The Paradox at the Heart of American Jewish – Israel Relationships

Israel flag wavingBy Paul Shaviv

At the heart of the Israeli – Diaspora-American relationship is a confounding paradox:

“At one and the same time Israel is the most Jewish place on earth,
and the least Jewish place on earth.”

It is the “most Jewish” by reason of population, history, location, religion, language and culture. It is the “least Jewish” because many of the defining characteristics that have defined Jewish existence in the diaspora for the last two millennia are absent in Israel – minority status, the notion of ‘community’, the relationship to religion as the starting point of Jewish identity, the dialectic with host cultures, and a long list of other attributes and properties. For very understandable reasons, all of them are puzzling, if not incomprehensible, to Israelis.

This is hardly surprising, as the mainstream Labor Zionist movement – whose followers formed many central institutions of Israeli society – started as a conscious rejection of diaspora Jewish life. It aimed to replace it with something new. ‘Shlilat hagalut’ – the rejection of the diaspora – was a prominent theme of Israeliness for many years. Only after the near-trauma of 1967 did Israeli society begin to reconcile itself with its ‘Jewish’ heritage; a process that still has a way to go.

That paradox finds expression in the miscommunications and tensions familiar to anyone – Israeli or not – who even scratches the surface of the thorny field of ‘Israel-Diaspora relationships.’ Israel is presented in North America – especially in our educational system – as the distilled essence and the pinnacle of Jewishness. But for many Israelis Israel represents exactly the opposite – a conscious escape from Jewishness. Even religious Zionism doesn’t give comfort in that regard, because Judaism in the Jewish State often takes forms which are totally unfamiliar to diaspora Jews, especially the pluralistic North Americans.

There are several other factors, both on the American and the Israeli side. I would suggest they include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • The simple passage of the years: For my generation, the formative Israel experiences were those of ‘heroic Israel.’ I remember as a small child the awe in which I held the first Israeli I ever met. We grew up on the stories (and now-forgotten songs) of pioneering, of kibbutzim; our memories included the Six-Day War, the heady reunification of Jerusalem, the Yom Kippur War, the Soviet Jewry campaign.

But I was born in 1949.

Students entering High School this coming September, aged 14, were born in 2002. If they are the oldest child in the family, their parents were born in or around 1980.

At the age at which I sat wide-eyed listening to stories of draining the Huleh swamp, singing songs of the Kinneret, of the flickering medura and the finjan, today’s parents – let alone the children – sat wide-eyed in front of their TV screens (and latterly their laptops) watching two Intifadas, two Lebanon wars, Gaza, Palestine and ongoing political and military battles.

Identifying with Israel is no longer ‘cool’ – it is socially, politically and even professionally problematic; and BDS, whose public manifestations are but the tip of a huge iceberg, is making it less and less and less cool.

These are radically different formative experiences. In the Jewish community, visceral pro-Israel feelings and loyalties, typical of older generations, cannot now be presumed. The ‘wonder’ of Israel has, to a great extent, evaporated. I grew up celebrating Israel; current teens grow up knowing that their task is defending Israel against every accusation under the sun, on campuses whose social, political and ethnic groupings are stacked against them. They are worn down by it, because their challenge is not only stemming a tide of anti-Israel propaganda; they are faced with the near-impossible task of reversing altogether the tide of student culture.

On the Israeli side, as opposed to their more cosmopolitan parents and grandparents, Israelis of the under-40 generation have scant knowledge or appreciation of Jewish life outside Israel. Israelis who come to live in North America do not identify with Jewish life, don’t understand it, and often seem to resent it. (I have written about my own experience as a Jewish High School Principal trying to recruit Israelis to our very open and pluralistic Jewish High School in Toronto.) Diaspora Jewish existence gets almost no coverage in Israeli media or in the school system, apart from its curiosity value.

  • The language/culture gap: As Rabbi Daniel Gordis has recently highlighted, there is little or no common language. The teaching of Ivrit in the North American Jewish school system (with only a few notable exceptions) is generally a disaster area, and does not seem to be improving. Few American Jews can read Ivrit; thus even their Israel news comes from a very small range of English-language sources, tailored to their interests and regarded by Israelis as eccentric. Broader Israeli culture and politics are terra incognita. Jewish groups in the Diaspora sometimes project a totally skewed picture of the realities, the issues and often the personalities of Israeli society. This is reinforced by the Jerusalem-centered focus of most diaspora tourists (and post-High School programs).

