Film Exploring Israel-diaspora Gap Prompts Soul Searching

In a new documentary film about the emotional journeys of American Jewish visitors to Israel, a young woman named Caryn Aviv takes a tour of the West Bank security fence.

As the camera pans across a line of graffiti on the wall that reads “From the Warsaw Ghetto to Abu Dis Ghetto,” Aviv says she is troubled and perplexed.

“I see a lot of injustice here,” she said in the film, “Eyes Wide Open.”

Following a recent screening in Jerusalem, an American who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s stood at a post-film discussion and asked when, exactly, Israelis and American Jews began to drift apart.

American Jews today have “a fear to commit to Israel,” she said. “That is something we did not have.”

The film casts a spotlight on the often painful question of whether American Jews, who represent the Diaspora’s largest community, are feeling increasingly disconnected from Israel, and if so, why.

If discussions surrounding the film are any gauge, it’s also prompting some soul searching about the Israel-Diaspora gap.

“There is a major gap that is growing between American Jews and Israelis,” said Yoram Peri, head of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society at Tel Aviv University, speaking after the film’s Jerusalem debut.

Like many Israelis, Peri attributes the growing disconnect to the divergent ways Israelis and American Jews view the Jewish state. Whereas many American Jews have an idealistic view of Israel and high moral expectations for its behavior, Israelis see their home in what they see as more realistic terms: an embattled country muddling its way forward, warts and all.

“They see our existence and look for a moral, religious and emotionally deep identity, and are less sensitive to our existential issues,” Peri said of American Jews. “We look at the country as a physical place and less as a spiritual place.”

The statistics show a worrying trend, particularly among younger American Jews, of less emotional attachment to Israel.

A study published last year by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies found that 48 percent of non-Orthodox respondents under the age of 35 agreed that “Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy” and 54 percent were “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.”

In the 2001 U.S. National Jewish Population Survey, 52 percent of those under age 35 said they felt either very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel.

Studies show attachment is usually strongest among Orthodox Jews, who send their children for study-abroad programs in Israel in significant numbers and tend to travel to Israel more than other Jews.

It’s been more than 40 years since Israel’s dramatic victory in the 1967 Six-Day War captivated the imagination of American Jews and propelled a surge of North American aliyah in the years following.

But since the 1980s, incidents like the Sabra and Shatila massacres during the first Lebanon War, the first Palestinian intifada and the Jonathan Pollard spy affair all damaged Israel’s moral stature among Diaspora Jews, says Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University.

Increasing American alienation from Israel has serious political implications for the Jewish state, Rynhold says.

Negative media coverage of Israel, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and American Jews’ witnessing of Israelis’ own rancorous debates about their country have made it “harder now to mobilize American Jewry for Israel politically than it was before,” he said.

Making that point, a Jewish tourist from Michigan says in “Eyes Wide Open,” “I’d love to be non-conflicted about this place, but it’s who I am, trying to figure out what it all means.”

On the flip side, as American Jews have focused their resources on combating assimilation, Israel increasingly has been employed as a tool for strengthening Jewish identity. The Birthright Israel program, which brings young Jews to Israel on free 10-day peer tours of the Jewish state, is the most striking example.

Due to the program’s success, it could soon be that one-third or more of North American Jews will have been to Israel by the time they are 26, says Brandeis University’s Leonard Saxe, who recently co-authored the book “Ten Days of Birthright Israel: A Journey in Young Adult Identity” with Barry Chazan.

These Jews “will have a profound effect on attitudes towards Israel among the American Jewish community,” Saxe said.

Eli Lederhendler, the head of the Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University, says it’s important to view American Jewish involvement in Israel in context. Before 1967, Israel was not part of the identity of most American Jews, he said.

“We’re talking about a bubble in time, not something that has always been there,” he said.

Given that American Jews are mostly of Eastern European descent, and many Israelis come from families that emigrated from North African and Arab countries, it’s no wonder that there are gaps, says Lederhendler, a historian of American Jewry.

“When we talk about American Jews and Israeli Jews understanding each other, we have, perhaps, unreasonably high expectations,” he said.

Perhaps because of those expectations, American Jews sometimes stumble in encountering their Israeli kin, he says.

“There is pain, bewilderment and a bit of talking at cross purposes,” Lederhendler said. “There is an unspoken expectation that we are one people so we should all be the same, but it ain’t necessarily so.”

Paula Weiman-Kelman, the director of “Eyes Wide Open,” says she hopes people will realize it’s OK to live with the contradictions and still engage in Israel.

“It’s really important to me that American Jews have a realistic and loving portrait of Israel,” she said.

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