The unfortunate remarks of Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely regarding American Jewry’s presumed inability to understand Israel’s security problems have reenergized an ongoing discussion on the relations between Israel and American Jewry. Is the support of American Jewry for Israel weakening, and if so is it the fault of the policies pursued by the Israeli government?
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This question should be viewed in a historical perspective. Before Israel’s establishment, the majority of American Jews were non-Zionist. Some were anti-Zionist, seeing no need for a Jewish state. Nevertheless, the funds raised by a minority and the hundreds of American volunteers who came to fight for Israel during the War of Independence made an important contribution.
Everything changed with Israel’s founding. American Jews became Zionists. The primary expression for this was political support for Israel by the organized Jewish community. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee became the most powerful lobby in Washington. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations demonstrated year after year the support of American Jewry for Israel. Financial contributions to Israel grew over the years.
There is hardly an institution in Israel that is not a beneficiary of such contributions. There is a small, steady stream of aliyah from America. Is all this changing? Are we witnessing a weakening of the bond between American Jewry and Israel?
The numbers have changed over the years. When the state was established, in 1948, there were 600,000 Jews living in Israel and over five million in the United States. Today there are over six million Jews in Israel and fewer than six million in the United States. Probably more than half of American Jews today are the products of intermarriage, and many of them feel less of an identification with Israel than their Jewish parents did. Nevertheless, American Jews’ support for Israel, political and financial, is still very impressive.
But American Jews who are affiliated with Reform or Conservative congregations feel slighted and insulted by decisions taken by Israel’s government under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox political parties on matters of conversion, prayer at the Western Wall and other issues that seem to cast doubt on the degree to which they belong to the Jewish people.
Explanations of the intricacies of Israeli coalition politics usually fail to allay their dismay and sometimes anger. For some it certainly weakens their attachment to Israel. That is a regrettable result of the Byzantine nature of Israeli coalition politics. It harms the state and the unity of the Jewish people.
American Jews who belong to modern-Orthodox congregations are obviously not affected by these decisions. Their support for Israel is unqualified, and they account for a good part of those making aliyah from the United States in recent years. But they are a minority of American Jewry.
All this has little to do with American Jews’ support for Israeli foreign and security policies. Support and opposition to these policies can be found across the spectrum of U.S. Jewry. And there are many who will support Israel regardless of how they feel about the government’s policies on such issues. This has nothing to do with whether their children volunteer to serve in either the U.S. or the Israeli military.
Hotovely demonstrated a lack of understanding of the American Jewish community. It is good that her remarks were criticized by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who knows that community well, and that she subsequently apologized for them.