Friday, October 29, 2021

Their house burning, American Jews take a hose to Israel?

A relative (I’ll call her Melanie) recently asked me what I thought about a notice from her Reform Synagogue in the Western U.S. announcing a program exploring the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The program promised to hear all voices, get new perspectives, not place blame, discover creative solutions, and other well-intentioned platitudes comfortingly explored thousands of miles away from the scene.

After responding to Melanie’s question with some platitudes of my own about the benefits of gaining more knowledge and hearing from a variety of perspectives, as well as something about the need to understand history and context, I then wrote much more than Melanie asked for:

On a more general note, the program raised something I have been thinking a lot about lately: When we first started coming to Israel frequently, I would often bring up my concerns about how Israel related to and was perceived by the American Jewish community. I did this because I recognize the importance of that community to Israel and to the future of the Jewish people.

Many of the Israelis I met, including people who made Aliyah from the U.S. and other countries years ago, would often just shrug in seeming resignation, or they would make some dismissive comment.

They seemed to be resigned to American Jews having problems with and not understanding Israel, and to being unable to convince American Jews of Israel’s positions and concerns. Some even seemed to be contemptuous of the American Jews expressing their concerns about Israel’s actions or positions. I could not understand how they could be so dismissive.

Now, after having lived here in Israel a good part of the last decade, I am more understanding. People living here, including me, my wife, and our daughter, have dealt with periodic wars, taking shelter from missiles, sending kids off to battle, cars and trucks driving into bus stops, knifings, and other life-threatening and certainly traumatic events.

In between these “incidents,” people here are living lives just like others in the world: Putting kids through school, dealing with elderly parents, fighting traffic, doing their jobs, trying to afford apartments, shopping for groceries, complaining about prices, enjoying good wine, booking weekends at hotels, listening to music, dealing with Covid, and even, occasionally, arguing and complaining about politics.

They live in a country which, like many other countries, has challenges and things to complain about. But, overall, given the history of the country and the neighborhood we are in, Israelis live in a rich, resourceful, fun, rewarding, meaningful country. They (or we) have much to be proud of.

The Palestinian issue is just one aspect of their world, just like pollution, or water shortages, or the border, or a hundred other issues, are one aspect of the U.S. It’s an important issue, but it is not one on every Israelis’ mind everyday.

Just like Americans, including American Jews, they are busy living busy lives. Maybe when they stop over coffee or wine, they will think about the issue or discuss it with friends. Just like Americans do with the issues the U.S. faces.

Almost 60% of American Jews have never visited Israel. Take Orthodox Jews out of that equation, and the percentage of never-visitors is even higher. Among the non-Orthodox who have visited, many of them are one and done-it’s who came years ago.

Many, if not most, non-Orthodox American Jews know little or nothing about the history, the language, the culture, the day-to-day life of Israelis. They hear and know little or nothing about the achievements and challenges of co-existence between Israeli Arabs and Jews, or about absorbing millions of immigrants from countries without a democratic tradition.

Most American Jews did nothing to show support when Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the south, and much of the rest of the country were being bombarded with four thousand missiles aimed solely at civilians. This is consistent with the impression that many of them seldom take any interest in the country other than if the dispute with the Palestinians is the subject matter, and with the fact that a sovereign Jewish nation in an often hostile and dangerous Middle East must sometimes take actions that discomfort universalistic, tikun olam-imbued American Jews who have never run for a shelter or sent a child off to battle.

They may not be members of a synagogue or of other Jewish institutions or, if they are, their involvement and attendance, and their participation in Jewish life, may very well be sporadic. Many are Jewishly illiterate. It is not their Jewish identity that dominates or defines them or that even enters into their daily life.

Their children and grandchildren’s future as Jews is very much in question as a result of lack of education, lack of observance, and by an intermarriage rate of around 70%. In short, they and/or their children and grandchildren are or are very likely to be marginal Jews, high-holiday Jews, lox-and-bagel Jews.

And now, sadly, they are not just threatened by dilution and assimilation due to an overwhelmingly welcoming and tolerant Diaspora. Now their lives and future as a free and vibrant and safe Jewish community are threatened by growing anti-Semitism and the possible demise of American democracy.

Many commentators say that the threat to American democracy is real and imminent. Several have also said that American Jews have been largely excepted from the diaspora experience that Jews have experienced over the 2000 years of exile, that the exception is about to end, and that American Jews are now going to experience what being in the diaspora is really like.

Shalom Lappin comprehensively describes what is happening to the U.S. and what it means for American Jews. It’s not pretty, even if many choose to try to ignore it. 

While many American Jews may, to various degrees, be aware of and somewhat alarmed by the real and imminent threat to American democracy, most seem to be in denial about the threat to American Jewry. Many appear to have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to the threats and attacks coming at them from both the left and the right.

They seem to have accepted that it is nothing unusual to have guard shacks and fences surrounding synagogues and Jewish schools, to go through metal detectors when attending a Jewish or Israel-oriented event, to have celebrities and members of Congress from the right and the left dig up on a regular basis some of the most blatant Jew-hating tropes of the last two thousand years. Hey, life goes on.

Israel is in a complicated, seemingly intractable dispute with its Palestinian neighbors, despite the fact that almost two million Palestinians live freely as citizens of Israel, albeit not without legitimate complaints. The circumstances of that dispute, while not acceptable to many, leave plenty of blame to go around. Moreover, those circumstances pale in comparison to the horrible conditions and tyranny in much of the world.

In all the conflicts since 1948 that Israel has been involved in with the Palestinians, about 27,000 people, Israelis and Palestinians, combatants and non-combatants, have been killed. That’s 27,000 too many, but it is nothing when compared with much of the world and, in particular, with the Middle East.

