By Amitai Fraiman
“(US Jews) are people that never send their children to fight for their country … Most of them are having quite convenient lives.” (Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely in a speech on November 22, 2017)
Hotovely’s words are yet another recent example of the lack of understanding and appreciation of American Jewry by Israeli public figures. The real problem, however, is that her sentiment is a reflection of general Israeli public opinion about US Jewry- characterized by ignorance, with a hint of superiority.
Hotovely’s remarks reignited the conversation about the need for a “reverse Birthright” to address the growing chasm between Israel and North American Jewry. Fundamentally, the argument is that more familiarity will breed greater understanding of and sensitivity to the needs of the US Jewish community. Indeed, there are already numerous groups running immersive experiences for Israelis to study the US and its Jewish community. There are even some initiatives in which Israelis who have participated on Birthright as soldiers are invited to spend time with their groups in the US. These are all worthy programs, and their contribution to strengthening the connection between the two Jewish epicenters is invaluable.
However, despite the resources invested in these programs, some crucial components are still missing. First, the overwhelming majority of these trips do not include a consistent mifgash, i.e., peer meeting. As the Birthright trips have proven, in many cases personal relationships, formed in the context of the dramatic tour in Israel, are the “secret sauce” of success. The experience of young Americans and Israeli soldiers spending a week together, 24/7, adds a personal-emotional connection to a larger, more abstract notion of “peoplehood.” Trips in the US, lacking this component, will not generate the same sense of commitment and mutuality. While current programs provide their Israeli participants with a solid, general introduction to the American Jewish community, such “informational” trips fail to inspire an emotional connection, as demonstrated just weeks ago by MK Tzipi Hotovely, who participated in such a trip, in her insensitive remarks about her American brethren. The trips that do have a mifgash bring ex-IDF soldiers to tour the US with their Birthright peers. However, these trips, while far better than those without a mifgash, fail to achieve their full potential. The Israelis visiting the US are still related to as “soldiers” – as opposed to real peers – and the aura that surrounded them on the Israel trip continues to color the relationship. This imbalance limits the sense of mutuality, which is the second issue the current programs do not address.
This dynamic, in which Israelis are held in higher regard than their American peers, is symptomatic of the entire relationship, and it is this imbalance between the two communities that thwarts efforts to heal the relationship. This imbalance stems from the idea of “Diaspora negation,” a notion deeply embedded in Zionism. This concept traditionally refers both to the spiritual-cultural superiority of Israel over the diaspora, and to the physical security Israel provides its inhabitants. Today, as the 2016 PEW study reveals, “Diaspora negation” is still the prevailing spiritual-cultural perspective of many Israelis. Without addressing this attitude, there is little chance the two epicenters will succeed in mending their relationship.
To contend with this issue, we must design programs that not only bring Israelis and Americans together, but create a more balanced conversation between the two Jewish epicenters. The first step is to state why we need to mend this relationship. The answer to this question goes far beyond the familiar tropes of mutual strategic needs, which, though valid, do not justify the expenditure of resources needed to solve this problem. The two epicenters of world Jewry need each other because, independently, each represents only part of the full Jewish picture. Israel is the epitome of Jewish particularism, while US Jewry is the embodiment of Jewish universalism. Thus, each epicenter needs the other to counterbalance the negative manifestations of its own myopic focus: Israel’s lack of religious pluralism and rising nationalism on the one hand, and the American Jewish community’s erosion of Jewish identity and solidarity, on the other. It is on through dialogue, under the new paradigm, that the Jewish epicenters will balance each other and continue to flourish, creating the conditions for the Jewish people to reach its full potential.
This issue is pressing – for the longer we wait, the harder it will be to reverse the current negative trends. As the problem we face is primarily educational (as opposed to an issue of policymaking), we need to act immediately to institute programs that will make a lasting shift in the way each community sees itself – and others. Changing the discourse of “Diaspora negation,” which has been a core part of Zionist ethos since its earliest days, will take both time and resources – but time is of the essence.
Amitai Fraiman – Israeli/American. Husband. Abba. Rabbi. MPA. MA. Entrepreneur. Jewish Peoplehood enthusiast.