Marching Alone

400,000 people thronged the streets of Israel to protest the social situation while Jews in America remained silent.

by Tuval Chesler

The year was 1965: the height of the civil rights movement demanding equality for African Americans in the United States. In the town of Selma, Alabama, thousands of Americans, most of them black, took part in a march to the capital of Montgomery. A photographer captured a picture of the Orthodox rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, marching alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. Later, Herschel would write in his diary, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Heschel was not alone: many Jews played key roles in the civil rights movement and marched arm in arm with Dr. King and his colleagues, individually or in organized groups. When the Jews of the suburban Chicago area were asked in a survey in 1967, “what is a good Jew” in their eyes, most of them replied that it meant a person “with a deep commitment to social justice.” In another poll, conducted in 2001, 87 percent of the respondents agreed that “Jews have a responsibility to work on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and minority groups.”

Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that at a time when social protests are occurring throughout Israel, American Jews, who are usually not afraid to firmly express their opinions, have chosen to remain silent. With the exception of a few press releases issued by Jewish organizations and an online petition by the New Israel Fund, which was signed by only 4,000 people, it would appear that the topic is simply not on the radar of the American Jewish public.

Professor Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist who researches Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, says that the public image that Jews ascribe to the term “Social Justice” is inherently flawed. Cohen explains that Jews relate to the concept Social Justice in the same way that Israelis relate to the concept of peace, that is to say they support a vague concept rather than its practical implications. He presents many surveys that support a lack of concern among Jewish Americans around the concept of social justice. For example, a survey conducted by New York University preceding the presidential elections of 2008, found that Jews, like all Americans, were highly concerned with foreign threat,”… but, in sharp contrast with their reputation for commitment to the liberal camp, Jews score the lowest of all four groups distinguished in this study on social welfare concern, roughly equaling the levels reported by whites and Hispanics, and significantly trailing the level of concern expressed by blacks. Health care, education, and poverty may well have moved working class Jews in the Depression or as middle-class city dwellers and suburbanites in the sixties. But, apparently, they do not ignite the passions of the Jewish electorate in the first decade of the 21st century.”

Interestingly, if American Jews do not align themselves with issues of social justice, why do they overwhelmingly vote democratic? According to Cohen, it comes down to tribal loyalty.

If your father and grandfather vote every time for the Democratic party, then chances are you will, too. Cohen also attributes the surprising lack of involvement in social protest movements among American Jews to the fact that, “Fear and hurt are much more mobilizing than hope and pleasure. Jews react when they feel threatened.” A good example is the controversial Conversion bill that is currently being considered by the Knesset, which gives the Rabbinate a monopoly on conversions within the State of Israel and therefore poses a direct threat to the non-Orthodox communities to which most American Jews identify. Social protest, on the contrary, “does not directly affect them, and therefore they take little interest in it.”

In addition, Cohen says that American Jews respond to situations in Israel in which they are able to play an active role vis-a-vis American politics. With regard to social protests in Israel, their ability to affect its outcome is strictly limited. “What exactly would they do?” Cohen asks rhetorically, “Lobby Congress to give more money to Israel?” Moreover, the American Jewish community is reluctant to interfere in Israel’s internal affairs “without any ‘permission’ from the Israeli people. In the current protest there has still not been any direct exchange of correspondence between the leaders of the social protest movement in Israel and American Jewry.”

According to Professor Yossi Shain, an expert on the politics of the Jewish people at Tel Aviv University, “The conflict has not yet involved the whole political structure in Israel and it would therefore be premature to speak about a penetration of the protest movement within American Jewry. The American radar is concerned these days with other issues: The financial crisis, the conflict in Libya, the Palestine appeal to the United Nations for an independent state.

Americans are concentrating on the difficult challenges facing the American economy, which of course, have a direct bearing on American Jews.”

At the same time, Shain believes that if the wave of protests continues and national priorities in Israel change, a greater reaction will surface among American Jews. But at the end of the day, maintains Shain, “The Jews today are concerned with real issues, such as Jewish identity. Not everything that happens in Israel and not every nuance of the Israeli political structure automatically interests American Jews.”

More than a year before the outbreak of the social protests in Israel, the American historian Jonathan Sarna, wrote with penetrating insight in the Forward that “My generation of American Jews was raised to view the Zionist project through similarly rose-colored glasses. Now, though, that dream, which had more to do with the lofty visions of American Jews than with the sordid realities of the Middle East, lies shattered beyond repair.” Therefore, when Jewish-American columnists relate to the protests, they insist on defining them through terms they understand: political barriers and the differences between Left and Right. In an article in the American magazine, The New Republic, Professor Michael Walzer analyzed the situation: “When the emerging leaders of the uprising insist that their protest is ‘non-political’ they mean that it’s not about war and peace. They know, of course, that everything is connected and that the difficulties they are experiencing are partly caused by massive state investment in the occupied territories.”

The American Jewish journalist David Harris-Gershon also weighed in on the political issue. In the blog Tikkun Daily, he wrote, “Many look upon the protesters screaming for social justice and expect them to champion the geopolitical issues that were championed by the Israeli Left in Rabin’s days. However, to do so is to perhaps misinterpret what is occurring in Israel right now – to expect that Palestinian issues will soon be incorporated into the protests by organizers, such as they exist, is to misunderstand the movement.”

Upon further examination, maybe it is the American Jewish community itself that needs help from the Israelis this time. In an editorial, the Forward came out with an original call to the local community: “A current preoccupation of the American Jewish establishment is diagnosing why so many young Jews are alienated from the state of Israel. Millions of dollars are being spent for programming and curricula to counteract this worrisome trend.” Instead, the editorial suggested: “Save the money. Save the angst. Direct the attention of young American Jews to the tents and makeshift dwellings on Rothschild Boulevard in downtown Tel Aviv. For now, perhaps for the first time in a long time, they can look to Israel as a model. As older generations were inspired by Israel’s pioneers, a new generation of American Jews can find hope and inspiration from the passion pulsing down Israel’s streets.”

Tuval Chesler is the web content manager for BEIT AVI CHAI, a Jerusalem-based cultural center established by the AVI CHAI Foundation, that addresses major issues and fields of thought and creativity in Jewish and Israeli society.

This article originally appeared in Hebrew on the Beit Avi Chai website. Translation by Asher Weill.

image: Israel Housing Protests Tel Aviv July 30, 2011; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license by avivi