between 40 and 60 generally still have some kind of affinity with Israel. But young Jewish Americans in their teens and 20s are in a different world. Their universal values are in constant collision with everything that tribal Israel represents, and for that reason to many of them the Jewish state is a headache. They find it very difficult to reconcile their belief in peace with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
It is difficult for them to connect the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, repair of the world, with Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon. The closed-minded Orthodox rabbinate and the settlements and the segregation of women from the public sphere raise deep questions: Is Israel still relevant?
Is there true justification for them to maintain the strong feelings for Israel that their grandparents and their parents feel?
There is. When all is said and done, the people who really need there to be a Jewish state in the world are the non-ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Without the lighthouse of Zionism, doubt will be cast on the existence of non-Orthodox Jewish civilization. Without the Israeli source of energy, Jews in their 20s in American universities will have difficulty remaining Jewish throughout the 21st century.
But for Israel to continue to fulfill the role it is supposed to fulfill in the lives of young Jewish Americans, Israel must change.
It must go back to being a country of progress, morality and enlightenment. The Jewish people’s front is not in Yitzhar or Itamar, but rather at Harvard, Yale and Columbia and 400 other colleges. To deal successfully with this front Israelis must stop treating American Jews as rich uncles and start treating them as sisters and brothers. Sisters and brothers? Sisters and brothers! With a common past and a common destiny and a future that must be defined together. Sisters and brothers who must save themselves in learning to love one another anew.
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