Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Great Divide

It seemingly took less than a few minutes for the most recent poll about the divide between American Jews and Israelis to get plastered on every Jewish website, news report, Facebook page, and e-mail box.

My response: resignation, and a yawn. Next thing we'll learn is that there is gambling in the house.
Israeli Jews are increasing in number and are living a Jewish national life daily, up-close, and sometimes with dangerous and deadly consequences.

The American Jewish population is decreasing, and for most American Jews, Judaism is a an occasional thing, Israel is a minor, very occasional thought (most haven’t even visited once), a source of discomfort when Israel has to do what a nation in the Middle East has to do to survive, and not something that fits in with their desire to be part of a universal, inclusive, feeling-good-about-reaching-out-to-others self-perception.

Much is written about how the divide between American Jews and Israeli Jews is exacerbated by Israel's conduct and policies toward Palestinians, toward and about non-Orthodox Jewry, and the like. How Israel is alienating the mainstream American Jewish community and alienating young American Jews.

This is true to a certain extent. Israelis live in a different political environment, with a different political structure, with a different perspective on synagogue and state, with a different security situation, and on and on. American Jews, from their perspectives, are just not going to be comfortable with everything Israelis do because of their situation and perspectives.

Because most of them are largely ignorant of Israel's history and circumstances and perspectives, and because most of them are heavily infused with and invested in their history, circumstances, and perspectives, American Jews are not going to be very understanding of or comfortable with much of what Israel does.

But this is for those who are paying attention. Most are not. Most hardly give a thought to Israel. On a daily basis, most barely give a moment to thinking and living as Jews.

American Jews’ connection to Israel is mostly falling by the wayside not because of any particular Israeli policy. Most pay little or no attention. It is evaporating because most Jews' connection to Judaism is evaporating.

All the studies and a torrent of anecdotal evidence show that the more connected to Judaism one is, the more connected to and supportive of Israel. So, as American Jews become more assimilated, more intermarried, less connected to being Jewish on a daily basis, they are, of course, also going to feel less of a connection to the Jewish state.

Other than for a relatively few insulated, insular religiously observant Jewish groups, within 50 to 75--perhaps a 100--years, most American Jews are going to be either completely unidentified or they will have a Jewish identity with a very minimal Jewish core to it.

Tikun Olam and lox and bagels. Perhaps a sentimental memory of a comforting scent lofting out of a grandma's kitchen. Perhaps even, for some, a Passover Seder of sorts, heavy on liberation, universalism, treating the stranger nicely, very light on formation of a people, scouting out a homeland, the roots of a nation.

As someone who grew up as an American Reform Jew, was a leader in an American Conservative synagogue, and who is now a Conservative/Masorti American Israeli, it gives me no great pleasure to say this. With children and grandchildren in the U.S., I hope my prediction is wrong.

There are many dedicated people, professionals and lay people, working hard in many creative ways to energize American Jewry and to reach out and engage young American Jews. But it is hard to argue with the numbers that show the trends: American Jewry is shrinking, and Jewish identity in America grows weaker with each generation.

Israeli Jewry will be strong and thriving. For some Israelis their Judaism is expressed in national terms.  For others it is expressed in religious terms. For many it is a mixture of both.  Judaism and Jewishness permeates just about everything.

A recent example: Most American Jews did not even know it was Shavuot. They certainly did not mark it in any way. Every Israeli Jew (and a heck of a lot of Israeli Arabs) did know. You cannot escape talk of it, food, study opportunities, TV shows, get togethers, and on and on. It is part of the fabric, the DNA of the society.

Another example: my larger family. Out of a total of eight first generation American Jews, there were 14 of my generation, the second generation. Out of those 14, there are six or seven of the third generation with any semblance of a Jewish identity, two in Israel and the rest in the U.S.

Another recent example, Hebrew Union College, the Reform Movement's preeminent educational institution, invites novelist and avowed Israel-basher Michael Chabon to give an address at its graduation ceremonies. Not to come to a class or seminar or lecture series and present a dissenting voice, but to provide inspiration, to be a model, to help launch careers of Jewish leaders.

What did Mr. Chabon say? Among other things, he continued his campaign against Israel, and he mocked Israelis' fear of those who wish to destroy Israel, basically calling Israelis fools for building and employing defenses against those who would murder them.

What else did Mr. Chabon say? That those Jews who look favorably on Jews marrying other Jews are basically narrow-minded, inbreeding bigots. He regrets marrying a Jew. He hopes his kids don't make his mistake.

