Is Israel the Stepchild of American Jews?
by Gad Nahshon
It is a shocking story. It is certainly the epitome of the state of the new American Jewish attitude toward Israel. It also expresses the extreme diversity of the American Jewish community.
This story took place in October 1999, when the United Jewish Communities (UJA), the Council of Jewish Federation, and the United Israel Appeal tried to award the murderer, Yasser Arafat, the leader of the P.L.O., its prestigious Isaiah Award!
Today there are a million people who would like to take back the Nobel Prize for Peace from this enemy, which is the irony of history. It is no secret that, in the last twenty years, the Israel-America Jewish 'love affair' or 'honeymoon' is dead. It is a sort of 'paradise lost.'
Israel lost its state of centrality and Jews here changed their posture from 'defense' to 'offense.' Many historical taboos are dead today. Israel was pushed to the margin of this 'superman' community. We have to face a process of 'erosion', an intensive process of de-Israelization. Jews who like to attack Israel or, for many reasons decrease the linkage to Israel, have enjoyed a state of legitimization. It is often just honor to attack Israel as a country and to hell with her 'siege', to hell with her problems of survival. Jews here believe that the focus should be: The survival of American Jewry, here. Of course, in the age of Pax Americana, we must view this Jewry as Israel's strategically. There is the 'triangular complex' or: the U.S.-American-Jewry-Israel relationship and 'feedbacks.'
The de-Israelization also expresses erosion of our pro-Israeli camp, Jews and Gentiles alike. Also, an erosion of resources: manpower, aliyah, demographics, donations, investments, economic support, and even the foreign aid to Israel. It is clear that the 'big brother' (the various administrations, the State Department) do measure the state of support for Israel inside this community. Indeed the White House would like to know what Jews think about, its policies in the Middle-East. This process of de-Israelization was expressed in the field of tourism when, in the summer of 2000, Jews cancelled their visits to Israel and the leader of the reform movement called on them to do it, a shocking announcement!
One understands the need to learn about this negative dynamic process inside the Jewish community, and naturally in this country. Jews can guarantee Israel's survival if they stop this process of erosion and do understand how fragile the survival of Israel is today.
Steven T. Rosenthal, a professor of history from the University of Hartford, decided to challenge the following question: What are the reasons which stimulate the erosion of the Israeli-American Jewish 'honeymoon,' what has triggered the process of de-Israelization? Why do Jews tend to legitimize attacks or criticism of Israel, openly? Why do Jews dismantle taboos and 'revolt' against Israel's status of 'centrality' in the Jewish world?
Dr. Rosenthal published the first scholarly research on this issue. It is a pioneer work which is based on secondary sources. It is not based on oral history. The book, Irreconcilable Differences? The Waning of the American-Jewish Love Affair With Israel (Brandeis University Press, Hanover 2001). The book is a must for everyone who cares about the survival and well-being of Israel. Dr. Rosenthal discusses this process of erosion in detail, from the establishment of Israel in 1948 to Ehud Barak and the post-Zionists as well.
But as many pioneer works, Dr. Rosenthal failed to interview many personalities who live here or in Israel. He should! There are archives in Israel which have material on this issue. Also, he declined to discuss the other side of the coin: Israel or the Israeli attitude to Jews, to America. Should we blame Israel's apathy or lack of professional response to this negative challenge of Jews in America? Does Israel ignore this process? What has been done to combat this terrible phenomenon?
Dr. Rosenthal also omitted a discussion of the state of the so-called 'Zionist Establishment' in this country. Where is the Zionist challenge here? Dr. Rosenthal omitted another topic of discussion - the rising of a new intellectual/spiritual Jewish center in this country. This is a spiritual center which is based on authentic, independent, intellectual, religious movements. Israel is out, not in, this picture. It is an American autonomy world, or in Hebrew: 'Mercaz Rokhani.' Perhaps it is a new American civil religion in the making.
