Our Uncle From America: A Family Divided

The Israeli public needs to know that any decision reached in Israel whether related to Women of the Wall or burning political issueshas an impact overseas.

by Yair Ettinger

On the same day the news of two major events – selecting the Chief Rabbis and the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians – engulfed Israeli media, no one paid attention to a small article in the middle of the paper: for the first time, Jewish organizations from the United States will offer humanitarian assistance to refugees from Syria. I read about all three events on the plane on my way back to Israel and I noticed a significant connection between the three, a relationship that I would not have thought of if I had not been returning from a stimulating and eye-opening seminar in New York.

The connecting thread is the dramatic change contemporary Judaism is undergoing in America. The US Jewish community stood at the center of the seminar discussions I participated in, a seminar organized by the Ruderman Family Foundation. The foundation invited us, six Israeli media editors and reporters, to become acquainted with American Jewry. Do I “know” them now? Better, but it only took a few days to understand the enormous gap that exists between the two largest Jewish communities in the world, which together account for four-fifths of the Jewish people. Not just a physical ocean but an ocean of consciousness.

We met twenty four men and women during the seminar – prominent figures in the Jewish religious world, academics, community leaders, journalists and philanthropists. What struck me most were the various political identities of the participants – from the political left to the right, Haredi Orthodox people to those who have removed all external Jewish identification. Since the meetings were off the record, I cannot elaborate here who said what. I can only share with you my conclusions, one of which is that the distancing of American Jews from Israel is gaining momentum.

The distancing is an important introduction for anyone interested in American Jewry – it is a few years old, maybe even two decades. I am confident that most Israelis are not aware of this process, because Israel shows little interest in understanding American Jewry, for various reasons. There has always been a lack of equality in relations between Israel and Diaspora Jews.

Before going to the United States, I knew that private individuals and perhaps Jewish groups who define themselves as liberal were fed up with the Israeli occupation and the stalemate with the Palestinians. In recent years, I took great interest in the writing of journalist Peter Beinart who argued that Israel is losing its democratic character and warned that younger American Jews are ignoring it. Beinart was a speaker during the seminar but there were others who expressed the message more forcefully. “Young Jews are distancing themselves from Israel,” one of them said, “They think Israel is to blame for what happens to her, that Zionism is colonialism, racism.”

Now I come to the news I read on the way back. Ostensibly, the renewal of peace talks in Washington is what Israel needs to win back the confidence of its most outspoken critics within the US Jewish community (the recent U.S. election proved that the Jewish community continues to be overwhelmingly Democratic). It seems to me that would not be enough.

During the week of the seminar, the elections for the Israeli Chief Rabbinate were held. From my position as a guest, it seems to me that in matters of religion and state – certainly no less, and perhaps more than political matters – US Jews are very concerned and this affects their relationship with Israel. A few months ago I was introduced to the huge gap between how Women of the Wall are perceived in Israel and how they are viewed abroad. In Israel, they are perceived as a small, marginal group of women but we need to read and hear – and as journalists, tell – how American Jews see this as a major issue.

When it comes to matters of religion and the State of Israel, Jews in America are not bothered by the denial of the rights of another, but the denial of their OWN rights in Israel. Not only Women of the Wall, but also the Chief Rabbinate is a major focus for many Jews in the U.S., including the Orthodox and ardent Zionists who have the painful feeling that Israel underestimates them and their rabbis.

I know that most American Jews do not define their attitude toward Israel as one that is “critical” but they are nevertheless worried about how Israel deals with issues of religion and state. Here is one sentence from the seminar said by a major player in the Jewish American arena: “Most Jews will not turn their backs on Israel if you say “occupation”. They will certainly turn their backs if you say that Israel does not view them as Jewish.” Another one said, “When Jews in America read stories about women having to sit at the back of the bus, it affects philanthropy.”

And here is another conclusion of the meetings in New York, no less important than the last: While many Jews are troubled by what is happening in Israel (whether politically or matters related to religion), there is a growing number of Jews who do not care about either. I’m not talking about people who are “Just Jews” or people who are indifferent, but people who are socially involved, social activists who seek to exercise their Jewish identity far away from the Israeli connection. This may be the most important lesson I learned in New York.

The myth has always been that the Jews of America care about Israel and American Jews are united in their support of Israel. There is a group for whom Israel is no longer important and sacred, but is also not worthy of criticizing. One Jewish organizational leader told us that his first decision was not to say anything about Israel. He realized that the need felt by Jewish organizations to establish an official position regarding Israel, limits them conceptually and in practicality. He decided to let go of this need.

It seems to me that this is most profound because it does not reflect fatigue or indifference – but the need to seek a world of spirituality and values in other places, such as the concept of “Tikun Olam ” which appeals to so many young Jewish Americans.

This leads me to the small item I saw in the newspaper on the plane. Refugee camps in Syria were chosen not because of their connection with Israel, not because the humanitarian acts contribute to Israel or vice versa. This has nothing to do with Israel. This is a new generation of activists who come from the Jewish World, are influenced by Jewish ethics and it is crucial for them to define themselves as Jews at all costs, regardless of what happens in Israel.

There are troubling aspects of this phenomenon, but I think Israelis should not view this only through the prism of Israel. One of the participants in the seminar, whose organization is actually very involved in Israel, convinced me that the search for alternative Jewish identity should inspire respect, especially given the tendency of our parents’ generation to define themselves primarily through Israel and through the Holocaust. To me, the Jewish story benefits from the construction of a new Jewish identity, even if it has nothing to say about Israel.

I assume that a large part, if not most US Jews have warm feelings for Israel and they want to be involved, but not without conditions. I realized that the American Jewish attitude “Tell us what you need and how we can help,” is a thing of the past. I view this in a positive light. The Israeli public needs to know that any decision reached in Israel – whether related to Women of the Wall or burning political issues – has an impact overseas. True, our “Jewish uncle from America” is still willing to help, but today he has an agenda, conditions and his own spiritual world. I try to see this as a welcome maturation, which will hopefully drive the relationship between American Jews and Israel to a more mature stage.

Yair Ettinger is a writer and commentator for the Ha’aretz newspaper, where he has worked since 1997. He lives with his family in Jerusalem.