Distancing from Israel

Posted on Dec 21, 2011

The American Jewish Committee sponsored a consultation last week on the subject, “Are Young Committed American Jews Distancing from Israel?” I was asked to present my view of the matter—and to address the question of what needs to be done.

I don’t have any doubt that our community has a problem when it comes to engagement with Israel. It has long kept me up nights and now occupies a large number of my waking hours. Like many of us who are active in Jewish life in North America, I love Israel deeply. The very meaning of my life is bound up in Israel’s existence and achievements. I believe the very survival of our community depends on these as well. It pains me to see connections between Israel and North American Jewry—the world’s two largest and most important Jewish populations—attenuating. American Jews can’t do a whole lot to bring peace to the Middle East but we can bring our community closer to Israel. It seems urgent to me that we do so.

Any measures aimed at solving the problem should recognize that it is not limited to young Jews and it is not new. Speaking at a similar symposium sponsored by AJC 20 years ago, I offered observations that in my view stated the obvious. “Attachment to the State of Israel has of late become far more problematic for American Jews—and, if present trends are not reversed, will become still more problematic in decades to come.” American Jews born after the Holocaust and the creation of the State lacked the profound feeling for it held by their elders. Israel is not associated in American Jewish minds exclusively or even primarily with larger-than-life images of a people reborn, a desert reclaimed, the weak grown strong, and the ideal made actual. These images must compete with what is read in the papers and seen on TV: messy complexities exhibited by any real-life society, exacerbated in Israel’s case by the conflict in which Israel has for so long been engaged.

There were and still are other factors making for “distancing,” beginning with the sheer fact of distance—we live here and not there—and the ignorance about Israeli life and culture widespread among most American Jews.

  • The ethos of daily life there is different from ours, beginning with the impact of war and army service.
  • The ethnic composition of Israel is very different from ours.
  • The political system is alien in its workings and of late has tilted right, whereas American Jews remain overwhelmingly centrist or liberal.
  • The religious system conflicts with our notion that the State should stay out of politics; it also discriminates against Reform and Conservative Jews and grants power to Haredim who do not grant the State itself legitimacy and certainly award none to many of us.
  • American Jewish religious thought, aimed in the nature of the case at offering meaning to Jews in the here and now of their lives, has tended to make Israel a marginal concern.
  • Zionism on these shores did not adopt the “negation of Diaspora” that played such a prominent role in Zionist movements elsewhere, and certainly in the thinking of Israeli leaders such as Ben Gurion.

Charles Liebman and Steven M. Cohen analyzed the gap in Jewish orientation and values in their book Two Worlds of Judaism (1990). Here, Judaism is located in the private sphere, there in the public sphere. Jewishness and Judaism are a matter of choice for American Jews. For Israelis, we might say, they come with the territory. American Jews seek universal values in our Judaism (“tikkun ‘olam”). Israelis seek validation of the Jewish distinctiveness they experience (and fight for) daily. Americans stress morality, Israelis the claims of history. I would add one more feature, expressed eloquently 60 years ago by Mordecai Kaplan when he wrote that Zionism needs to be re-imagined so as to secure a permanent place for Jews everywhere. American Jews want Israel to help us feel good about being Jewish as and where we are. The State and its citizens of course have other priorities.

Let me add quickly, lest there be misunderstanding, that a great deal unites North American and Israeli Jews—and, on the level of the larger-than-life story, that unity remains powerful. The “civil religion” of the Jewish people, the fact and creed that moves Jews deeply wherever they live, is “Am Yisrael Chai.” The Jewish people lives! Israel is the embodiment of that life, the most visible, effective, creative, influential, and dynamic Jewish collective that has existed in the world for two millennia. We in North America are blessed beyond measure that we get to be alive at the same time and to participate in its life to whatever extent we choose. Many Jews—largely but not exclusively Orthodox or leaders, lay and professional—take advantage of these opportunities. Millions more are stirred by Israel, proud of its accomplishment, heartsick that it has no peace. I hear testimony of love for Israel wherever I travel on this continent. There are ample signs of connection between the two communities, and in some sectors—e.g., Birthright—these connections are expanding. So the forum at AJC, and my remarks there and here, are not intended to portray the richness of the relationship but to focus in on its problematic aspect and what could be improved.

I think the problem has grown more intractable of late, exacerbating all the factors named above. Add to the mix a sense of hopelessness about the chance of peace anytime soon, which leads those weakly attached to withdraw (and, I think, helps account for the vitriol of much Jewish debate over Israel; the sad fact is that honest conversation has vanished from many of our synagogues and Federations, and even from many of our living rooms). Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman have pointed to another factor of major importance: “mixed married Jews score far lower than in-married or non-married Jews on scale of Israel attachment.”

So the current picture looks like this. Len Saxe and his team of sociologists report that they asked a representative sample of American Jews, “To what extent do you feel a connection to Israel?” Only a third answered, “very much.” 23% said “a little.” 14% said “not at all.” The rest said “somewhat.”

For young Jews the gap is wider still. Cohen and Kelman found that almost 40% of those 65 and older show high attachment, and about 30% of those 50–64 do so. Among those under 50, the figure falls to about 20%, and among those under 35, the percent showing “low attachment” rises to over 40%.

What to do? The major causes of distancing, if I am right, go a lot deeper than Haredi extremism or government policy on settlements, though these do exacerbate matters and, for some, confirm the tendency to distance that would have operated in any case. We need to reverse those dynamics in a big way, with the kind of major (and expensive) effort that Birthright represents. Distancing can only be overcome outside of Orthodox and leadership circles when many more Jews outside Israel are persuaded to embrace their Jewishness, including the substantial element of distinctive religion or culture that we call Judaism. Distance from Israel would decline if more Jews married Jews—or more mixed-married Jews and their spouses engaged in some of the following activities.

We need to address widespread ignorance of Israel on this side of the divide. We need to match the larger-than-life “myth” of Israel with images and facts of what the place, the society, the culture, are actually like as well as the facts of Israeli history and Zionism. A “birthright” program for adults would have huge impact, and follow-up programs for all ages would likewise change the picture dramatically.

We need more extensive opportunities for Jews to work together across geographic boundaries, whether initiatives like Partnership 2000 or volunteer programs for young people. Here and there, at every level, Jews are engaged in the twin tasks of building new sorts of Jewish communities without precedent in our history and revitalizing Judaism by developing forms that our ancestors could barely have imagined (including forms of Orthodoxy suited to a sovereign state and an open Diaspora society). Lay and professional leaders in particular need to study Israel up front and in depth—and learn how to transmit the knowledge and passion they have acquired to their communities. American Jewish young people put off by this or that faction or policy can be teamed with Israeli young people who share their commitments and are working on the ground—with much more at stake—to move Israel in the right direction.

None of this will work unless Israelis, too, accept the importance of the undertaking and labor to build their side of the bridge.

I’ve written on this matter from the perspective of Conservative Judaism and JTS in the latest issue of the movement magazine, CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism. Future blog posts will carry forward the discussion of what needs doing and detail what JTS has been doing lately to address the issue and will be doing in the future. Clear thinking and resolute action on this matter can make an enormous difference. The AJC has my thanks for focusing attention on it again and again—and celebrating the progress that has been made.