Opinion

Do American Jews and Israel Really Need Each Other?

The Federations' General Assembly will debate the growing gulf between U.S. and Israeli Jews. But each offers the other an important corrective: Israelis' growing parochialism needs restraining, and U.S. Jews need reminding America isn't their Zion

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Jewish Communities (UJC)/Jewish Federations of North America 2009 General Assembly. Washington D.C., November 9, 2009
AFP

This week, when the American Jewish community gathers for its contemporary aliyat haregel (pilgrimage) to Los Angeles for the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations, the strained relationship between American Jews and Israel, and the deepening gulf between American Jews and Israeli Jews, takes center stage.

As an American immigrant to Israel of three years standing, and as the head of an institution centered in Jerusalem with a student base largely from America, I feel that I have "skin" in both games. American Jewry and Israel need each other for reasons that go far beyond philanthropy, political support and security.   

In many ways, our two Jewish communities are moving in opposite directions. Each community champions a partial expression of Jewish life that is incomplete and in urgent need of the corrective the other brings.   

Zionism reminded Jews in America and worldwide that the Jewish people were still a nation with an unabated desire to return to its historic homeland.

By the mid-19th century, most U.S. Jews had already come to see themselves solely as a religious community fully at home in America. In 1841, Rabbi Gustavus Poznanski declared, at the dedication of the new building for his synagogue in Charleston, "Washington is my Zion, Cincinnati, my Jerusalem."

American Judaism increasingly defined its mission as bringing ethics and values to the world at large. Zionism got in the way of this universal, prophetic brand of American Judaism. While  great American Jewish thinkers, such as Mordecai Kaplan and Louis Brandeis offered ways to integrate these strands, and while a robust American Zionism also emerged, the tensions between Jewish universalism and Jewish particularism are still at play in the relationship between American and Israeli Jews.  

Is the essence of Jewish life tikkun olam (repairing the world), as American Jews say it is, or is it our survival and flourishing as a nation seeking to fulfill our national aspirations?   

Comparison of levels of religious observance between Israeli and U.S. Jews
Haaretz

Consider that according to the Pew studies of Israeli and American Jews respectively, 91% of Israeli Jews say a Jewish state is necessary for the long-term survival of the Jewish people. But among American Jews, only 30% feel "very attached" to Israel, and only 43% believe caring about Israel is even an essential part of what it means to be Jewish; a figure that drops to just 35% among 18-45 year olds.

Likewise, 56% of American Jews see "working for justice and equality" as essential to being Jewish, while only 27% of Israelis do so.  

American Jews are increasingly focused on the "other," championing Jewish texts and Jewish history as tools to affect change in the communities in which they live, in America and in the world at large. Inclusiveness is a central value, and the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews is permeable and ultimately irrelevant. 

In contrast, Israeli Jews seem to be growing more parochial, where survey after survey that shows growing distrust and intolerance toward Arab citizens of Israel, and where there is significant support for jailing and sending back African refugees and asylum seekers.  

While American Jews are building coalitions between Jews and Muslims, an Israeli member of Knesset, Bezalel Smotrich, suggests that Arabs and Jews should be separated in hospitals, especially when giving birth (the most successful arena of coexistence in Israel).   

Israelis and Americans at a gathering overlooking the Western Wall and Temple Mount, 2011.
Emil Salman

Inversely, Israeli Jews are nurtured by a "thick" Jewish culture, in which Jewish texts, words and ideas enrich not only the religious sector but are found as well in contemporary music, art and poetry. Israel is, after all, the only place where the Hebrew calendar is organically integrated into the life of the country, where every holiday is experienced simultaneously in the supermarket, at the bank and on the street.  

The American Jewish commitment to universalism threatens to create a Jewish identity that, while having much to contribute to the world at large, will have too little to give toward advancing Jewish scholarship, producing new interpretations of Jewish texts, or creating new Jewish culture that is in true dialogue with the Jewish past.  

Polls accentuate generalizations, of course. And so do opinion essays in newspapers, including this one. There are to be sure notable exceptions. Israel offers "first response" teams to disaster areas around the world. Likewise, American Jews raise $2 billion dollars for federations with the majority of funds serving the Jewish community, locally and in Israel.  

Yet, general trends do seem to suggest important differences that widen the gap between us. American Jews are increasingly in need of a greater measure of Jewish particularism that would anchor their universalist commitments. Israeli Jews are increasingly in need of a universal vision that emerges from the most fundamental question of Israel’s larger purpose and broader mission.   

A well-known aggadah in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot (110b and 111a), tells the story of Rabbi Zeira, a 4th century sage in Babylonia who wanted to move to the land of Israel.  His teacher, Rav Yehuda ben Yechezkel, was opposed to individuals returning to Israel before the messiah’s return. Rabbi Zeira ultimately sneaks away and fulfills his dream.

This story - that forms the basis for the ultra-Orthodox rejection of Zionism -can also be re-read in a way that encapsulates the the widening gulf between American Jews and Israeli Jews about Israel itself.  

Leaders in a Vietnam war protest stand in silent prayer in . Front row, from left: Rev. Andrew Young, executive vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Bishop James P. Shannon, Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Minneapolis and St. Paul; . The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington Amphitheater are in background. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)
AP Photo/Harvey Georges

If Rav Yehuda’s position is seen as a kind of "holding out" for the perfect, messianic Israel, then he could be said to capture the sentiment of an increasing number of American Jews. Rabbi Zeira, on the other hand, becomes the prototype for the Israeli Jew, maintaining that the less-than-perfect Israel, the Israel before the messiah arrives, is still a place where dreams can begin to be fulfilled.

Israeli Jews may be in denial about how frustratingly far we are from a messianic perfection, and may give insufficient attention to the most exasperating and discouraging aspects of life here. But more and more American Jews focus on nothing else.

Aviezer Ravitzky asked a decade ago, "Can a Holy Land also be a homeland?" I think American Jews can remind Israeli Jews that Israel is supposed to be, after all, a holy land, that there needs to be progress on goals that are redemptive and transformative, that there is an urgency in working toward the ideal.

American Jews need to be able to live with an Israel that isn’t there yet, and to acknowledge that even in the absence of the redemptive, there is something powerful and significant in what Israel has accomplished in 70 years.

In 1948, Mordecai Kaplan, wrote in The Future of the American Jew, that "Until Jews realize that the Jewish problem in the Diaspora and the Jewish problem in Eretz Israel are one, they are running away from reality and defeating their own purpose." 

A marriage between us might feel a bit forced, more like an arranged marriage where we hope that love will follow. But left to our own devices, the kind of Jewish life most needed for the 21st century is not to be found on our own. Only together can we run toward reality and purpose.

Rabbi Leon A. Morris is the President of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and the first alumnus to head the organization. Twitter: @rabbileonmorris