Its sponsors argue boldly:
1. We do not need Israel. We do not need its creativity; 2.
We can and should teach Israel's many lessons in the field of Judaism or social values, such as the need for religious pluralism. Israel lost its centrality, or Jewish superiority, as well. These leaders even try to marginalize Israel's intellectual achievements, belittle its spiritual products. Jerusalem lost in the battle to Washington, D.C. or New York, or Los-Angeles, or to Brandeis University, as well.
But it is clear that Dr. Rosenthal deserves praise for this first original scholarly research. He does challenge the main issue and he clearly expresses his belief that we should never cut links with Israel. Israel is still an important asset for the American Jewish community. Israel must be in the heart of every Jew or Gentile, as well.
Dr. Rosenthal argues that the following are the reasons which have caused the loss of this 'love affair:
1. The establishment of an American consensus as to the relationship with Israel. Its first serious problem had to do with Israel's war in Lebanon in 1981. Indeed it also had to do with May, 1977 when the Likud and Menachem Begin first came to power;
2. Pollard Affair - Nov. 21, 1985;
3. The first Intifada - Dec. 1987 and its ramifications here and in Israel;
4. Pearl of Peace: The struggle for peace, Yitzhak Rabin and the opposition in Israel and here - 1990's;
5. "Who is a Jew/" The issue of state-religion relations in Israel and its ramifications here, the revolt of the Reform and the Conservative movements. It started in 1990 when Yitzhak Shamir was the Prime Minister. The Jews here defined their struggle as 'Operation Equality' (religious pluralism).
Dr. Rosenthal provides the reader with an illuminating account. Rosenthal writes that Israelis do not understand the most important element, or the 'revolution': No longer tied to the notion of Israel's perfection or needed such an illusion to buttress their own sense of Jewishness, American Jews are now able to perceive Israel, warts and all and we are able to offer the positive and constructive criticism it needs. American Jews, therefore, reached a phase of political maturity. Israelis failed to figure out, he argues, that their religion of liberalism means to also condemn Israel's relations with the Palestinian people. Israelis also do not understand that today: "The new challenge for American Jews is not how to support an increasingly secure Israel but formulating a Jewish response to America's open society.
Is Israel's security in very good shape? Indeed: "It is by developing precisely the political and social characteristics that Israelis seem to lack, that American Jews built their Zion in America," Rosenthal writes. Of course, assimilation, apathy, mixed-marriages, and the rise of the unaffiliated Jew will challenge in the 21st century this notion of continuity. But Rosenthal believes that American Jews will survive because they adopted the ideals of the American Revolution.
Dr. Rosenthal is also a pessimist. The differences between Israel and Jews are irreconcilable and beyond repair. The bridges have collapsed. One cannot revive the past of Israel's superiority or centrality. Israel must challenge an un-homogenous Jewry. To attack or to be critical of Israel became a legitimate act. The 'taboos' were dismantled never to come back. Many Jewish peace lobbies became the darlings of many Jews.
Rosenthal remarks: "I believe that within this new atmosphere of diversity, the mass of American Jews must assert their values independent of Israeli direction. American Jews have transformed themselves from an inert, well meaning mass whose reflexive support could be manipulated by Israeli government to a new position of assertiveness within world Jewish affairs. Now by demanding and exercising partnership with the Jewish state, they can help determine Israel's future as well as their own."
Israel lost its paradise but it is too much to ask from Israel to give Jews in the Diaspora (tefutsot) the right to dictate from abroad its future survival. There are Jews in many other countries with their own history. Should we let them dictate to Israel about its survival and wars? Of course, Israel needs allies, Israel needs strategic assets, Jews and Gentiles alike. But too much diversity, too many attacks on Israel from Jews will also alienate those potential Gentiles abroad who are willing to support Israel and do care like Jews about its survival as a state, as a democracy, as a liberal entity, in the midst of Muslim fundamentalism and Arab dictatorships. Israel made mistakes. Israel made mistakes as to its relations with American Jewry. Israel is blind as to the new changes here but to define its struggle to mobilize support from Jews as a way of manipulation is a shameful accusation made by Dr. Rosenthal. We should stress that many, many great American Jews love Israel and work for Israel's well-being. Israel is still in the heart of millions of Jews in America. There is a huge tribe of Jewish volunteers. There are many great pro-Israeli organizations. There is a strong pro-Israel camp, but we must not ignore the new dangerous process of de-Israelization and that of legitimization of its irresponsible critics.
