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Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer Photo courtesy of Shalom Hartman Institute
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer Photo courtesy of Shalom Hartman Institute
 
'Obama feels very comfortable around Jews and Judaism' Photo: AFP
'Obama feels very comfortable around Jews and Judaism' Photo: AFP
 
 

 

US Jews: Ashamed of Israel, proud to be Jewish

They are politically involved, have high voter turnout rate and are no longer purely Democratic. Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer seeks to strengthen American Jewry's connection to Israel, but clarifies that Jewish vote has nothing to do with Israeli issue

Tali Farkash
Published: 10.31.12, 20:39 / Israel Jewish Scene

While in Israel the election campaign is still warming up, US Jews have been in the height of the "hot season", as it is defined by Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, for quite a while now.

 

If his name sounds familiar, it's probably because he is the son of former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer and a Democratic Party activist.

 

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Kurtzer, an observant Jew, is what Americans call "a professional Jew." He completed his doctorate in Jewish Studies at Harvard University, he is a lecturer who has written books and studies about Judaism, Americanism and the connection between the two, and he serves as president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

 

He visits Israel once a month on average, working to connect the North American Jewry to the Jewish state.

 

These days he also dedicates his time to political activity, as part of the world's greatest celebration of democracy on the eve of the US elections.

 

"Statistically, Jews in the United States have a particularly high voter turnout rate and are very politically involved," he tells Ynet. "They are always 'more,' perhaps because they are relatively educated or feel committed to the democratic idea of voting and making a difference."

 

And if anyone still thinks that US Jews vote for a president seen as convenient to Israel, Kurtzer rushes to shatter that illusion.

 

"Israelis are always surprised when they discover that despite all the talk about Israel within the communities – and there is always a lot of talk about Israel – most of the population does not vote for a president based on his foreign policy in the Middle East.

 

"The American Jew votes for his president according to the usual measures: Economic policy, or identification with social values. Israel has nothing to do with it.

 

"On the other hand, there is a lot of talk, especially among certain population groups like Israelis (the American definition for former Israelis), who believe Obama does not sympathize with Israel or even seen him as anti-Israel, and it bothers them. But most Jews see this issue as unrelated."

 

Divided communities

Kurtzer's analysis shows that what Israelis see from here – Jews don't see from there.

 

"They really don't see a difference between the candidates in terms of Israel, and as far as they are concerned, the United States was and remains 'the great friend.' There are those who are very satisfied with Obama's attitude toward Israel.

 

"In the worst-case scenario, they just don't care, and that's what makes our efforts at the Hartman Institute, to connect them to Israel, more important."


היהודים האמריקאים אוהבים את הנשיא שלהם מחובר ליהדותם. אובמה ורומני בכותל (צילום: אוהד צויגנברג , AP)

US Jews like their president to be connected to Judaism. Obama and Romney at Western Wall (Photos: Ohad Zwigenberg, AP)

 

In addition, American Jews like to see their president connect to their Judaism: Wearing a skullcap while lighting Hanukkah candles, surrounded by Jews at the White House, and conducting a proper Passover Seder. And although the US acts under the banner of separating religion and state, it still is a religious country.

 

"Separating religion and state means that religion is not supported financially – and that religions cannot be advanced or canceled," says Kurtzer. "When it comes to this issue there is complete freedom. That's why it is mistakenly associated with neutrality, which is not at all true: The United States is a very religious country – once Christian, and now Jewish-Christian.

 

"This entire arrangement is very convenient for Jews. They have never been persecuted in America, and if 50 years ago they felt comfortable with their Jewishness, but did not feel comfortable expressing it in public – today the situation is completely different. (US President) Barack Obama is the first president to conduct a Passover Seder at the White House, and he feels very comfortable around Jews and Judaism."

 

How do your communities deal with the fact that their members vote for different candidates? Are cupcakes tossed in the air during the Shabbat morning Kiddush?

 

The question does make him laugh, but Kurtzer believes that today – more than ever – US Jews are not afraid to stretch the familiar political boundaries and openly play in both candidates' courts.

 

"It definitely creates communal tension. Jews have a very clear and long history of traditionally voting for the Democratic Party in America. It's quite surprising, because the Democrats have always represented the social and poor side, while the Republicans were the rich and educated.

 

"It would have been natural to vote for (the Republicans), but the general feeling in the communities was that (the Democrats) better represent Jewish values.

 

"Now many changes are taking place. Suddenly, quite a few Jews are finding themselves on the Republican side. Communities are sometimes divided, and groups are formed which feel more comfortable there because of the traditional values and the approach toward Israel.

 

"So yes, it's beginning to change. I believe that the more comfortable Jews feel in America, the more they feel the need to stretch the spectrum of opinions and stances."

 

Educated not to be ashamed of Israel

Kurtzer sees Jewish values as very important, "and yet, I don't think it has anything to do with the political issue or America. So in many cases, there is no connection between my identity as a Jew and my vote.

 

"As for Obama and Bibi (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), I still think Obama could have done it differently, and yet I sleep better at night with him in the White House, even if I personally feel uncomfortable about the bad relations between them."


"חצי מהפעילות החברתית של יהודי ארצות הברית היא שגורמת להסתכלות אוהדת על ישראל". ד"ר יהודה קרצר (צילום: באדיבות מכון הרטמן)

'Half of US Jews' social activity leads to a favorable perception of Israel.' Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer (Photo courtesy of Shalom Hartman Institute)

 

The project launched by Kurtzer and his friends is an almost heroic attempt to make a change in the direction American Jewry is headed to: Breaking off from Israel and Israelis.

 

But before the disconnection, Kurtzer and his friends must deal with the shame – the prevalent feeling among an average American Jew when the word Israel or Israelis is raised along with "occupation."

 

"It really is a difficult problem," he says cautiously. "Let's try to looks at the good and optimistic side of shame. At least that's what I said to a student of mine who raised the same issue. If they are shamed, it means they feel obligated and responsible, and that's a feeling of Jewish brotherhood. If they feel that what Israel does affects them positively or negatively, it means there is a connection.

 

"Young Jews really feel ashamed, especially in light of what they hear on campus. But then many of them come to Israel and feel differently. They fall in love with the Hebrew they hear from every direction on the street. I personally don't want them to feel ashamed, but it's better than being indifferent."

 

'They look at you differently because of us'

Kurtzer defines himself as a "proud American Jew and an enthusiastic and devoted Zionist."

 

"I feel proud of America and see it as my homeland," he says. "That doesn't contradict or interfere with my deep connection to Israel.

 

"Try to imagine the American foreign policy toward Israel without an organization like AIPAC. Ask yourself whether without it the government would be so pro-Israel. Half of the social activity of US Jews leads to a favorable perception of Israel. They look at you differently because of us.

 

"And yet, we profit from it too. Louis Brandeis once said that Zionism makes American Jews better Americans, and that is an accurate statement. There is no reason why we can't have it both ways, but do it together with you."

 

 

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