Introduction (By David Clayman)

By David Clayman

Jews are supposedly just like other people, only more so. If that is the case, then the Israel-American Jewish relationship may not be unique. A recent article in the New York Times described the problems American blacks encounter when they “make aliya” or visit South Africa. In what seems to be a replay of an all-too-familiar scenario, black Americans who arrive in South Africa with an almost missionary zeal find themselves ignored and even resented by black South Africans. The American olim are accused of being patronizing, of socializing among themselves and of believing that they are owed something because of their efforts to end apartheid. “A lot of the black Americans come here expecting to find their brothers and sisters, but they do not share a common language, culture or background,” the author of the article observes.

Israeli attitudes toward American Jews are similar, but to an even larger degree. Israelis by and large neither appreciate nor respect all that American Jewry has done for Israel. Israelis have even developed the absurd thesis that fundraising and philanthropy serve American Jewry’s need for involvement and solidarity more than Israel’s need for support and assistance. Even more debilitating is the Israeli attitude, described by Professor Ezrahi in the article that follows, of derision for American Jewish leaders whose commitment they think rarely goes beyond their checkbooks.

South Africans and African Americans may not share a common language or cultural background, but they do share a heightened sense of their black skin. Whatever the differences, race and racism are the ties that bind them. Meanwhile, Israelis and American Jews cannot even agree as to the meaning of their Jewishness.

On Israeli identity cards, “Jew” refers to nationality, but in America it usually indicates religious preference. Being Jewish in a sovereign Jewish state cannot be radically different from being a member of a religio-ethnic minority in a multicultural, pluralistic society.

Much of the dissonance in the Israel-American Jewish relationship is ascribed by Professor Ezrahi to what he labels “systematic misunderstandings.” Israel for Israelis fulfills the Zionist promise of normalization of the Jewish condition. In contrast, for Jews in the Diaspora, Israel remains an evocative symbol, a kind of Jewish version of Plato’s ideal state; or, in more vulgar terms, a Jewish Disneyland. Nevertheless, it would be a gross error to assume that American Jews are unaware of the real Israel as a living experience. They may have their eyes turned upward to the heavenly Jerusalem, but many are familiar with and knowledgeable about the earthly Jerusalem as well.

CNN and the Internet, e-mail and the fax, and faster and more easily available travel all combine to provide an avalanche of information and instantaneous news about Israel today and to create a “virtual” reality.

Despite the “systematic misunderstandings,” Jews in America and in Israel until recently did have a shared sense of being Jewish, however they defined the term. Indeed, it was the land, the people and the state of Israel that served as the glue to bind them together. Yet, with the passage of time, this commitment to Israel, which inspired involvement and solidarity, has given way to a vague sense of affinity and even disinterest.

Israelis who ignored, took for granted or were even contemptuous of their American Jewish kin are now concerned that Jewish attachments to Israel are weakening and that American Jews are losing interest in Israel.

American Jewry’s apparent estrangement from Israel stems to a certain degree from the very intimacy of that relationship. As American Jews became involved in Israeli neighborhoods and gained direct access to Israeli elites and policymakers, Israel became less than the simplistic and evocative symbol that fundraisers had made it out to be. American Jews discovered that Israel is not the 51st state of the United States of America.

Unfortunately, the gap between the living reality of Israel and Israel as a mythic symbol has widened in recent years. For example, American Jews, who tend to be more liberal in their politics and their world view, discovered that Israelis do not share their commitment to religious pluralism. Israelis are neither sympathetic to nor understanding of this concept. For most Israelis, Reform and Conservative Judaism are Diaspora (galut) imports that have no validity of their own. These forms of Judaism may be valid for Jews in America, but are not suited to the Israeli scene. Even thoroughly secular Israelis subscribe to the oft-quoted proverb, “the synagogue I don’t go to is Orthodox.”

Why is it that Israelis do not understand, appreciate or particularly care about American Jewry? It is, in part, because Israelis are victims of their Zionist education, which mandated a belief in shlilat hagola (the denigration of a Diaspora). Zionist doctrine mandated a Diaspora where Jews could never be wholly at ease and secure. Zionism, like all other national liberation movements, sought to liberate itself from an enemy and oppressor. In the case of Zionism, that enemy-oppressor was the Diaspora. But Israel as a solution to Diaspora Jewry’s existential problem did not take into account an American Jewry that does not feel it faces any existential problem. For Israelis, this is because American Jews are insensitive and unaware, materialistic and aimless, while most American Jews simply feel at home in their country.