Dr. Rosenthal's book is also a call for a new dialogue between Jews and Israelis. There is a different approach to this topic or agenda between the Jewish establishment and the Jewish masses. We do not like to see a revival of ideas which were promoted from 1943 to 1968 by the Council for Judaism and its leader, Rabbi Almer Berger. We hate to see Jews becoming anti-Zionist or post-Zionist as well. Jews and Israelis should discuss this issue in order to stop this negative development inside the American Jewish community.
We are on the verge of a disaster but we still can build new bridges and lines of communication. We still are brothers and sisters under the Jewish skin. This erosion, this de-Israelization process is a luxury from a Jewish survival point of view. Although Dr. Rosenthal discusses many aspects of his thesis he does not, for example, trace the attitude to Israel since 1948 of the conservative or the reform movement or the feedbacks between the Israeli left (peace camp) and the American Jewish left which challenged Israel's consensus and hegemony as early as 1973: It was the left organization 'Brera' (choice) which declared a revolt against Israel and decided to have a connection with the P.L.O.!
As to aspects of the erosion, Dr. Rosenthal forgot the issue of Noshrim, those Russian (Soviet) Jews who immigrated to the U.S. and not to Israel. America then declared: 'To hell with Zionism and Aliyah, we believe in the freedom of choice."
Dr. Rosenthal indeed documents the revolt of the peace camp against the Israeli official policies. The taboo of supporting the Israeli government policies was dismantled since 1973 after the Yom Kippur war when Jews saw that Israel was not a super-power. This was the timing of the American 'Heresy': conflicts with Israel. Later Jews such as Philip Klotsnik or organizations such as the New Jewish Agenda, and the New Israel Fund, called on Israel unilaterally to evacuate the West Bank and Gaza. They all believed that Arafat or the Arabs really do recognize the Israeli right to exist. They actually said what the State Department liked Israel then to do. Leaders of 'Peace Now' in America called on Jews to help the State Department to put pressure on Israel. Arafat and his terrorists were viewed as just innocent victims of the Israeli aggression... the coming of the first Intifada in Dec. 1987, contributed to the intensity of the crisis with Israel. And leaders such as Dr. Ismar Shorcsh, J.T.'s president, declared that the P.L.O. should have a state and we should support the idea of 'Land for Peace' rather than 'Peace for Peace.' The P.L.O. revolt, writes Rosenthal, created: "a permissibility of American Jewish dissent." The Pollard Affairs also damaged Israel's prestige and annoyed many American Jews.
But the climax of the American-Jewish conflict with Israel was in 1990: 'Who is a Jew?' It was a mass revolt. 1800 synagogues, reform and conservative, closed their gates to Israelis. Many Jews said that they will not donate to the U.J.A. Famous leaders such as Rabbi Alexander Shindler declared: "We will not agree to be second class Jews." They ask Israel to recognize by law the concept of religious pluralism. They ask for equality with Israel's orthodox hegemony. (No separation of State and religion in Israel!)
Dr. Rosenthal also writes that perhaps the dismantling of the Cold War pushed Jews to the assumption that Israel is a strong country. There is not a situation of emergency. Indeed, its share in the U.J.A.'s donations decreased from 66% in 1980 to 33% today.
Jews are building their Zion in America. Perhaps the old 'love affair' was built on an illusion. Jews do not make aliyah in masses. (Yearly average: 1400-2000 olim). Jews decline to visit Israel. (Only 25% did visit Israel!) One Rabbi once declared: "I am not crypto-Israeli." Truly, Israelis often tend to view Jews here as potential Israeli soldiers.
Today, more than anytime in history, Jews here feel like "100% Americans". It is time for Israel to assess its relationship with Jews in this country. We must have a new consensus, a new brotherhood. We are playing for time because Jews are leaving us to jump into the melting pot.
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