NEW YORK (May. 4)
Americans have enthusiastically embraced Israel as the Jewish state celebrated its 50th year as an independent nation.
From cultural events featuring some of Israel’s performing artists — to public celebrations in cities across the country, to extensive media coverage – – Israel this year has received the kind of attention that few countries get when marking 50 years of independence.
An outpouring of support for Israel can naturally be expected from American Jews, but the active involvement of Americans who are not Jewish in the broad range of activities prompts the question: Why so much interest?
“This phenomenon reconfirms how interested people are in Israel. It’s a chance to look back and look forward,” said Steven Spiegel, a professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles who specializes in U.S.- Israel relations.
According to a national survey conducted by The New York Times, 57 percent of Americans said they have a generally favorable opinion of Israel. Some 76 percent believe the United States has a vital interest in Israel, while 15 percent do not, according to the poll, which the Times published last week, just days before Israelis celebrated Independence Day.
The Times was one of several major dailies across the country that ran a special series, in conjunction with Israel’s jubilee, that analyzed how far Israel has come in its brief history, as well as the turmoils, domestic and foreign, that still trouble the small nation.
“Israel is different than other countries. It was created at a specific time in history for a specific reason,” said Andrew Rosenthal, the Times’ foreign editor.
“The establishment of the state of Israel in the middle of this century was a major event,” said Rosenthal. “The question of what will happen to Israel” has been a concern since the state’s creation.
As Israelis marked their jubilee on April 30, the day of independence according to the Hebrew calendar, Americans also gathered to join in the celebrations.
In New York, for example, thousands gathered for a midday celebration that also marked the city’s annual Jewish Heritage Week. Elementary school students from public schools and Jewish day schools attended, and the lunchtime entertainment also attracted office workers from nearby offices.
In southern Florida, Norman Braman, chairman of the Israel at 50 celebrations for greater Miami, said, “The community has rallied” in support of the Jewish state.
The Greater Miami Jewish Federation raised $1 million in a special fund-raising campaign for a series of Israel 50 events that began last month and will continue into the summer. “Over half of the funding was from the non-Jewish community,” said Braman.
Jewish communities across the United States have been celebrating the anniversary since last fall by hosting a range of cultural performances by traveling Israeli groups. In some American cities, non-Jews have also expressed public support for the Jewish state, joining in the commemorative events.
Kenneth Stein, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Emory University in Atlanta, said that given the depth of American interest in Israel, he was not surprised that widespread celebrations have been taking place.
“It would be noticeable if no one cared,” said Stein.
For the New York-based Israeli official who has been coordinating the appearances around the country of Israeli musicians, singers and artists, the American focus on Israel this year is not surprising.
“The history of the state of Israel is not just the history of another state,” said Rafi Gamzou, Israel’s consul for cultural affairs. “One has to be short- sighted if he doesn’t get the dimensions of the jubilee.”
The Israeli Consulate in New York has coordinated cultural events featuring Israeli performers throughout the United States. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. hosted six full weeks of cultural events in honor of Israel at 50 and during the summer Lincoln Center in New York will host a festival featuring productions by Israeli theatrical groups.
The commemorations in the United States stand in contrast to the jubilee celebrations in Israel, which have been marred by divisive political debates over how to characterize the nation’s history and religious conflicts. These debates peaked on Independence Day, when a leading Israeli dance troupe canceled its appearance at the main jubilee event because of objections raised by fervently Orthodox leaders.
“There’s more celebration in the United States than in Israel, partly because American Jews have a deep but more vicarious purpose in celebrating,” said Stein. “Israelis have more issues they deal with on a daily basis.”
But there has been some dissent within the ranks of American Jewry.
At least one rabbi organized an alternative celebration.
“We are very supportive of Israel, but we also want to recognize the pain of the Palestinian people and the tragedy that we continue to occupy the West Bank,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, who is the spiritual leader of Beit Tikkun, a Jewish renewal congregation in San Francisco.
“There’s a lot to celebrate,” said Lerner. “Israel has accomplished a lot in 50 years.”
But he also maintained that there is widespread ambivalence among American Jews toward Israel because of such issues as the peace process and religious pluralism. “A very small percentage of Jews will be participating [in Israel at 50 events]. A much larger percent participate in holidays like Chanukah and Passover.”
But for the vast majority of American Jews, unity in support of Israel’s achievements has been the main theme of celebratory events.
“People get focused on the tensions of the moment,” said Spiegel. Israel’s jubilee is “an opportunity to look beyond the moment.”