Fifty-eight-year-old Helen Michaelson of Michigan is the figment of the imagination of a young Jewish-American writer named Aaron Hamburger.
The year is 2000. Michaelson packs up her belongings, her ailing husband and her rebellious son, Jeremy, and goes on a trip to Jerusalem, in the hopes that there, of all places, within the imminent chaos of the second intifada, she will find a kind of redemption for her family and for herself.
Hamburger’s novel, Faith for Beginners, tells her story.
By choosing to visit Israel, Michaelson joins a minority group within American Jewry – the approximately 41% who have ever visited Israel. This group is not homogeneous: The vast majority (73%) of Orthodox American Jews have visited Israel; Conservatives less (53%) and Reform Jews even less so (34%). An even smaller minority of intermarried Jews has taken the trouble of coming for a visit (21%). The differences among age groups are also palpable.
Among those 65 and older, some 50% has come to visit. Among the younger crowd – 35 and under – only 35% has come.
Hamburger himself was interested enough in Israel to stay for a few weeks, and later to write a novel whose plot is set here. He had also visited as a teenager, in part because he has relatives here. But his book isn’t about Israel and Israelis. This is an American book about Americans. Hamburger told me that “Israel is a fine place, but we as North American Jews should recognize that unless we intend to immigrate there, it is not our place.”
Why is it not “our place”? Isn’t it the place of all Jews? Hamburger is skeptical: I think that we need to distinguish between the land promised to Abraham in the Bible, and contemporary Israel, which was founded in 1948, he said. I don’t believe that the Kingdom of Israel, to which we are all meant to return one of these days, can be compared with the parliamentary democracy of the State of Israel, a political entity that was carved out of the British Mandate by the United Nations.
Apparently, Hamburger is one of those “annoying liberals” who don’t take what’s written in the Bible about redemption and the Promised Land “literally.”
And he is not alone in this position.
In a book about the “End of the Jewish Diaspora,” two scholars write that Israel is not the Promised Land for American Jews, and that we need to realize that contemporary Jewry is not made up of a “center” and “diasporas,” but of many, equally important centers.
In a working paper entitled “Identity, Assimilation, Continuity” prepared for the participants of the conference of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem, professors Sergio Della Pergola and Chaim Waxman placed less emphasis on the general support American Jews express for Israel (82%), and more on the fact that only 28% of American Jews define themselves as “Zionists.” The rate of “Zionism” among American Jews drops the younger they get, just like many other aspects related to one’s connection with Israel. For older people, the percentages hover around 40%; for those under 35, it is just over 20%. In other words, for the large majority, including those who have a connection with and support Israel, this constitutes long-distance support for a state where Jews live, but not necessarily an acknowledgment that this state is the state for all the Jews. Zionist Israel may have a hard time relinquishing its perceived front seat, but Jewish America won’t settle for playing second fiddle in the Jewish world either.
Steve Hoffman, former president and CEO of the United Jewish
Communities, put it to me this way: “I don’t know that I’m prepared to
say that Israel is the center of the Jewish people.”
Behind this statement hides an understanding that is not always taken
into account by decision-makers in Israel. The Jews of Israel and the
Jews of America are not only brothers, they are also rivals. For
leadership, for status, for resources and also on the big question:
Where does the future lie? In 2010, the chairman of the Jewish Agency,
Natan Sharansky, decided to set aside aliya as the central goal of the
agency, and instead to focus on the strengthening of Jewish identity.
This, too, is an expression of the realization, that at least for that
same half of world Jewry living in America, aliya is neither a desirable
nor a realistic goal. Basically, it is not a goal at all.
QUITE A FEW American Jewish leaders are concerned about the distancing
from Israel that they see within their communities. This anxiety can be
identified, for example, in meetings with some of the leaders of the
Reform movement. Take what happened at their  convention in
Houston, Texas, where two important and wellknown rabbis got up to talk
on the subject of Zionism in the Reform movement – in a smallish room,
in front of about 50 listeners. It was moving, heartwarming. “Reform
Zionism is religious Zionism,” said Ira Youdovin of Chicago. “We need to
make Reform Zionism more spiritual,” said his colleague, Jeff Salkin,
from Atlanta. The two of them seemed very concerned by the attitude of
their fellow movement members toward Israel. And no wonder.