Perhaps the time has come for Israel to stop justifying its existence by denigrating Jewish life outside of Israel. One only has to read the Israeli press to understand how Israelis learn disdain for their fellow Jews. A study conducted by Professor Yehudit Elitzur of the Hebrew University for the American Jewish Committee years ago surveyed Israeli press coverage of American Jewish life. It found that Israeli correspondents in the U.S. write only about Israeli self-interests in the American Jewish community. AIPAC and the Presidents Conference, foreign aid and tourism to Israel are covered, but virtually nothing is reported about the internal structure or dynamics of the American Jewish community.

Similarly, Israeli schools ignore teaching about the largest Jewish community in the world, whether it be in the context of current events, history, Jewish studies. Israelis learn little, know little and hence care little about American Jews.

Israelis do regard American Jewry as an important philanthropic and political resource. Israelis tend to share with anti-Semites the mythic stereotype that American Jews are enormously wealthy and control large segments of America’s economy and political establishment. However, even this exaggerated respect for American Jewish influence is tarnished by oft-heard Israeli criticism of American Jewish leaders’ timidity and conformism. Typically, Israelis opposed to their government’s policies regard American Jewry’s call for unity and consensus in dealing with the White House and the American public as a cop-out. Traditionally, Israeli governments urge American Jewish unity and support while the opposition urges them to be outspoken and critical. However, Professor Ezrahi describes the Israeli perception of Jewish leaders as largely conformist, echoing official Israeli positions. When he does so, he ignores the Stanley Sheinbaums, Henry Siegmans and Rita Hausers on the left, as well as the Irving Moskowitzes, Rabbi Hechts and Morton Kleins on the right.

It is true that for many years, American Jews were persuaded that they did not have the right to be involved in or express opinions on those issues that affected Israel’s security. The conversation stopper was the line “It is our children and not yours who will have to pay the price for your opinion with their blood.” However, as far back as 1987, the American Jewish Congress broke this conspiracy of silence by taking a public position supporting the then highly controversial issue of territories for peace. Full-page advertisements were placed in the Israeli press explaining why a major American Jewish organization thought it had the right and responsibility to join the debate over Israel’s future. Since that time, American Jewish leaders and organizations have joined the fray, freely criticizing and at times even castigating Israeli government leaders and policy. To accuse American Jewish leaders of simplistic conformism reflects outdated, condescending Israeli attitudes toward American Jews.

Professor Ezrahi understands and describes how both Israel and American Jewry avoided building solidarity on shared values by finding an easy escape in the focus on external enemies. This is why the Oslo peace process caught American Jewry unaware and unprepared.

The Rabin-Peres peace process may have brought Israel more friends than it had ever known before and diplomatic relations with nations that had been its enemies and hitherto ignored its existence. Yet, many American Jews were uncomfortable with this new openness and normalization of the Jewish condition.

If the truth be told, the American Jewish community has known its finest hours on the barricades. The American Jewish community has excelled in an advocacy role. Fighting anti-Semitism at home and rescuing Soviet Jewry; protecting Jewish rights and lobbying for a vulnerable Israel; memorializing the Holocaust and raising hundreds of millions of dollars for an embattled and impoverished Jewish state: these have been the stuff of American Jewish life.

American Jewry’s relationship to Israel has been classically defined by what is called “the mobilized model.” American Jews pursued a tridimensional relationship with Israel. Philanthropy, lobbying and hasbara (explaining, defending and justifying Israel to the media, Washington and the American public) form the parameters of American Jewry’s activities on behalf of Israel. Unfortunately, the message that American Jewry got from the Rabin-Peres government was “We don’t need you anymore.” Almost as soon as Rabin took office in the summer of 1992, he let AIPAC know that he did not need them to mediate between his government and the administration in Washington. This was followed several months later by his finance minister telling Israel Bond leaders that he could get better interest rates in the commercial market than by the sale of Israel Bonds. Then Minister Yossi Beilin chimed in to indicate that Israel’s economic boom made UJA donations unnecessary and superfluous and would be better used at home for Jewish education and to bring young people to visit Israel. This double-barreled shotgun aimed at Israel Bonds and UJA threatened the highly sophisticated philanthropic apparatus of American Jewry. Lastly, then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres eliminated his ministry’s hasbara department, declaring that if Israel has good policy, then one does not need hasbara, and if Israel has bad policy, then hasbara will not help.