And Mr. Chabon basically denied aspects of Jewish history and devalued Jewish ritual.

What did Mr. Chabon receive from one of American Judaism's leading institutions? An honorary degree and a standing ovation from America's future Reform leaders.

Who walked out? An Israeli. (There have been some  references made to others walking out, but I have not found any others identified.)  Morin Zaray, a courageous and smart Israeli woman, looked back at her IDF veteran brother and asked her mother if, after having flown from Israel for the ceremony, she would mind if they walked out. The answer was no. The three then walked out. And Ms. Zaray, with more class, nuance, and maturity than Chabon could ever hope to have, explained her reasons.

David Ellenson, Interim President and Chancellor Emeritus of Hebrew Union College, and Joshua Holo, dean of the Los Angeles campus, in a  pathetic defense of Chabon and the invitation, pulled out the old standby excuses for not using one's sechel (brains): the free exchange of ideas and intellectual discourse about challenging ideas.

I would have had more respect for them had they simply said "sorry, it was a screw up."

Instead, they threw up the straw man and knocked him down. No one said that classrooms shouldn't discuss Mr. Chabon's ideas, although one does wonder if they add much to a rabbinical school or a Jewish educators' curriculum. No one said that he should not speak to a Jewish institution dedicated to Jewish learning, although it is difficult to figure out how he adds value to such an institution. The outrage is over the choice of Chabon as a speaker for a graduating class and their guests.

Some Jewish leaders, including one associated with HUC, took exception to Mr. Chabon's performance and to the fact that he had been invited in the first place. While Chabon's exact remarks could not have been known to those issuing the invitation, his previous work and criticisms make it pretty clear that he is not a suitable speaker for a graduation ceremony for Jewish leaders. You do not have to be clairvoyant to know that he will be unrelentingly one-sided, arrogant and flippant, and, to many, offensive.

While much is written about how Israel's conduct and policies exacerbate the divide between American Jews and Israel, not nearly as much is said about how American Jewry's conduct and pronouncements and criticisms, or more specifically, that of some its leadership, downright confounds and often offends Israelis.

There is very little attention to how American Jewish behavior and speech exacerbate the divide. The average Israeli simply cannot understand how someone so hostile to Judaism and Israel would be invited to speak at a rabbinical school graduation and would be bestowed with an honorary doctorate degree.

The world of Israeli letters and academia does have its far-left fringe characters, but they are largely ignored or ridiculed rather than being given center stage at events launching careers of young leaders. Israelis are left, at best, scratching their heads, at worst, being offended and alienating, feeling like American Jews just don't get it.

The Reform Movement seems to be on a role when it comes to sticking its finger in the eye of Israelis. Hopefully the HUC invitation to a someone like Chabon was a one-off.  In contrast, the Reform Movement's leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs, seems to feel the need to weigh in critically on just about any Israeli issue short of the sewer lines, although I would not assume that that subject is out of the question.  A colleague and I were motivated to counsel him to be a little more selective in what and how he opines on Israeli issues.  I doubt we'll have much impact on his behavior.

Some other pronouncements coming from high-profile American Jews that  confound and anger Israelis, and that have add to the divide:

Senator Diane Feinstein, California's Jewish senior senator, 84 years old, a senator for 26 years, running for her sixth term.   She has a challenge from the left, which has not forgiven her for saying at the outset of the Trump Administration that people should be patient, that perhaps President Trump would rise to the occasion, transform a bit, and be a decent President.

The California Democratic Party is pulling to the left, and a sizable number of those on the left seem to feel that means opposing the country in the Middle East that offered territory for peace, that respects women's rights, gay rights, and minority rights, and that has a free press and an independent judiciary.  So Senator Feinstein feels the need to show she is "progressive" enough.  I get it.

But the only way she can show that she is a certified lefty is to criticize Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley for defeating a  Security Council resolution calling for an investigation of deaths resulting from Gazans' attempts to breach Israel's southern border?   Feinstein says that we need an "independent" investigation.

Does she seriously believe that the UN can do an "independent investigation" of a military action involving Israel?  Does she seriously believe that anybody else believes that?  Was it necessary to throw Israel under the bus to prove her leftist bona fides?

