Israel in the American Jewish Imagination: A Personal Observation

By Robert Hyfler, PhD

As always, in discussing the intimate topic of Zionism in the consciousness of American Jews, one must continually introduce an anecdote or four and begin with a comment on “American exceptionalism.”

Anecdote one: In my Polish-Lithuanian Brooklyn family supporting close relatives in the Yishuv and philanthropic Zionism was second nature. Yet, I remember as a child, when a cousin from Israel came to visit. My mother (a life member of Mizrachi Women) was quick to point out that “we are not Zionists” which one could take to mean, that despite our home’s commitment to all that Israel meant and stood for, OUR future was here, not there.

In Europe, in the early days of Zionism, the movement competed with assimilationism, traditional yiddishkeit and socialism/Bundism for Jewish hearts and minds. In America however, the major competition was the dream of the Golden Medina – the new world. The first Jews in America, the Spanish-Portuguese Sefardim, were not assimilationists. They were accommodationists who wanted to make their new home work for them while not abandoning their traditional Jewishness. And America proved to be uniquely responsive to that wish. So by the time Louis Brandeis, of Central European background, embraced Zionism, he went to great lengths to both link it to the American ideal, his patriotism and, more subtly, link his Zionism to assisting the beleaguered Jews of Europe find a home comparable to America.

Anecdote two: When my aunt Mindl from Petach Tikva came to America on a visit she sat at our dining room table trying to converse with my grandfather, her brother Chaim. But her daily mamaloshen was now Hebrew/Yiddish and his was Yinglish. So my dad, who spoke the pure Yiddish of his childhood, had to mediate the discussion.

We are one Jewish family. Yet time and distance can turn siblings into close cousins.

The birth of Israel was the absolute defining reality of American Jewry in the second half of the 20th century. Without it we all, in the wake of the Shoah, would have been generations of Madelaine Albrights – Americans of Jewish background who embrace America without looking back and exclusive of any other identity.

Instead, the 50’s onward were the coming of age of American Jewry. A time of our emergence as Jews into public life and American culture and the building of an unparalleled communal structure. More than support for Israel assisted the fledgling state, the idea and myth of Israel saved American Jewry.

But myth it was. The Israel we encountered in our minds was not the beautiful real life messy human mix of what it takes to create a state and society from near nothingness. We imagined, because we needed to, an Israel of virtuous selfless pioneers and noble statesmen – A beautiful myth that empowered us and molded us. This myth would gradually erode post-1967 as personal interactions increased and the politics of the times revealed itself in shades of gray.

Anecdote three: A close colleague and friend recalls an annual Federation major gifts event, in an important Midwest community, about 30 years ago where “…Israel was the presenting case for giving. Then private citizen Bibi Netanyahu was the speaker. The leading donor in the community called people one by one “to come up to the bima” and announce their gifts. He meant it – the bima. For many in the room, it seemed like and was a sacred ritual and experience.”

With that story in mind, I can skip over the details of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. The image of “Bibi on the bimah” says it all! It was a singular epoch of mostly successful hasbara battles, tremendous fundraising successes and the growth of people to people encounters between American Jews and Israelis. This was my time; it was my generation’s time. Anything we say, our nostalgic anecdotes and myth infused musings, would border on the banal.

It was also during this period, particularly after the Likud ”revolution” of 1977, that the Jewish state, despite its strengths and prowess, was increasingly portrayed as being in constant peril – a theme mastered by every popular Israeli speaker who spoke before an American audience. Israel, we all “knew” and believed, faced an existential crisis and it was our crisis as well.

However, the semi-intimacy of the Israeli – American Jewish encounter also planted the seeds of our current disillusionments and tensions. By the end of the century cousins stood naked before each other – fewer figs leaf to either hide the scars or mask the beauty.

In the long run, that itself is a wondrous thing. As the biblical encounter in the Garden teaches us, nakedness brings discernment and ultimately knowledge. So the history of the past 70 years is the story of myth which begets active encounter, encounters which beget strains, strains which beget maturity and realism. It is an excellent place to be if one values a sustainable love and a common future.

Anecdote four: The other night I attended a Federation sponsored discussion between Ambassador Kurtzer and Ehud Olmert. A couple of things stood out: Olmert’s steadfast belief in the 2 state solution; his distance from Bibi’s style of politics and policies; his assertion that Israel faced many external challenges but no longer an existential threat; and, a welcome surprise, the receptiveness of the largely 60 year old plus crowd to his message.

So now, speaking openly and selfishly as a 21st Century American Zionist and Jew I reaffirm my unconditional loving connections to Israel while positing three hopes in order to sustain that relationship for future generations:

First a safe, secure and welcoming Israel, the fulfillment of Miklat (sanctuary) as the natural home for at least half of our people and the insurance policy for the rest of us against future evils.

Second, I believe in a diverse and open Israeli society, democratic to the core and Jewish by virtue of language, historical and textual memory and our people’s ability to create reflect and adapt. That is the promise of Mercaz (centrality), a place and culture that inspires, unites and challenges Jews worldwide. And, by the way, if Israel is to perform that role, a little respect for, love of, and integration of the galut sensibility wouldn’t hurt.

Third, we need to nurture American Jewish communities comfortable in their own skin, dedicated to their own creativity and advancement, yet open to the many reciprocal benefits that a relationship with Israel can bring.

Unfortunately, I must now end with pointing out the roadblocks: Diaspora and Israeli indifference; weariness within both communities; the destructive authority of the Israeli rabbinate; the absence of a truly shared society in Israel – one that gives space to the narratives of the secular, the “reformim,” the haredim, the Arab and the national religious. (And by extension, the narratives of the Diaspora.); and yes, the occupation whose end we should all be praying for and working toward.

And I await an Israeli voice and response.

Bob Hyfler, forever a Brooklynite and forever an American Zionist, has held senior executive and management positions in four communities and one national Jewish agency. He now resides in Livingston, New Jersey. He can be reached at bobhyfler@comcast.net