Oceans That Divide

US_and_Israel_flagsBy Jay Ruderman

Eight months ago, before Hamas rockets were soaring over the skies of Tel Aviv and Israeli tanks were rumbling into Gaza, six members of the Israeli parliament from across the political spectrum came to Boston, one of the largest and most dynamic Jewish communities in the United States, on a mission to better understand the American Jewish community. They met with political and religious leaders, community leaders and academics, and held an open town hall at Northeastern University to answer questions from the public. The conversations were frank, sometimes animated and occasionally controversial. But ultimately, they returned to Israel with an inescapable sense that the American perspective cannot be ignored, and is essential to the future of the State of Israel.

A recent Pew study about the U.S. Jewish community showed that younger Jews are growing increasingly distant from Israel and that the well-being of the State is no longer a central tenet of their belief system. Another poll found that while a majority of Israelis recognize the importance of preserving the connection with American Jewry and believe the government ought to invest resources towards furthering that connection, a majority of Israelis also believe that American Jews have no place meddling in their domestic, or even international affairs. And while the American Jewish community did in large part rally to Israel’s side during the most recent conflict, the tensions that these data points suggest were evident as well.

The idea that U.S. Jews can be involved in certain aspects of life in Israel but not others is hard for them to accept or understand. After all, they say: We have supported you for almost 67 years. How can you deny us a seat around the table? At the core of this misunderstanding is a severe lack of programming that brings Israeli leaders to the United States to interact with their American counterparts from government, academia, business and other key sectors and begin to understand what makes them tick, and fostering this dialogue will enhance their understanding of the evolving postures towards Israel and Judaism, which could have major implications for the State of Israel.

Dual loyalty has always been an issue that hovered just below the surface for American Jews, especially during times of war. On the one hand, they are loyal and patriotic U.S. citizens, at the forefront of every social justice movement and involved in every sector of the economy. Simultaneously, for many years, U.S. Jews felt loyal to the State of Israel and what it represents to them: a permanent homeland after two thousand years of wandering.

The support American Jews historically have shown Israel has taken a multitude of forms. They have donated billions of dollars yearly to help build Israel’s society into a thriving and stable one. Through tireless advocacy efforts, American Jews have taken their case for Israel to government and thought leaders, bringing thousands of them to Israel to bear witness first hand to its extraordinary history and people. And they have sought to extend that support and loyalty to the youngest generation of American Jews, bringing tens of thousands of them to Israel through Birthright and other programs meant to strengthen bonds and ties between American Jews and Israel.

Indeed, significant elements of Israel’s success can fairly be attributed to the support she has received from Jews in the United States.

More and more, and in particular during the most recent war in Gaza, American Jews have begun to express more nuanced opinions on issues of religion, society, and the peace process. Simultaneously, the degree to which American Jews advocate and openly support Israel has become more varied. There is an awakening now underway among Israeli leaders that the next generation of American Jewish support for Israel cannot be taken for granted and will come from a deeper understanding between Israelis and Americans that can only be fostered by promoting greater awareness among Israelis leadership about how their American counterparts think and act.

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.