Since 1948, millions of Arabs have been killed by other Arabs in horrendous wars, by terrorism, and in suppressing people trying to throw off brutal dictatorships. In the last few years, and continuing today, within 200 miles of my apartment in Jerusalem, Assad has slaughtered a half million and displaced another 10 million. The world is now accepting him back into the community of leaders of nations.

[Something I discovered while writing this piece:  Google “Arabs killed by Arabs in the Middle East” or “Muslims killed by Muslims in the Middle East” or “Middle East wars” or almost anything else like this and virtually all the links that will come up deal with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and, more specifically, Israelis causing Palestinian deaths.]

The perspective from here is that much of this region and the world are on the edge of an abyss or are mired in oppression, death, and destruction. Syria, Lebanon, Sudan come to mind immediately. This is not to play “what aboutism” or to say that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute does not need a resolution. It is to say the world has an obsession with this particular dispute and American Jews, willingly or not, are chief participants.

To a large number of American Jews whose Judaism is in danger due to their own lack of commitment and the threat to the democracy of the country they live in, and who take little or no other interest in Israel, the Palestinian issue seems to become an obsession. It is how they define Israel.

It’s as if they have become inculcated with the obsessive fixation that many on the American far left have with Israel, a fixation that often emanates from a deep-seeded and often long suppressed anti-Semitism that is now surfacing and becoming more explicit in many circles.

As social and cultural theorist/professor/journalist Susie Linfield says and quotes “New Historian” Benny Morris in a recent piece in the Atlantic:

‘Something similar is happening with the delegitimizing charges of “imperialism” and “settler colonialism” that some members of today’s left in Europe and the U.S. hurl against Israel, the historian Benny Morris told me. “The liberal left feels guilty about its past crimes,” said Morris, whose book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 is a canonical work in revisionist Israeli history. “And this is projected onto current conflicts, especially the Israeli-Arab conflict.” He added, “There’s a basic anti-Semitism in the West and a basic obsession with the Holy Land in the Christian West. And these two things make it impossible for anybody to look at Israel in a neutral way.” Seventy years after its founding, Israel is regarded (by Jews and non-Jews, right and left, West and East) as a cause, a tragedy, a miracle, a nightmare, a project—one that is highly provisional and should perhaps be canceled. Is there any other sovereign nation, from the most miserable failed states to those that are flourishing, of which the same can be said?’

It’s sad, but I now have a better understanding of why many of my Israeli friends have resigned themselves to not satisfying American Jews, or have even become contemptuous of the American Jewish community.

Well, Melanie, that’s a hell of a lot more than you asked for, I’m sure.  See you at the next Zoom family reunion.

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)


  1. Much of it is antisemetism but also—people are looking for quick answers and don’t have the patience to look at complex issues, therefore intersectionism gives quick though often incorrect solutions without requiring real analysis.

  2. An incredibly thorough but scary dissertation on what is the reality facing Jews and Israel for the future. As an American Jew it is particularly scary that some of the media fails to make it clear just who it is in the Hamas-Israel ongoing battles that is responsible for the violence. And, the same elsewhere -- as Mr. Edelstein notes. Again. All Americans should read this article!

  3. Wow! You nailed it! Kol ha'kavod

  4. Well stated as always. And thanks for linking to the Shalom Lappin piece— I hadn’t yet seen that!

  5. Excellent Article Alan! I remember growing up in Upstate New York the 50's and 60's where our Jewish education included a strong emphasis and connection with Israel. Sadly, many religious schools and Jewish day schools in America seemingly are not making Israel the priority it should be in curricula and programming. And, our Jewish Federations, while claiming to represent the Jewish community are more and more reluctant to stand with Israel publicly (see how many Federations refused or waited too long to organize solidarity rallies last May when Israel was attacked by Hamas). I hope to see the day when the divide between American Jews and Israel will be eliminated---keep writing Alan and hopefully your words will be read by Jewish leaders not only in Israel but in the Diaspora.

  6. Your column was brilliant!!!


  7. Extremely well written, you hit the nail on the head with “it’s complicated.” In the diaspora, I’ll even include a % of observant Jews as well, are all too comfortable and in denial about the realities of antisemitism in the US and abroad. Antisemitism raises its head no matter the affiliation, that’s what non observant Jews are slowly discovering. The populous needs a scapegoat, reasons are many, I’ll stick to human nature. When the average Joe has envy about another with more, or difficulties in life, kick the Jew, it’s easy. Worse, they see Jewish influence in policies, cities in distress, chaos, anything that negatively impacts their lives, and see the Jewish voters, as the causation.

  8. Your blog reflected almost exactly the feelings I’ve had about the American Diaspora, including my many close friends and family. Israel is no longer their main concern – except for their support of Family members that live here. Israel as any kind of priority in their political thinking is just not there. No longer the days of my parents unequivocal concern for Israel and absolute support.

  9. I read your Melanie article in the Times of Israel.
    You write well and you are very articulate. I also
    assume that you are a good speaker and an effective lawyer.
    Unfortunately, you seem deficient in knowing and
    understanding Jewish history. We have a glorious
    cultural history but a most miserable political
    history from king Salomon uninterrupted till today.
    Every time a catastrophe struck us, we contributed to it.
    I could show this regarding any calamity you may mention
    (except the Shoah).

    The Greeks of antiquity constantly fought each other, but
    when they were attacked by thePersians four times, they united
    each time and won.
    Israel is now being attacked by the Persians a/k/a Iranians and threatened
    by neighbors but keeps fighting internally both politically and culturally
    with no end in sight, very similar as when the Romans besieged Jerusalem
    during 66-70 BCA. Even Jewish fanatics killing moderates during
    that siege is still occuring now (Rabin).
    We have learned nothing from our history and this is quite dangerous.

  10. Well written and thought provoking!