The greatest Jewish crisis: Growing estrangement from Israel
The Zionist dream that united US Jews up until several years ago is fading away, which is reflected in fewer donations to Israel and avoidance of Jewish community life. ‘Today, the discourse about Israel is divisive. The conversations about Israel get very heated,’ says a senior member of one of the major pro-Israel Jewish organizations.
“We are members of an organization called GatherDC, which was founded about a year ago. Our goal is to create networking opportunities between young Jews living and working in the American capital,” said one of the members of the group, which also included a young rabbi.
Considering the location of the meeting and the friendly message these young people arrived with, it seemed like a promising start. What could go wrong with Jews who just want to spend some quality time together? But several minutes later, the Israeli delegation members found out that the pleasant words were hiding a complex and alarming reality, which could be referred to as “Israel’s relations with the US Jewry in 2017.”
“I joined because I saw on Facebook they had Happy Hour,” one of the young women said when asked why she had decided to join an organization that defines itself as Jewish but non-religious. “It’s an organization that aims to create friendships and connections between Jews. Being Jewish is much more than Israel; it’s family, roots, ties, community and nostalgia. It’s neither about Israel nor about religion.”
And what about Israel, the Israelis in the room asked. Is it part of the organization’s narrative? “Israel is a difficult topic,” the group’s rabbi replied. “It’s hard to deal with Israel, so it’s not a topic with deal with. We are neutral in our content, and Israel is a topic that evokes disputes. We prefer not to deal with Israel.”
And one of the young women added, “I don’t really understand what Israel has to do with my Jewish identity. I ignored Israel for years. It’s hard to come together on this topic today.”
Some 6,000 young Jews are already coming together as part of the organization today, but not for Israel. They come together on everything, in fact, apart from Israel. In the Jewish American narrative, Israel no longer unites. In fact, it turns out, it actually divides.
‘Israel’s decisions have consequences’
This insight repeated itself quite a few times throughout the tour of the different Jewish communities in Washington and in New York. And as the hours and days went by, the extent of the rift became clearer: That majestic dream that was revived 70 years ago and turned into great pride it was once nice to be affiliated with, lost its glamour on the way and turned into an emotional, national, political and identical burden.
“Israel united the Jews in the past,” said a senior member of one of the major pro-Israel Jewish organizations in the United States, who requested to remain anonymous, “but it’s becoming increasingly difficult. Today, the discourse about Israel is divisive. The conversations about Israel get very heated. Even in the synagogues, rabbis are forced to stop discussions about Israel because they become very loud and focus on left-right division.”
In AIPAC, which works to strengthen the relations between Israel and the US and exerts political pressure on Capitol Hill in favor of the Jewish state, officials try to convey a sense of optimism but admit there are difficulties.
“The number of Jews involved in any type of activity is small,” a senior organization official noted. “We haven’t found sufficiently creative ways to make people come and be active. The Israelis should know that their decisions have consequences in the US Jewish community. In any event, we will keep working for Israel, but there are new challenges every day.”
‘Being Jewish is expensive’
The roots of American Jews’ slow disengagement from Israel branch out in many directions, and it’s hard to put a finger on the main reason for the serious crisis in the ties these days. It would be pretty superficial to blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But Israel’s policy on the territories and the Palestinians, the decisions the government made on the Western Wall and conversion issues, as well as the ultra-Orthodox’s attitude towards Reform and Conservative Jews, who together make up the majority among some 7 million American Jews, all contribute to the expending rift between the two parts of the Jewish people—here and there.
An average young American has trouble accepting and coming to terms with what he sees in Israel today. He finds it even more difficult to live with the brutalization of the political and public discourse, which reminds him quite a bit of Donald Trump’s American political discourse. Considering the fact that most American Jews are secular (in Israeli terms) and liberal, and vote for the Democratic Party, it isn’t difficult to understand the inability to identify with the Israeli public discourse. And it doesn’t just have to do with the conflict between Netanyahu and former US President Barack Obama.
The Jews, mainly the young ones who were not raised on the ethos of the Jewish state’s establishment, have trouble declaring themselves pro-Israel. Such a declaration carries a price, a heavy one. Quite a few young Jews prefer to disengage from Israel and from declared Zionism and clearly opt for the humanistic values they were educated and raised on. On campus, for example, they join human rights organizations that are willing to admit them as long as they don’t define themselves as Zionist.
“Wanting to join a movement that supports black peoples’ rights on campus, and supporting Israel and the occupation of the territories in the same breath, don’t go together,” explained a senior official in one of the Jewish organizations. “Young Jews are forced to make a choice, and supporting Israel makes things difficult for them when dealing with questions of identity.”
“I’m very concerned by the relations between the two communities,” admitted Conservative Rabbi Eliot Cosgrove of New York during a panel with two colleagues, and Orthodox rabbi and a Reform rabbi. “At the moment, there are two communities going in opposite directions. In Israel, positions and hearts are being hardened, and the Haredim are managing the discourse over our personal identity. The Western Wall is a symbol of the hardened soul of Israelis who aren’t trying to understand their brethren.