Only a few dozen came to their event, out of thousands of participants
at the convention. And no, they didn’t think this reflected the
conventiongoers hostility toward Israel – just indifference.
They also cited the polls: 91% of Orthodox Jews feel a strong sense of
belonging to the Jewish people, 74% of Conservatives and only 56% of
Reform Jews. The same goes for the connection with Israel; 68% of
Orthodox Jews say that they feel strongly, as opposed to only 21% of
Reform Jews. The members of our communities, said Salkin, are becoming
more and more American, meaning, they sympathize with Israel in general,
but they don’t have the desired Zionist fervor. Their criticism was
directed inward, at the movement of which they are members, and at whose
biennial convention they spoke. This convention closed itself off to a
discussion about Israel’s image, said Youdovin. No Israeli spokesperson
was invited to the convention. There was no discussion of Israeli
Apparently it wasn’t important enough for the organizers.
The few Israelis who did come to the conference focused on one thing –
fund-raising. But in Houston, most of those present weren’t there to
talk about money. It was a gathering that was part professional – how to
run a community, how to harness the Internet, how to help the elderly –
and part religious. In the evenings they swayed tiredly in their
chairs, listening to a singer doing a cover of “A Very Narrow Bridge.”
Some of those present even mumbled the words, in Hebrew. If you’re going
to pay two or three thousand dollars from your own pocket to spend five
days in as unattractive a city as Houston, you might as well not waste
your time. You might as well learn how to sing.
Topping the agenda at the convention were two central issues – two
political decisions on which the delegates voted: Had the time come for
the Reform movement to make a clear statement about an exit strategy
from Iraq? And, should it express open opposition to the Supreme Court
nomination of the conservative justice, Samuel Alito? Both resolutions
were passed. The resolution regarding Iraq did not fail to mention
support for the troops and appreciation for the troops and helping the
troops, but the bottom line was clear, despite the claim of the head of
the movement that this was a “moderate decision”: Troops need to be
removed, and fast. And of course all this was some time ago, back in
2006, long before President George Bush’s troop surge, long before the
successes of General David Petraeus and his soldiers, when Iraq still
seemed to most Americans to be a lost cause. The Reform movement also
called, at that same convention, for the establishment of an independent
commission to investigate the “failures” leading up to and during the
war, a step that placed it firmly where most of its members stand in any
event – “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as former
presidential candidate Howard Dean called the left wing of the party.
As expected, this decision annoyed some Jews, even within the Reform
movement. In particular there were those who were annoyed by the
assertion that supporting a withdrawal from Iraq is a conclusion that
stems from Jewish traditions on the subject of the war. One Reform
rabbi, Isaiah Zeldin, who signed a letter of protest along with some
friends against the movement’s decision, claimed that the decision was
not “representative.” A strange claim: At the time that the Reform
movement made this decision, between 70% (according to a poll of the
American Jewish Committee) and 77% (according to a Gallup poll) of
American Jews supported a withdrawal.
Even in 2003, when the war began, and when a large majority of Americans
still supported it, a majority of Jews (54%) were against, and
certainly a majority of Reform Jews. So the decision was, in fact, quite
But the most interesting episode in the criticism of the Reform
movement’s decision on the Iraq issue had to do directly with Israel.
And the one who formulated it most sharply was the columnist Lawrence
Kaplan, in a scathing article in The Wall Street Journal: “What is ‘good
for the Jews’ seems to concern the organization less than what is good
for American liberalism,” wrote Kaplan. “A premature withdrawal from
Iraq would be devastating to the cause of the Jewish state... Hence,
when asked to choose between the security of Jews, on the one hand, and
clichés about social equality and inadequate domestic expenditures, on
the other, Reform Jewish leaders have put what they presume to be the
secular equivalent to Judaism above the interests of Judaism itself. The
Union for Reform Judaism stands for many causes. It’s no longer so
clear that Jews count among them.” A biting criticism, to which the
president of the movement responded in a letter to the editor: “Neither
American interests nor the ‘security of Jews’ are served by an endless
war in Iraq,” wrote Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie. The war in fact makes it
difficult for the United States “to confront the nuclear threat from
Iran and the moral horror of Darfur.”