In a span of only nine months from the time that Rabin took office until April 1993, the above actions took the air out of the sails of American Jewry. Lobbying, philanthropy and hasbara were the stuff of American Jewry’s relationship to Israel, and they were now being told by Israel’s leaders that a peace process had made them superfluous.

And then along came Binyamin Netanyahu, who helped save American Jewry from itself. In the absence of an embattled Israel, the American Jewish establishment had begun to look in new directions, seeking replacements for its political and philanthropic endeavors. As the so-called mobilization model receded, Federation leaders, academics and rabbis tried to give new meaning to the American Jewry-Israel relationship based on religious, educational and cultural ties. The Israel experience and Jewish identity became the new links between the two communities. The endeavor to forge meaningful and enduring spiritual and cultural relationships between Israel and American Jewry constituted the new Jewish agenda. And yet, Jewish education and Jewish continuity somehow lack the electrifying effect of the gevalt syndrome.

The gevalt syndrome describes that tendency of Jews to see the world as a scary place where they must ever be on their guard and be ready to cry out, call out and speak out against those who would threaten to harm and do injury to the Jewish people. Without an Israel that needs to be saved, American Jewry was reminiscent of the Pogo cartoon of yesteryear with the famous caption, “We have met the enemy and it us.” There just is not the same degree of passion, commitment and energy on behalf of an agenda devoted to personal meaning as for a mobilized public agenda of politics and philanthropy.

Netanyahu, in rejecting the vision, if not the Oslo peace process itself, has been able at least in part to revive and restore the mobilized model of the American Jewish establishment. This may be a familiar model, and it may appeal to some American Jewish leaders and organizational types.

It may even help fundraising and inspire the American Jewish lobby to mobilize its resources in justifying Israeli policies and actions. However, this time around, it is different. American Jewry’s greater familiarity with Israel combines with the glimpse they were offered of a new Middle East to vitiate, if not splinter, that solid phalanx of American Jewish support for Israel that had been mobilized on countless occasions in the past.

Along with this is a growing awareness that American Jews are no longer driven by guilt or even nostalgia. At ease with themselves and their lives, they have transubstantiated from American Jews into Jewish Americans. Joining their fellow Irish Americans, Italian Americans and African Americans, they have relegated their Jewishness to adjectival status. Being Jewish for Jewish Americans is no longer the subject or object of their lives.

Ezrahi seems to use these terms interchangeably, but they are powerful indicators of the changing identity of Jews in America.

Correspondingly, Israelis are fast becoming Jewish Israelis rather than Israeli Jews. As such, the commonality of Israelis’ and Americans’ Jewishness perforce will be mediated by their essential and very different identities. This change requires greater knowledge and understanding of each other and, it is hoped, concomitant respect and appreciation.

As incisive and impressive as Ezrahi’s analyses and conclusions are about the Israel-American Jewish relationship, so disappointing and inadequate are his recommendations to recreate that relationship. The common feature of his several prescriptions is “to replace Israeli-focused programs with international Jewish programs.” This is to beg the question. Zionism should no longer require excoriating the Diaspora or demand centrality for Israel and marginality for the Diaspora. However, Zionism should mean teaching, inculcating and experiencing the inextricable bond between the land, the people and the State of Israel.

All of Ezrahi’s recommendations are excellent teaching tools but should be directed toward recreating that traditional bond.

More important than the frameworks and techniques suggested by Professor Ezrahi is the urgent need for Israeli attitudes toward American Jews to change.

The relationship should be one of trust, respect and mutuality. Israelis should study, encounter and experience the creativity, achievements and reality of the American Jewish community. We can then hope that they will come to appreciate the considerable nonfinancial contributions of American Jews in all fields of human endeavor, not excluding Jewish life and thought. Once there is a degree of mutual respect and understanding, we can then adopt the Ezrahi suggestions to facilitate interaction, sharing and interdependence.

Israel should continue to be an evocative symbol for American Jews. However, it cannot substitute for Jewish belief and identity. It can only contribute and strengthen them. However, to perform this function, Israel’s living reality cannot be too disparate or contradictory to Israel as an idealized symbol. Israel as symbol combines with Israel as a living reality to fashion the bond between those who dwell in Zion and those who would dream of her.

Israelis will not only have to change their attitudes toward American Jewry, but they also must shape an Israeli reality that can justify American Jewry’s idealized notion of Israel as a powerful and meaningful symbol.

David Clayman has been living in Israel since 1970, where he serves as the Israel director of the American Jewish Congress. He is author of the widely respected newsletter Inside Israel.