Why Israeli And American Jews Still Need Each Other


“The relationship between Israel and American Jewry is nearing a dead end.” This ominous prognosis was penned not by a millennial blogger writing from Brooklyn or San Francisco in recent months, but by Israeli Member of Knesset Eliezer Livneh. He was writing in 1965.

Livneh had undertaken a tour of Jewish American communities, and set out his troubled observations in a booklet entitled “American Jewry – an Israeli Challenge”.

It seems fairly plain that Livneh’s grim prophecy has proven false. The degree of solidarity, synergy and cohesiveness between American and Israeli Jews only went from strength to strength. Today too, one can find reasons to qualify the predictions of an irreversible rift or drifting-apart of Jews in Israel and in America. For starters, we as a people are generically quick to cry gevalt. Moreover, many who declare that “the end is nigh”, citing their own disillusionment with Israel as an example, can be found to overstate the degree to which they themselves had ever been enamored of the Jewish state.

Further, many of the circumspect attitudes which seem to be directed at Israel are part of a wider tendency among young Americans to be suspicious of established institutions of any kind, of “tribalism” and of the wielding of political and especially military power by anyone.

And yet, it would be unwise to sound the all-clear and pretend that all is well.

Last week I had the privilege of hearing a wealth of very different Jewish voices expressing themselves on this and other topics at a conference sponsored by The Jewish Week, aptly named The Conversation. This gathering provided an increasingly rare occasion for sincere, personal and authentic perspectives to be shared in a respectful and constructive setting.

The voices I heard with regard to the Israel-Diaspora question were those of anger, fear, frustration and incomprehension, but also those of hope, compassion and above all, a deep determination to do whatever it takes to protect the unity of the Jewish People. A question for which I sought answers was, how did it come about that we unquestioningly accept the assumption that the degree of attachment of young American Jews to Israel is contingent on the degree to which their political views align with those of the Israeli government?

My friends in the Indian-American community do not think of their bonds to India as a function of their political agreement with its ruling party. My friends in the Latino community do not see their bonds to Latin America as a function of their political agreement with the current governments in Latin American countries. So where did we go wrong to reach the point of putting politics over peoplehood?

I was raised to think of the Jewish People as an extended family and I was inculcated with the principle of “my family – right or wrong.” Yet this principle is today widely misunderstood. It does not mean “my family is always right.” Rather, it means, whether I believe it to be right or to be wrong, it will always be my family. This is the attitude we must seek to establish as the basis for the complicated relationship between Israel and American Jewry.

"Israeli and American Jews must each be more attentive to the genuine frustrations of the other."

In my discussions last week, a number of helpful thoughts were put forward to further this end. First, Israeli and American Jews, must each be more attentive to the genuine frustrations of the other. For example, the wider Israeli public is not sufficiently sensitized to how strongly many American Jews feel about issues of religious pluralism in Israel. Even Israelis who are not affected directly by this issue should be capable of thinking of these problems as their own. And many Americans Jews seem unaware of just how offensive, unfair and unreasonable it is towards Israelis to accuse them of not wanting peace with the Palestinians. One can and should argue about the ways peace can or cannot be achieved, but one should be able to do so without impugning the motives of those with whom one disagrees.

One promising antidote that was suggested was the humanizing effect of direct face to face interaction. At all ages, for all persuasions and in every possible occasion, we must aspire to increase the personal interaction between Israeli and American Jews. The communities of Israelis living in America could have an important role to play in this regard. With increasing frequency, I hear appealing suggestions of expanding visits of American Jews to Israel to include participation in gap year leadership academies (mechinot) as well as musical, scientific, environmental and entrepreneurial programs. Virtually anything a young American Jew feels passionate about can serve as a platform for engaging with Israel. No less important, there is a rising awareness of the need for a “reverse Birthright” program bringing young Israelis – religious and secular, liberal and conservative, Jewish and Arab – for a first-hand encounter with the Jewish American experience. National solidarity is stronger and more genuine when the person we are called upon to share it with has a name, a face and a personality.

Another imperative is to put front and center the immensely rich civilizational heritage which unites us. In his essay from 1965, MK Livneh wrote: “Judaism is not a religion in the Western-Christian sense, but a comprehensive civilization encompassing sacred and profane, Torah and ethics and it is realized in the life of an inclusive society”. Unlike his prediction of impending doom, these lines continue to ring true even five decades later. It is above all the younger generation of Jews in the US and in Israel who are faced with the challenge of synthesizing this heritage to be relevant to their lives and of deriving from it an answer to the question of what it means to be Jewish in today’s world. It would be the height of folly for Jews in Israel, America and elsewhere to each take on this challenge separately. It is an endeavor equally relevant and equally indispensable for Jews the world over, and thus Jews the world over must engage in it together.

Shimon Mercer-Wood is the spokesperson and Consul for Media Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York.