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Israel at 60: Assessing Its Evolving Relationship with American Jews

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May - June 2008

As Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary, writes Michelle Boorstein in The Washington Post (May 11, 2008), it is clear that there is a “changing relationship between American Jews and the Jewish state ... Multiple new polls show that younger American Jews feel less of a connection to Israel than older Jews ... Many experts, Jewish leaders and philanthropists say that the waning attachment felt by some younger American Jews has been caused by changes on both sides. Israel has gone from a scrappy pioneer state of Holocaust survivors to a diverse technology and military power, and American Jews have intermarried and become increasingly absorbed into mainstream secular U.S. culture.”  
Rabbi Aaron Panken, dean of the Hebrew Union College, says, “My guess is we’re seeing a tightening of the core, the core being well-committed but the periphery less so. I think it’s sort of the ultimate application of American individualism. Everyone gets to decide what they believe, and just because your parents cared about something doesn’t mean you will.”  
Israel’s 60th anniversary has revealed an American Jewish community increasingly divided with regard to its relationship to the state, which proclaims itself the “Jewish homeland.”  
Some Jewish leaders maintain that Israel is “central” to their faith. In an editorial in Reform Judaism (Spring 2008), Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president the Union for Reform Judaism, declares that, “We live at an extraordinary moment in the history of the Jewish people. After 2,000 years, we have once again established a sovereign Jewish nation in the Land of Israel ... We are blessed to do what Moses was not permitted to do: to set foot on the soil of the Jewish state. And not only can we walk on her soil; we can build on it. We can watch children grow up on it, speaking the language of the Bible ... Israel needs us as never before. It requires our political activism, our financial support, and our frequent visits.”  
Writing in Tikkun, Rabbi Michael Lerner declares that, “Jews jumped from the burning buildings of Europe into Palestine ... unfortunately, and tragically, we landed on the backs of Palestinians who were already there, and we hurt many of them in our landing. So scarred were we by our own pain — having just witnessed the death of one out of every three Jews alive on the planet — that we were unable to notice or take seriously the pain that we were causing to the Palestinian people in the process. ... The expulsion of the Palestinians from their homes, some by fear of being subject to terrorist attacks consciously planned by Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and the terrorist groups that they led, and others by fear of being caught in a war zone ...”  
What is needed is genuine healing between Israelis and Palestinians, argues Lerner, but, “The organized Jewish community in the United States, prodded on by the Israel Lobby has been one of the major impediments to the kind of discourse, to any peace process that cares equally for both sides. The fact that Barack Obama felt that pressure intensely enough to insert in his speech on race a line about the real problem in the Middle East stemming not from Israel’s relationship to its neighbors but only from Islamic fundamentalism, is only the latest example of the incredible power of the Israel lobby to make questioning Israel’s policies in the U.S. a sure path to political suicide.”  
In Lerner’s view, “... the kind of Zionism that has emerged in Israel is fundamentally incompatible with the highest values of the Jewish tradition, and must be rejected as we develop a compassionate attitude toward the Jewish people of Israel. For those who wish to see Judaism survive the 21st century, a major first step is to separate the religion from its current identity with the policies of a national state that has lots of Jews living in it and that has succeeded in getting many Jews around the world to identify it as ‘The Jewish State.’ ... I want Israel to survive to be strong and to be safe. But I carefully separate my sense of family — which for me is tied quite strongly to the people of Israel — from my understanding of what is required of us to serve God and to preserve Judaism in the contemporary period. For that latter goal we must be willing to apply the prophetic tradition and ask Israelis Isaiah’s powerful question; ‘Who asked you to trample in my Courtyard’ and to defile the holiness of God’s Torah?”  
Writing in The Atlantic (May 2008), Jeffrey Goldberg, the magazine’s national correspondent and author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, notes the irony of some American Jewish leaders calling for American Jews to move to Israel, while the real population movement is of Israelis moving to the U.S. and other countries. According to Goldberg, “... 44 percent of Israelis said they would be ready to leave their country if they could find a better standard of living abroad. There are already up to 40,000 Israelis in Silicon Valley (and more then half a million across the U.S.), and the emigration of Israel’s most talented citizens is a constant worry of Israeli leaders.”  
Beyond this, Goldberg asks: “Does the concentration of so many Jews in a claustrophobically small place in the world’s most volatile region, actually undermine the Jewish people’s ability to survive, an ability that was called into question more than 60 years ago when 33 percent of the world’s Jews were murdered. I do not think it is merely a symptom of Jewish hypochondria to ask such questions.”  
The original secular humane Zionism of the state’s founders, which appealed to the idealism of many American Jews, is no longer in vogue. The Economist (April 5, 2008) reports that: “To today’s haredim a Zionist state means one that upholds Jewish law; to the religious-Zionist settlers, one that returns the Jewish people to all of their biblical lands; to the secular left, a state that is democratic and liberal yet manages to maintain a Zionist majority ... Jews outside Israel ... are questioning all the traditional Zionist assumptions about what the country should mean to them. Israel as a gravitational center of the Jewish world? Not necessarily, say the Jews of America, who are about equally numerous. Israel as a hothouse of Jewish spiritual and cultural life? It is more diverse here, say Jews in America, where Orthodox rabbis lack the hegemony they have in Israel; growing faster here, say Jews in Russia, where the proselytizing Lubavitch movement has engineered a post-Soviet resurrection of Jewish life; more vibrant here, say Jews in Western Europe, where these days lots of non-Jews are studying Hebrew, Yiddish, Torah and Jewish cultural history. Israel as a safe Jewish haven? You must be joking, say Jews almost everywhere, eyeing the rest of the Middle East.”  
As a result, The Economist reports, traditional forms of Jewish support for Israel are changing: “Some of the wealthy foreign Jews whose names adorn almost every Israeli university building, building wing, hospital ward and public garden now wonder if this is the best use of their money. American Jews raised over $340 million in emergency aid during the 2006 Lebanon war, but Isaac Devash, an Israeli philanthropist and entrepreneur, argues that they need to stop compensating for the state’s failings and instead strengthen it by strengthening the society that upholds it.”

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