Israel and American Jews

Why the fuss about the Israeli attempt to reach out to diasporic Israelis?
American Jews took offense. They felt the marketing strategy painted them as both disconnected from Israel and bad for Israelis. Pardon my obtuseness–and some would say my classical Zionist mentality–but why the fuss? How is this not true?
Israelis should worry about yeridah; though the Start-Up Nation gurus extoll “portable Israel” as if its the Information Age’s equivalent of the Torah as a portable Jewish homeland, they’re hardly the same. Israel is an actual place, a state and society, whose very existence depends not just on security matters, but its ability to remain demographically viable. So is the reality of a large Israeli diaspora worrisome? How can it not be? That’s not to mention certain specific sectors like the academy, where the brain drain worsens daily.
Ok, I hear you say, that may be true, but why the crude, mawkish commercials?
Anyone who works in Jewish life knows that Israelis here in the states can be hard to reach. Many of them behave like all immigrants; they instinctively gravitate to their like. That’s fine. But their Jewishness, however complex and complicated in Israel, remains inextricably tied to Israel: its civic religion, its institutions, etc. Since little or none of that exists in diaspora, why are we surprised when many “non-religious” Israelis struggle to find their place in American Jewish life.
Finally, does anyone really believe that being here, where high school kids focus more on Stanley Kaplan than on deciding which unit one will be going to in the army, makes no impact on an Israeli’s connection to Israel? Of course it does. These are two radically different societies, in spite of unceasing heavy-handed attempts to promote their congruence. That may be true compared to the strangeness of Islamic and or Arabic states, but that’s really not the point.
So too with wounded feelings of American Jews that they feel that Israelis depreciate American Jewish connection to Israel. How many American Jews visit Israel? How many make aliyah? How many would like their kids to live there? How many–whether because of assimilation or genuine philosophical struggling–feel at least somewhat estranged from an ethnic Jewishness that their parents and grandparents embraced, centered on peoplehood tropes like the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel? As wonderful as AIPAC Policy Conference is, most American Jewry is not there, neither in body nor in spirit. Yes they want Israel to exist, but in what way is it actually consequential in their lives?
The bottom line is that these are two different Jewish communities, for better and for worse. One invented off of a religious paradigm borne out of Protestantism and the Enlightenment; the other romantically rebelled and internalized the need for a nation-state of its own for the sake of political and cultural renewal. Each benefits the other; each damages the other. Let’s actually talk about this, rather than hunkering down and taking offense when the other acts for its own benefit. Israel should continue to work to create or recreate strong connections between the motherland and its wandering Jews, and American Jews should understand that without defensiveness. And Israelis should learn to appreciate the vitality and diversity that has marked American religion generally, and American Jewishness in its own more modest way.

Founder and Executive Director, Tzion; Teacher and Scholar, Gann Academy

Posted in American Jews, Israel, My View Tagged with: , , , ,
2 comments on “Israel and American Jews
  1. Shaul Magid says:

    David, I don;t disagree with your assessment of American Jewry. Or of the right of a one country to make a case why their ex-pays return home. But I think there is something more dubious, maybe even sinister. about this campaign. It has to do with the inability of Israel to abandon its "negation of the Diaspora" mentality. To admit that Ben Gurion was wrong. The substance of the ads were not only "it's better in Israel" but "you can't be 'Jewish' in America (i.e. Christan v Hanukkah)." On the other hand, its also making Israeliness a kind of civil religion. Israel has Judaism and Israeliness all confused. It wants both without the price of either. I think this was a moment when the Israeli "subconscious" rose to the surface and it is disturbing. Not only because of how it views the Diaspora, but equally because of how it views itself. In some macabre way, the Israel campaign presents American as the "shiksa." Good for practice maybe but not really fit to marry. It is not what they did, but how they did it. And what that shows, overtly and covertly.

  2. David Starr says:

    I write these things so I can talk to my friends:) So Shaul thank you for responding. I suspect we're going to have to agree to disagree, though I'm guessing that we agree on more than we disagree. We probably agree that each community needs to develop an ethic of constructive self-criticism that will make an honest relationship more possible. As with any relationship neediness breeds heightened vulnerability and sensitivity and negativity around one's shortcomings. Oh well.
    But I guess I would say that part of being honest is maybe getting to the place where one can say: "I respect you, love you, etc." but yes I think my way of life is better than yours, and I'm not prepared both in principle but also in the spirit of not condescending to say that openly to you." In the abstract I just don't get why that's not ok. We're all triumphalists at some level and I think it's silly to pretend otherwise. Over a nice falafel in Jerusalem we can argue about the substantive merits of the Israeli claim, but it's hard to imagine Zionism without that redemptive mentality.

View or download my professional vita.
[David] has a brilliant mind; he is a scholar of great range and depth; he is a deeply devoted father and husband; his outstanding abilities at organization are manifest in the splendid Me'ah Program he created and fostered; he is a forceful and moving orator; he is a man of both compassion and commitment; he is a teacher who fortifies and inspires; he is a natural leader; and his contribution to the Jewish community is legendary.
Sacvan Bercovitch, Powell M. Cabot Research Professor of American Literature, Harvard University

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