Such an argument can have no winner. One thinks one way – the other
thinks differently. Kaplan was right when he said that Reform Jews did
not place much weight on Israeli interests in their decision. Yoffie was
right when he responded that, even had they placed greater emphasis on
Israeli interests, they would have come to the same decision.
Either way, one good thing came out of this discussion.
The Reform movement’s decision stated that “the absence of mainstream
American Jewish organizations from this debate has created a vacuum in
which other voices are manipulating messages about Jews and Israel in
the context of and in opposition to the Iraq war.” This statement was
aimed at all those pundits and writers who blamed the Jews for
supporting and pushing for war with Iraq, because of their concern for
Israel. In fact, these were Americans blaming the Jews for harming
American interests for the sake of Israeli interests. A malicious,
stupid claim that does not hold water. Therefore, even a harsh critic
like Kaplan identified the value of the clear stance presented by the
Reform movement. This was a position that shatters the myth that Jewish
Americans can’t distinguish between Israeli interests and their own, he
explained. A 2007 analysis by the Gallup Institute proved that he was
right. While the Israeli establishment preferred to see American
steadfastness in Iraq, it became clear that “among the major religious
groups in the United States, Jewish Americans are the most strongly
opposed to the Iraq war.”
ALL THIS leads to an interesting conclusion about the claim of
alienation between the Jews in the United States and in Israel during
the decade between 2000 and 2010.
During these years, Israeli Jews and American Jews stood on opposite
sides of the political divide. And indeed, among the thousands of words
spilled about the decline of interest of American Jews in Israel, most
of the writers wrote primarily about the role of Israeli politics in the
rise in the level of alienation between the two communities, while only
a few dealt with the role of American politics.
This should be dealt with, however, since George Bush’s presidency, as
strange as it might be, was a central factor in widening the gap between
Jews here and there. Bush, for those who have managed to forget, was
president for eight out of 10 of the years between 2000 and 2010.
This is one of those elusive phenomena summoned by the kind of era that
was that decade. Israeli Jews were perhaps the community most favorable
in the world to Bush – certainly more than the general American public.
In contrast, American Jewry was one of the least sympathetic groups
toward Bush. A decisive majority of them opposed the war in Iraq, a
decisive majority also opposed Bush, and many reached the point of real
revulsion, of burning hatred. A mirror image: From a poll conducted by
Professor Camille Fuchs, in November 2007, it emerged that the vast
majority of Israeli Jews do not agree with the statement that Bush is “a
threat to the world” – although that was the opinion at the time of the
vast majority of residents of Western countries (not to mention the
Middle East), and also of the majority of American Jews.
In a poll conducted by Fuchs two years earlier, Israeli Jews clearly
preferred Bush over his democratic rival, John Kerry. But the Jews of
America voted en masse for Kerry.
In other words, there is a powerful political divide between Jews in
Israel and in the United States, not over what is happening in the
Israeli political arena, but in terms of the American political arena.
Some American Jews had a hard time digesting this reality when it
confronted them. One event that drew prominent headlines was Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert standing next to Bush and describing the
despised war in Iraq as an achievement. If Bush was the kind of leader
that Israel respects, if Bush was the kind of leader that sympathizes
with Israel – then how could they identify with Israel? Bush’s support
of Israel took its toll on Israel’s relations with the Jews. Bill
Clinton, the friendliest US president before Bush, and Lyndon Johnson,
the friendliest before Clinton, never put the Jews to such a test. They,
too, received Jewish votes and espoused a Middle East policy that was
acceptable for the majority of them. Bush was the first whose support
for Israel had a price tag for Israel, even if hidden from the eye,
among other important supporters in America. He made it difficult for a
specific Jewish community to understand Israel and facilitated their
distancing from it. This trend has continued – inversely – during the
first two years of the administration of Barack Obama, who is beloved of
the majority of American Jews but suspect in the eyes of a majority of
Israelis.Translated by Tamar Cohen