Jerusalem — It was the put-down of American Jews heard from Jericho (Long Island, that is) to Jerusalem. And it came on the eve of Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, no less, and at a time when Israel-diaspora relations are increasingly tense.
During a TV interview in Jaffa last Wednesday, Israeli Knesset member Tzipi Hotovely, who has a reputation as a firebrand from the right, said that American Jews lead “convenient” lives compared to Israelis since few of them serve in the army and they don’t live under the threat of rocket fire.
This is the same Hotovely who last month riled up an audience at the Israeli-American Council’s annual conference in Washington by suggesting that fellow legislator Merav Michaeli, a left-winger, wasn’t religious enough. That put-down — “Merav, when was the last time you prayed at the Kotel?” — came in a discussion about the Western Wall egalitarian prayer controversy, an issue that has driven a huge wedge between Israel’s right-wing ruling coalition and Reform and Conservative Jews in America.
When Israelis heard what Hotovely, who is a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party, said, some applauded for putting American Jews, many of whom are outspoken about Israel’s policies, “in their place.”
Many others cringed. Not necessarily because they thought the lawmaker’s statements were factually incorrect, but because, as a shopper in a Jerusalem mall put it, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
“Tzipi was right. Americans do lead much easier lives than we do,” said Orit Stein, who was seated with her children in the crowded food court of the Malcha mall in Jerusalem. (She was there, ironically, to partake in huge Black Friday sales the day after Thanksgiving, a cultural export from those easy-living Americans.)
“The fact that American parents worry about their 18-year-old kids getting into a good college while we have to worry whether our 18-year-olds will come home alive from the army is just one example. But that doesn’t mean that our elected officials have the right to criticize fellow Jews because they’re more fortunate than we are.”
Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, said Hotovely’s assertion that few American Jews currently serve in the military — though tens of thousands have in the past — was “a simple statement of fact.” So was her assertion that the lack of military experience for most American Jews “complicates the ability of especially young American Jews to understand Israel’s military dilemmas.”
Halevi said the problem with Hotovely’s statement was that it was a critique, not an analysis.
“What right does she have to speak in my name as an Israeli citizen for the sole purpose of humiliating Jews and scoring points? That’s not what I want to see in a government minister. I want to see ministers who take our relationship with American Jewry as a sacred trust, as an increasingly complicated relationship that needs to be nurtured, not dismantled.”
Halevi said that criticizing American Jews’ way of life was not only unjustified but also dangerous for Israel.
“Leaving aside Israel’s spiritual responsibility to world Jewry, nurturing this relationship is crucial to our ability in the long term to defend ourselves in the Middle East.”
Which is not to say that Halevi thinks Israeli Jews bear all the blame for the crisis in U.S.-Israeli Jewish relations.
“I understand Israelis who resent criticism from American Jews about our security policy when they don’t have to live with the consequences of those decisions. But if we’re going to have an honest relationship with American Jews, we need to treat them as partners. That means listening respectfully to their feedback without necessarily committing ourselves to adopting their polices.
Sarah Tuttle-Singer, a blogger and new media editor at The Times of Israel, says Israelis mistakenly believe that American Jews face no major challenges.
“Hotovely is right when she says American Jews don’t live under rocket fire. But they do, however, live under threat of mass shootings. American Jews don’t live under the threat of terror. But they do live under the threat of violent crime.”
Like Halevi, Tuttle-Singer believes that without greater communication, the two communities will continue to drift apart, to the detriment of both.
“What needs to happen is both communities need to meet each other and remember our shared values, and look for ways to support each other. We have to find ways for American Jews and Israelis to find common ground, whether it’s supporting the disenfranchised in both communities, or finding ways to work together on a startup,” she said. “We have to meet each other and foster a real connection that has meaning for both communities. We need to know one another as equals.”
Remarks like Hotovely’s, she said, reinforce American Jews’ feeling that Israelis want to take more than they want to give.
On top of the bitter controversy over egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, “the last thing the Israel-American Jewish relationship needs is Israel’s top diplomat speaking so unfairly and insensitively,” Tuttle-Singer said.
Steven M. Cohen, a research fellow at Hebrew Union College and an expert in contemporary Jewry, said Hotovely represents a strain of Zionism that “dismisses” diaspora Jews as “spineless,” “self-hating” and “powerless.”
“This is not only a negation of the diaspora, but of the Jews of the diaspora. Hotovely was sharing these feelings of superiority, which reflect 100 years of Zionist thinking. The idealism of building a Jewish homeland carries with it an affinity for dismissing the value of Jewish life in the diaspora.”
Cohen said it isn’t surprising that Israelis and American Jews are so very different.
“First of all, Israel is a sovereign country while diaspora Jews live in communities. Israeli Jews feel they are surrounded by gentiles who want to kill them, while American Jews are surrounded by gentiles who, for the most part, actually love them.”
Asked about growing anti-Semitism, Cohen noted that most American Jews are married to non-Jews and that most non-Orthodox Jews under the age of 30 have one non-Jewish parent.
“That means they have non-Jewish grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. [Gentiles] love us and we love them,” and therefore don’t see them as a threat.
Rather than savoring the diversity of world Jewry, “many Israelis are rejecting it, to their detriment,” Cohen said.
Lisa Barkan-Matitya, founder and director of Jerusalem Village, an organization that offers welcoming programming to the city’s young newcomers, believes Israelis do, in fact, embrace Jewish diversity.
“American Jews need to hear where Israelis are coming from and to understand that Israelis do care. People here invite Birthright kids into their homes. They want to get to know them and for them to know us.”
Barkan-Matitya said American and Israeli Jews need to take a page from the playbook of happily married couples.
“A husband and wife that have a great relationship have uncomfortable conversations, and it’s OK,” she said. “At the end of the day, they find common ground and respect their differences.”
Read our editorial on Hotovely’s comments here.