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Op-Ed: Education is key in a changing U.S. Jews-Israel relationship

WALTHAM, Mass. (JTA) — The relationship between American and Israeli Jews is changing. For most of Israel’s history, the American Jewish community was larger, wealthier and more powerful than its “poor cousin” in the Middle East, but now the differences between the two communities have greatly narrowed. More Jews are living in Greater Tel Aviv than in Greater New York, and Israel, like the United States, is one of the world’s most developed nations.

In addition, funds from Israel now strengthen the American Jewish community through programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel. Charitable funds no longer flow exclusively in the other direction.

The political relationship between the two communities is likewise changing. Gone are the days when major American Jewish organizations, and the bulk of their members, took their cue from the government of Israel and supported its policies reflexively. Thanks to the Internet, American Jews now hear a full range of voices from Israel. As a result, the spectrum of American Jewish opinion concerning Israel increasingly mirrors the spectrum of opinion within Israel itself.

Given these and other changes, the relationship between the world’s two major Jewish communities is in need of recalibration. To this end, much attention has been paid over the past few years to improving American Jews’ understanding of Israel. In 2008-09, according to a recent Brandeis University study, some 548 courses on campuses across the United States focused on Israel, seeking to improve students’ knowledge of the subject. Centers for Israel studies on American campuses also have proliferated.

By contrast, Israelis learn almost nothing about American Jewry. Not one significant academic center for the study of American Jewish life exists in the State of Israel, and university-based courses on the American Jewish community are few and far between. At the high school level, the study of American Jewish life is equally neglected.

As a result, the understanding of American Jewish life on the part of Israelis is quite limited. They know next to nothing about the deepest issues upon which Israelis and American Jews agree and disagree. They cannot comprehend what church-state separation means and how pluralism operates in the American context. Many fail to understand their American cousins at all.

All Israelis, political leaders in particular, would benefit from knowing more about American Jewish life. The more American Jews and Israelis learn about one another, the better their future relationship will be.

Israelis, including members of Knesset, too often only look inward at Israeli society when legislating and voting on matters that ultimately impact upon American Jewry. Even if their first responsibility is to the citizens they represent and the sovereign state they serve, they would do well to consider how the American Jewish community, too, is affected by their choices.

If every measure considered by the Knesset carried a “Diaspora impact statement” (analogous to our environmental impact statements), consciousness of how Israel’s actions impact upon world Jewry would be heightened.

Six Israeli Knesset members are visiting Boston and New York as part of a program organized by Brandeis University and the Ruderman Foundation to help Israeli leaders gain new perspectives on American Jewish life and on the changing relationship between their country and the American Jewish community. They are meeting with religious figures, community leaders and private citizens.

By learning more about the American Jewish community, we hope they will come to better appreciate how their actions — such as Knesset efforts to legally define Jewishness for the purposes of marriage or aliyah, Israel’s military actions and how the Foreign Ministry reacts to democratic uprisings in the Arab world — impact upon American Jews and Jews worldwide.

Educating Israel’s political leaders about the American Jewish community should be the start of a larger effort aimed at teaching Israelis as much about American Jews as the latter learn about them.

A new day is dawning in the relationship between American Jews and Israel. The image of wealthy American Jews providing charity to their struggling Israeli cousins is fading fast. More than ever, each community now needs to understand how its interests are bound up with that of the other.

Just as American Jews are becoming better educated about Israel, the time has come for Israelis to learn more about the American Jewish community and their inextricable relationship to it.

(Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which has offices in Boston and Rehovot, Israel.)

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