Exactly the same, of course, applies to the mirror-image, demonized portrayal of Israel by its critics – both Jewish and non-Jewish. There is no shortage of the former.

On the Israeli side, younger Israelis, and – especially – religious Israelis grow up in an Ivrit bubble. Their exposure to the outside world, including the outside Jewish world – its history, culture and ideas – seems often to be absolutely minimal. North American Jews – again, for better or for worse – are great universalists. Israelis are not. Exchange of ideas is difficult.

  • The religious gap: This is perhaps the biggest, scariest and most jarring gap of all, and is what will lose the diaspora for Israel. As a compound result of all of the above, Israel seems determined to undermine the legitimacy of diaspora Judaism. A series of horrible pronouncements by leading Israelis (Cabinet ministers, Chief Rabbis, MK’s….) was recently followed by the publication of the truly bizarre list of diaspora rabbis “approved” by the Israeli Chief rabbinate to carry out conversion ceremonies. What is the most worrying aspect of this tragi-comedy (far wider than the issues mentioned here)? The most worrying aspect is that Bibi and his government don’t seem to care at all, and have abdicated all responsibility for Judaism and – by extension – diaspora relations – to his ultra-haredi coalition “partners.” If Israel (“the pinnacle of Jewishness”) tells people that they are not Jewish (even when they are), and/or that their Jewish belief is worthless or obnoxious – the reaction sooner or later will be “then why should we bother either being Jewish or supporting Israel?”
  • The political gap: Complicated by the realities of Israeli life, it is perhaps surprising that this is not even greater than it is – thank Heavens it isn’t! It is also an incredible chulent of factors, ranging from the Israeli electoral system and who it propels into the Knesset to the aforementioned lack of knowledge of Israel, and to – again – historic factors in the American Jewish mentality. The voice of the Israeli moderate left is totally silent, and totally unheard in the Diaspora. You may agree with it or not, but its absence is catastrophic.

How to change it?

So – at the end of a depressing litany of what is wrong, how can it be put right?

There is no easy answer, but here are four practical suggestions with which to begin:

  • Encourage personal contact and personal influence: Over fifteen years ago, my daughter Miriam Shaviv, then a journalist, published an article in The Jerusalem Post proposing a ‘reverse Birthright’ scheme. (Although it was repeated afterwards by others, this was the first time it was proposed.) Bring Israeli students, teachers, journalists, politicians, army officers and other opinion-makers for short, well-planned visits to overseas Jewish communities – not just North America, but diaspora-wide, and not just to Holocaust sites. Stress the positive; build in more action than talk; and stress the reality.
  • In North America: Designate 5778 or 5779 (2018 – 2019) as ‘Shnat ha’Ivrit’ (= the Year of Hebrew) in the Day School system and in Jewish communities, and have a concerted effort to make it the year in which we give a significant boost to the standard of Hebrew – both as a language skill and as a conceptual value – at all levels.
  • In Israel: Adopt the idea of the highly successful ‘Heritage Minutes’ which ran on Canadian television some years ago. These one-minute ads (sponsored by Birthright founder Charles Bronfman, via his charitable Foundation) featured well-produced re-enactments of moments of Canadian history, which were educational, informational and inspirational. Do the same on Israeli television, featuring contemporary Jewish life and Jewish history worldwide.
  • On a different level, since the Government seems impervious to diaspora organizational representation, extend this to media advertising designed to get across the concerns of the North American Jewish community regarding religious decisions and policies taken in Israel which have repercussions on Jews worldwide.

A peaceful, meaningful Yom Haatzmaut to all!

Paul Shaviv was a Day School Principal for many years, and since last summer has been an independent management consultant for Jewish and non-Jewish independent schools and NFP’s. He is the author of ‘The Jewish High School: a complete management guide’, and publishes a weekly newsletter on management issues for schools.