Disturbed or Distant? They’re Not the Same

by Steven M. Cohen

A fair number of young – and not-so-young – Jews hold some pretty dismal views of Israel these days.

They see Israel as occupying someone else’s land, perhaps for good historical reasons, but with little contemporary justification. They read stories of religious extremists going further and further off the deep end. They are offended by what they see as Israel’s rejection of the validity of Conservative/Masorti and Reform Judaism. They may read Israeli columnists and editorialists decrying anti-democratic legislation; and some writers go so far as to wonder if Israel is veering toward fascism and/or practicing a form of apartheid in the West Bank. Then, if they read The New York Times, they hear of abuses of women that seem to go beyond even the “standard” measure of sexism and gender disparity they see in their own societies.

And, when they visit Israel (as many do and quite frequently), they hear people whom they love and respect speaking of injustice against Palestinians both within Israel proper and across the Green Line – offering tales and accusations that hardly make the mainstream papers or best-read blogs, either in Israel or North America.

In short, (some) Jews in North America see Israel rejecting their highest moral values and deepest core identities – as democrats, humanitarians, feminists, social activists, progressives, and, yes, liberals (still the favored political identification among American Jews, especially the non-Orthodox, in-married). But who are these “passionate progressives” who are easily disturbed and distressed by Israel, or at least its government and its policies?

They’re actually a small minority of North American Jews, to say the least (or the most). People with these progressive identities and a disposition toward disturbance may be culturally significant, but, truth be told, they are far from demographically dominant, even among American Jews (and no one has “accused” Canadian Jewry of excessive progressivism for quite awhile).

Few of them are found among the large and growing Orthodox rank-and-file in the United States. Nor are there all that many among the various larger immigrant and second generation communities – those that hail from the Former Soviet Union, Israel, Iran, and elsewhere.

If passionate Jewish progressive are relatively rare among the Orthodox and immigrant populations, other sectors of North American Jewry are unlikely to be distressed by unattractive features of Israeli policy and society, if only because Israel commands little of their attention or their emotions. Among the most truly distant from Israel and its concerns are the thousands numbers of Jews and episodic Jews who are the children and grandchildren of the intermarried, or currently married to non-Jews.

While gaps on Jewish engagement differentiate the inmarried and the intermarried (as well as those with all-Jewish-parentage vs. mixed-parentage), the gaps on ethnic measures are especially large. The intermarried trail the inmarried by relatively small(er) amount on such items as marking the High Holidays, celebrating Hanukah or attending Passover Seders. All these actions have Christian counterparts and “make sense” to intermarried families. But ethnic measures – having Jewish friends, living near Jewish neighbors, belonging to Jewish organizations, and attachment to the Jewish People – have no ready analogs in the wider society.

And, of all ethnic measures, the gaps between the inmarried and intermarried (as well as their children) are most pronounced with respect to Israel. Hence, even if they are progressive and passionate about their progressivism, members of the Israel-unengaged population are unlikely candidates for disturbance and distress.

Who, then, among North American Jews are the major bearers of distress about Israel? Most critically, they are concentrated among the elite segment who occupy positions of cultural, intellectual, and religious leadership outside of Orthodoxy, and outside of the immigrant populations, and outside the most unengaged sectors. True, they are a “small” population, numbering (only?) in the low tens of thousands, depending on one’s definition of distress.

But, at the same time, they are indeed influential and critical in mediating Israel’s relationship with non-Orthodox and Jewishly engaged American Jewry. Among them are clergy and educators aligned with the Conservative, post-denominational, Reform and other movements – which is not to exclude a good number of Orthodox rabbis (even from Yeshiva University, let alone Yeshivat Chovevei Torah) who are also not too happy with reports of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians, poor people, immigrants, women, the environment, democracy, Conservatism, Reform and/or the peace process.

Seen this way – with an awareness of who is distressed and disturbed, as well as why they feel that way – ill feelings about Israeli leaders or policy cannot be seen as signs of distancing or disengagement. We must recall that the people (or institutions) whom we love most dearly are those that disturb us most readily. In our personal lives, distress is a sign of engagement, not a sign of distancing.

Accordingly, few Jews who are disturbed by Israel can properly be seen as distant from Israel, let alone anti-Israel. If such were not the case, then we’d have to regard most of the writers for Ha’aretz as distant from Israel … and even an occasional columnist for The Jerusalem Post. Rather, the distressed and disturbed, North American Jews who are critical of Israeli leader and policies are actually very close to Israel, with a good number having spent long periods in Israel on Masa-sponsored programs over the years.

In one of the early scholarly articles on the distancing phenomenon, Prof. Ari Y. Kelman of Stanford and I operationally defined those who are distant from Israel. These are those Jews who express little emotional attachment about Israel, hardly talk about Israel, infrequently read about Israel, and rarely worry about Israel’s safety. Such is not the stuff of those who are distressed and disturbed.

So, the next time you talk with someone who is distressed and/or disturbed by Israel, assume they’re actually very engaged with Israel. Just assume that they’re distressed and disturbed because, well, Israel can be very distressing and disturbing – especially to those who love the Jewish State most dearly.

Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.

cross-posted at Shalom Hartman Institute