“I don’t think the dispute is only about religion, however. I read that 65 percent of Israelis didn’t want Elor Azaria to go on trial. A liberal and democratic American who reads this sees a critical democratic value being jeopardized in Israel. It’s extremely troubling.”
Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington, described a situation in which—regardless of Israel—young Jews are fleeing the familiar community life in the US.
“An average Jew will tell you today that he doesn’t have to belong to a congregation,” she said. “More and more young people are refusing to be part of synagogues. They come together around specific subjects. Most Jews who do connect with Judaism do it through the Reform and Conservative movements. People don’t want to pay so much money to the synagogues, so they organize groups and engage in other social activities. Being Jewish these days is expensive. Young people just won’t pay.”
‘The state of Jews or the state of Israelis’
Since arriving in New York, Israeli Consul-General Danny Dayan has been warning Prime Minister Netanyahu of the serious crisis faced by the Jewish people.
“We have to decide whether we are a state for Jews or a state for Israelis,” he says. “If we’re only a state for Israelis, fine, but it has consequences and carries a price. I believe we should be a state for Jews, but today we don’t pass the ‘Jewish state’ test. We stopped showing an interest in the US Jewry as soon as their donations became less important and as soon as we got a sympathetic administration in the White House. The Western Wall and the conversion issue are just symptoms resulting from our lack of interest in them.”
Dayan’s warnings, by the way, went unheeded. Netanyahu listened and nodded as usual, but nothing has changed so far. Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute and a social entrepreneur promoting “Tikkun Olam” (literally, “repairing the world”), has warned of the erosion of Israel’s status among US Jews and of the ramifications of this erosion. In a small forum led by senior members of New York’s Jewish community, Grinstein defined the situation as “a perfect storm” and the cancellation of the Western Wall plan as “a nuclear explosion.”
“US Jews are a national asset, which reinforces Israel’s national security,” he explained. “But the situation is very serious and extremely dangerous, as more and more Jews are drifting away from Israel, donating less and being less connected. We must not give up, but the situation is very complex.”
Just want to be accepted
The cancellation of the Western Wall egalitarian prayer area plan and the controversial conversion bill infuriated US Jews primarily because of the feeling of rejection from the State of Israel.
“Most US Jews don’t want and don’t need help from Israel,” Guila Franklin Siegel explained in a meeting with the Israeli delegation in Washington. “They simply want to be accepted. It’s called acceptance. It was a very bad year because of the Rabbinate and the Western Wall plan. How can a Jewish student be taught to love Israel, when Israel informs him he isn’t Jewish? We were hit in the head this year, and it will take time to fix what happened.”
In a meeting with a senior Democratic Congress member and with two political advisors from both sides of the aisle, the three warned of the consequences of Prime Minister Netanyahu's past and present actions in the American political arena, when he decided to address the two Houses of Congress in defiance of President Obama. While they define the speech as “excellent,” they believe its negative implications are still felt to this very day.
‘Hard to get liberal politicians to sign for Israel’
AIPAC officials have also been warning of the changes taking place both below and above the surface. “The easiest thing today is to pass a decision for Israel,” said a senior AIPAC official, “but it won’t last if we’re not active. More and more Democrats are changing their thinking, and we are concerned by the future generation of politicians. In the Right, there is a rise in anti-Semitism, while in the Left there is a rise in anti-Israel sentiments.”
“Two things concern me, the Iranian threat and the question of whether support for Israel will become a one-party thing,” said the Democratic Congress member who asked to speak off-the-record. “At the moment, most Congress members are in favor of legislation for Israel. But if this becomes a one-party thing, it would dramatically harm Israel. Netanyahu's Congress speech was prepared inappropriately, and it created real tensions among the Democrats.
“Ten years ago, people in the Democratic Party would vote according to AIPAC’s request. Today, that’s no longer the case. The liberals in this party are much tougher and more influential, and it’s harder to get them to sign in favor of Israel. there’s no doubt that the tensions between Obama and Netanyahu created political damage and a certain rift in Congress. That’s why it’s so important to preserve the bridge between Israel and the US Jewry. But the Israelis don’t understand what’s important to us.”
Eric Goldstein, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, had even harsher criticism to dole out. “In the past, we would unite around Israel,” he said. “Today, Israel is much more complex for the Jews of New York. Israel is becoming more right-wing, and that clashes with the opinions of these people, the vast majority of whom voted for Hillary Clinton. In the past five years, there has been a real retreat in the Jews’ support for Israel. We had people who for years used to donate millions annually, and now they want to stop donating to Israel. We are fighting it, but it’s reality.
“I totally understand the pain of people who are told in Israel that they’re not Jewish enough,” he explains. “We’re in a situation in which we have started to lose focus of Israel’s importance to the Jews in America, and that’s very, very troubling.”
The writer was a member of a Gesher and Diaspora Affairs Ministry delegation meeting with US Jews.