A great deal has been written lately about the problematic relationship between American Jews (the non-Orthodox majority) and Israel. Everyone wants to get into the act.
I don’t have any magic bullets. But as an American-Israeli I can’t help thinking about it.
From an Israeli perspective, American Jews don’t meet our expectations as Jews. We shouldn’t be surprised. This is because most non-Orthodox American Jews are politically either liberals, progressives, or extreme leftists. For most of them their Judaism is either a very small part of their lives, or is a version of Judaism that barely exists in Israel, Tikkun-Olam Judaism.
When American members of If Not Now or Jewish Voice for Peace seem to echo the propaganda of Israel’s deadly enemies, Israelis are shocked that Jews could speak that way about the only Jewish state. But note that while anti-Israel Jews may add “as a Jew…” to their attacks, for rhetorical purposes, either they are really speaking “as progressives,” or worse, “as Tikkun-Olam Jews,” secular humanists with some vestigial trappings of Judaism.
There are strong political pressures driving American Jews away from Israel as well. Most Jews are Democrats, and strongly supported Barack Obama. Israel began to become a partisan issue in America when the Obama Administration made it so in the fight over the Iran deal. Obama quite deliberately introduced an element of anti-Israel ideology into the conversation, and his surrogates directly accused Jewish lawmakers that opposed it of dual loyalty or warmongering.
Anti-Israel attitudes in the Democratic Party also received a strong boost in 2018 from the election of several new Muslim and far-left members of Congress who are outspokenly anti-Israel.
Republican President Donald Trump has adopted some high-profile pro-Israel policies, such as moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, cutting funding to UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority, and most importantly, taking the US out of the Iranian nuclear deal. For Democrats today, whatever Trump is for, they must oppose, and that, too, is having an effect.
Liberal American Jews are sticking with the Democratic Party, and moving leftward – and away from Israel – along with it. It’s not just politics. Assimilation and intermarriage is increasing, and Jewish identification is decreasing. There is no special reason to oppose the drift of their party. These changes make it likely that the trend pushing American Jews away from Israel will intensify.
Our expectation as Israelis is that as Jews they should feel some connection to Israel. But the reality is that they are no different in this regard from other American liberals, progressives, or extreme leftists. And why should they be?
Just as we don’t know who they are, they don’t know us. Most of their information comes through American media, much of which – for example, the NY Times and NPR, both favorites of liberal-to-leftist Jews – is biased to the point of complete disconnection from reality. They present an image of a powerful nation almost gleefully exploiting and punishing a weak, victimized minority, while ignoring the broader context of threats against Israel. They often reproduce charges made against Israel by her enemies without verification, and don’t make corrections when their stories are proven false.
American Jews are also targeted with disinformation from their own institutions: the Reform Movement in particular has pushed the Israeli Left’s position that Israel is becoming illiberal and theocratic, and has magnified and even provoked crises over issues like mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall and non-Orthodox conversion, in order to pressure the Israeli government into fully recognizing and supporting their movement – something impossible in Israel’s political climate. Nevertheless, the campaign has damaged Israel’s image as a free and liberal society (which it mostly is).
Israel is not America. The language, the security situation, the population (containing 12% Haredim and 20% Arabs), the legal system, and the culture – as much Middle Eastern and African as European, and certainly not North American – mean that many aspects of our society will be unfamiliar to them. Americans who expect, for example, that Israel will provide the degree of freedom of expression to citizens that they have in the USA will be disappointed.
It’s very unlikely that American Jews will abandon the Democratic Party. And it’s equally unlikely that they will make the effort to get to know the state that claims to be their homeland, but that they don’t like very much.
There is one thing that could change all of this. The earthquake that could propel the American Jews into our arms would be the mushrooming of anti-Jewish attitudes in the Democratic party and the broader society. Could it happen? Something similar seems to have occurred in the UK with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. The expression of antisemitism and outright Jew-hatred promoted by Labour-linked political operatives has become worrisome enough that some British Jews have decided to leave the country. Could this happen in the US? I’ve been away too long to feel confident enough to predict that.
Short of that – and I devoutly hope it will remain short of that – we can expect the disconnect, divide, whatever you want to call it, to get worse, not better.
“Can this marriage be saved?” was a popular column in the “Ladies Home Journal” until the magazine’s demise in 2014. It was based on true stories from a family counseling practice. Both sides presented their stories, a counselor made suggestions, and there was a follow-up. My wife says that usually the marriage could be saved by improved communication, but I remember that sometimes the answer was no, it could not.
So I will play the counselor, and here’s my advice: stop criticizing each other so much. Live with your differences. And stay together for the sake of the children.
Political allegiance in the United State is much more akin to allegiance to a particular baseball team. There are only two political teams in the US, unlike in Israel, and you pick your team largely on which team you’ve supported in the past. The Democrat Party leadership is not in my opinion hostile to Israel (though I might exclude Obama here), though there are many hostile activists in the party. You can’t expect Jews to switch allegiance at this point when they have always voted Democrat, as did their parents and grandparents. With regard to American Jewish criticism of Israel, this can largely be differentiated into two groups: 1) Moderate liberals who don’t sound that much different from Yesh Atid or Labor voters, but still passionately support Israel. 2) A small minority of lunatic left supporters of JVP, who are barely Jewish and who in the old days would have been committed members of the Communist Party, slavishly following the party line. I may be naive, but I don’t see much changing in the near future.