There’s no pastime more popular than shock. It’s nice to be shocked now and again by a minister’s ignorance or vulgarity. It’s great to be horrified by acts of violence, or to fret over the school board evaluation exam data, or to get angry at rabbis, secular people or Arabs.
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Shock is selective, however. For example, for Israelis to be shocked at something happening to American Jews, it would take, God forbid, some sort of horrendous act of anti-Semitism. The quiet ideological distancing of millions of American Jews from Israel garners no great shock here.
Two weeks ago, Jewish humanitarian organizations in the United States announced that they are beginning to support Syrian refugees. I wouldn’t have paid any attention to this rather negligible announcement, had I not been in attendance at a series of meeting with leaders and standout personalities from the Jewish community of America – or more accurately, Jewish communities of America.
The fact that a connection has been made between Jewish organizations and Syrian refugees – without any mention of Israel, for better or worse – is a novelty, which expresses the drama taking place among American Jews over the past few years.
It would be good for Israelis to pay some attention to it – due to the strategic ramifications it might have for the country.
Various leaders and speakers from across the spectrum of American Judaism were present at the meeting with representatives of the Israeli media. They represented a cross section of American Judaism in terms of religious observance and American political affiliation - and Israeli political affiliation, too. The meetings, organized by The Ruderman Family Foundation, were held off-the-record, meaning I cannot present any startling quotes here.
These, however, are the on-the-record conclusions: Israel is very dear to American Jews; organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, J Street and Taglit-Birthright Israel are continuing to bloom and make achievements, each in their own domain. But the sidelines are quickly growing wider and wider - and more and more important. These margins are important because they represent the younger generation, a part of which has become estranged from Israel - or, even more common, indifferent to it.
For anyone with a vested interest in American Judaism – organizations, philanthropic foundations, academics, journalists – this is old news. It’s connected to the fact that, positive and exciting in and of itself, Israel has ceased to be a defining factor in the identity of American Jews.
American Jews are looking afresh for new answers to old, complicated questions, like, for example, who is a Jew? Many organizations, from the Reform movement to Chabad, have opened their doors to those considered non-Jews by Jewish law. Also, what is a Jew? More and more Jews are involved in humanitarian aid, both within and outside the United States, that has no connection to Israel or Jews at all, but they nonetheless label that humanitarian aid as Jewish.
American Jews’ religious identities, which is often different from the Israeli definitions, are no less significant than the alienation young Jews are feeling from Israel as a result of its policies in the occupied territories, as characterized in recent years by journalist Peter Beinart. Beinart also appeared before the Israeli journalists alongside a young social activist, who said that many Jews “think Israel is to blame for what is happening to it. In their eyes, Zionism is colonialism and racism.”
When it comes to matters of religion and state, Jews in America are less concerned with denial of rights for another people, but rather with denial of their own rights as Jews. If perhaps one day they, or people close to them, would immigrate to Israel, they might not be able to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah at the Western Wall, or be buried in Israel according to their wishes.
Women of the Wall, which many Israelis tend to see as a group of fanatics, garners widespread support from Jewish groups in the United States for its battle for religious freedom in Judaism. In the United States, Jews are worried about the status of women in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. The recent elections for Israel’s chief rabbis were of great interest to Jews in the States, including the Orthodox and fervent Zionists, who felt that Israel had disrespected them and their rabbis.
Regarding these issues, it is possible to hear criticism from those loyal friends of Israel hailing from older generations who still see this country as a national shelter and answer to the Holocaust.
One of them, a well-known Jewish speaker, said “the majority of Jews won’t turn their backs on Israel because of the occupation. They’ll turn their backs if they are told that the state doesn’t see them as Jews.” Another speaker said: “When Jews in America read stories about how women are forced to sit at the back of the bus, it affects philanthropy.”
These days, a great deal of Jewish money is being sent to aid organizations that have no connection to Israel, but rather, for example, to Syrian refugees, or to Darfur, or Haiti.
As American Jews and Israeli Jews comprise four-fifths of world Jewry, Israel continues to look down from above on our brethren in the Diaspora, even as we come to ask them for money. The issue of patronage has become a thing of the past.
One day, someone will be shocked by this and will make some noise about it when it’s already too late. Here, there’s no need for shock. What’s needed is to shake off some old myths, narrow-mindedness, and to implement new, forward thinking. We can start with Israel’s education system, where students manage to go 12 years without learning that the majority of the world’s Jewish population lives outside Israel, and that some of them have completely different ideas regarding what it means to be a Jew.