Senator Bernie Sanders, the first Jew to make a serious run for a party's presidential nomination and who appears to be gearing up for another run at the age of 78.  An American Jew who condemned Israel for allegedly killing 10,000 people in the 2014 Gaza War, an allegation that traveled fast and did much damage.  When told that the number of dead were more like 2,000, with at least half of those being combatants, his response:  Basically, "My bad.  No big deal."

An American Jew who didn't bother to wait for details on the recent  Gaza border violence before condemning Israel for the deaths.  An American Jew who seems to think that the Palestinian attempts to breach the Gaza border and to send incendiary and explosive devices into Israel are akin to the 1969 SF Peace Moratorium, and who seems to think that the doctrine of proportionality in war means that more Jews need to die in order to justify the unfortunate fact that Palestinians have died in the battle.  (Of course, this is the same senator who, during the 2016 political campaign, made reference to NY subway tokens, which have not been used since 2003.  So Senator Sanders' being out-of-date and out-of-touch doesn't seem to be limited to Israeli issues.)

An American Jewish senator who starts out with "I support Israel's right to exist but. . . ."  doesn't make Israelis feel warm and comfortable. Thanks very much, but Israel does not need you, Senator Sanders, to bless its existence.  It exists as matter of right and fact.  Would you think to preface an inaccurate and damaging criticism of France with "I defend the right of France to exist but. . . .?"  Would you advance an inaccurate and damaging criticism of France?

From the average Israeli's perspective, Jews like Senators Sanders and Feinstein are, at best, useful idiots for our enemies.  At worse, they are complicit players in an unfair campaign to isolate and defeat Israel.

Bottom line:  The divide between American Jews and Israeli Jews is troubling.  There is much that needs to be done to stem it.  However, given the different circumstances and perspectives of each side, and given the weakening American Jewish identify, it may be unbridgeable.  In the meantime, American Jews might want to take a hard look at how some of their comments and criticisms contribute to the gulf.

 (Originally published in The Times of Israel)


  1. An accurate assessment of many people’s ignorance and arrogance here.

  2. You’ve missed the biggest divide of all:


    The fact that Israelis view him favorably because their soda straw view of the world - "it’s only how Israel is treated that counts” - is the largest divide now between US Jews and Israelis. I had an hour long debate with our Chabad rabbi about this. He says that the religious back Trump because of his stance with Israel. I ask him “does his behavior set a good example for your children.” he says, no, but… I ask him “is his destroying the social safety nets and framework of basic environmental regulations sound like ‘tikkun olam’ and he says no, but… I ask him does his vilification of immigrants reflect the teachings of the Torah and he says no, but… We go on and on. I’m sure that most Israelis would have answered the same way. Speaking to all of my Jewish friends in the US, they are horrified and insulted by Israel’s embrace of Trump.

    Trump is the biggest divider of all.

  3. brilliant article , but so very sad. Can Jewish education be made excellent, pluralistic and cheap and sponsored by birthright ???

  4. Outstanding column! Thanks for sharing.

  5. As usual - thought provoking and well written. Unfortunately disturbingly truthful.
    Most Israelis, if they move to the US, are surprised that synagogue membership involves dues. They think it should be free. I agree. We need to get to a place where the doors are always open to every Jew. It doesn't solve the problem but it is a step in the right direction.

  6. Very sad. As one who follows the goings on in Israel, I am very concerned. I feel they are not given a fair hearing and press coverage is slanted — to say the least. PBS, for all of its good points, is very slanted toward the Palestinians. Have to admit that our cutting our support for the U.N. agency is the right thing to do. Given that agency’s focus on things Israeli while ignoring so many really awful things happening in the world, it was the right thing to do.

  7. Powerful and painful writing.

    Am Yisrael Chai!

  8. I always love reading your blog. I feel you help me to crystalize my thoughts regarding Israel, and being Jewish.

  9. So true, I wish it wasn’t though.

  10. I could not agree more, particularly regarding the correlation of Jewish education and identity with support of Israel.

  11. Kudos to you Alan…for your deep thinking and way of expression.

  12. And the solution?
    Jewish Education and practice limits assimilation and intermarriage.
    Then the attachment to Israel is made in many ways. Without it, our people melt away. By 2038 ish most Jews will be residing in Israel. And unfortunately only the observant will be the major population in the US.
    I see all my friends from public (large high school) schools days on FB, reunions and such. They and their kids are clueless about Israel, religion. I don’t ask, I always show respect, but very sad.

  13. Well written well said!

  14. Powerful and painful writing.