Understanding Can Bridge U.S.-Israeli Jewish Chasm
OpinionGuest Column

Understanding Can Bridge U.S.-Israeli Jewish Chasm

Israel is both glue for American Jews and a source of internal friction.

Ken Stein

Ken Stein, an Emory professor of modern Israeli history, is the president of the Center for Israel Education (www.israeled.org) and leads Emory’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel.

Four out of every five Jews in the world live in the United States or Israel: 6.3 million in Israel, 6.7 million in the United States.

According to Pew Research Center studies, seven in 10 American Jews feel attached or very attached to Israel. Over its 70 years, Israel has evolved into being a religion for American Jews. Israel connects Jews into a collective worldwide family.

After three years of listening to scholars and practitioners engage in the Lisa and Michael Leffell Foundation-supported seminars on “Israel’s Impact on American Jewish Identity,” I have no doubt that Israel has had a profound, positive impact on American Jewish cultural, religious, political and intellectual life.

Israel and Israeli topics provide cement for American Jewish identity. American Jews have taken pride in Israel’s accomplishments. Most American Jewish congregations and national Jewish organizations have Israel components. They include trips and missions, support for educational and social activities in Israel, and a variety of teen and adult Israel educational content.

Expatriate Israelis are deeply involved in teaching Hebrew to our children, while other Israelis in Jewish camps and on American campuses provide exposure to Israel, its people and its problems.

And yet Israel and Israel-related topics often create disagreement within congregations and national Jewish organizations.

Sometimes, if a speaker is invited by the leadership of a national Jewish organization, its nationwide offices or a congregation to make presentations on Israel-related topics, criticism ensues for the choice of speakers because the “wrong” views are being presented.

If a national Jewish organization takes a public position on some issue central to Israel and its leader(ship), it may be criticized for being too strident, too cautious or too silent.

Sometimes Jewish organizations work diligently to change or endorse American policies toward an issue sensitive to Israel. Whether the organization fails or succeeds, its supporters are pleased or disgruntled, as the case may be.

At all costs, congregations and organizations do not want members leaving or withdrawing their support. In August, one rabbi told me in Washington: “It is better for me not to speak about Israel at all from the pulpit. Rather than raise anyone’s ire, I don’t talk about it much. Besides, some people come to services to get away from the noise of American politics.”

Some American Jews fiercely believe that they know how Israel should behave. Some are native Israelis; others have spent extended time or have family there. Most do not vote in Israel, so they use organizational and congregational affiliations to express their views.

Others write blogs, are on Twitter or Facebook, or send endless emails. Those commenting about Israel want its political leaders to reflect their personal positions. These perspectives stretch across the spectrum from Orthodox to agnostic and from progressive and liberal to conservative to anti-Zionist.

Do American Jews take sufficiently into account that our political and strategic environment is not the one in which Israelis live? Do American Jews know what Israelis want and need?

The two Jewish populations are different in many ways.

Jews in Israel are a majority (80 percent); in the United States, they are just 2 percent of the population.

Jews in Israel express their Jewishness by being Israeli, knowing the country, serving in the army and speaking Hebrew; American Jews, if they show their Jewishness, affiliate with organizations and congregations. Israeli Jews do not identify their Jewishness with synagogues and congregations, and there are more telling differences.

Again, according to Pew Center studies on an Israeli political spectrum, 92 percent of Israeli Jews consider themselves in the center or on the right, while 78 percent of American Jews identify with the center or the political left.

Yawning gaps exist between Israeli Jews and American Jews on what are perceived as Israel’s long-term problems: 66 percent of Israelis and only 38 percent of American Jews put security as Israel’s highest priority, while 39 percent of Israelis and only 1 percent of Americans say economic issues are most important for Israelis.

In a poll undertaken by the Israel Democracy Institute in October, Israeli Jews revealed their personal priorities: At the top of the list, 26.5 percent noted reducing tensions in Israeli society, followed by 22.6 percent for improving the education system. Only 11.5 percent said that signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians was a top priority.

While more than half of Israeli Jews polled the past several years would like an agreement with the Palestinians, a great majority have said it is not likely. Among Israeli Jews, 42 percent say settlements help security, while only 17 percent of American Jews believe that is the case.

Stark differences of opinion between American Jews and Israeli Jews exist about who they are and what they want and need. Expressing our opinions about Israel-related issues is highly appropriate, as it is Israelis’ right in this “family” to praise and criticize us.

Regrettably, polarization in American politics has entered Jewish communal life, along with the premise that everything is a zero-sum game. Sometimes managing an issue is just as important as winning.

As a tiny minority in the United States, where relationships with the majority will always matter, a toxic Jewish communal life is not in our interest as American Jews and/or as Jewish Americans. Patience about and with Israel is required.

At 70, Israel is not perfect. It remains unfinished. And yet, by any measure, it is doing pretty well for itself and for us.

Ken Stein is the president of the Center for Israel Education (www.israeled.org).

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