Jewish Americans have differences of opinion on how and whether they can criticize Israel from afar. But they agree the bulk of Jewish Americans –especially those who are young and not Orthodox – are increasingly indifferent toward or alienated from the country, mostly because of the weakening of their sense of Jewish identity.

That was the unexpected consensus reached at a panel on the expectations of Diaspora Jews from Israel held at the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem on Thursday.

Leon Wieseltier, the silver-haired literary critic of US magazine The New Republic, summed up the the main thrust of the debate – which surprisingly focused more on the flaws of Jewish education in America rather than the perceived imperfections of the Jewish state – in a sentence.

“Jewish Americans have been overwhelmed by trivia and transient news and forgot the first Jewish principles,” he said.

The debate started off rather expectedly. Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), took aim at Peter Beinart, saying the journalist’s outspoken criticism of Israel in his recent book The Crisis of Zionism – in which he went so far as to call for a boycott of products from Jewish settlements in the West Bank – was mistaken.

“Our support – my support – my love [of Israel] is unconditional,” he said. “It does not depend on the level of Israel meeting my goals. My Zionism is not in crisis because it does not depend on my vision of what I want Israel to be.”

Foxman said Jews overseas may and sometimes must speak their minds on social and religious issues in Israel, but matters relating to national security were out of the question because Jewish Americans would not have to deal with the consequences.

Beinart identified himself as a passionate Zionist concerned with the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state on his mind. The CUNY journalism professor said the settlements undermined the prospect of reaching a two-state solution with the Palestinians and that, in turn, diminished Israel’s ability to remain liberal, democratic and Jewish.

“If the two-state solution dies, younger Jews may go to the secular one-state solution,” he said. “That will be a disturbing consequence, and will lead to a huge rift in American Jewry.”

Alana Newhouse, editor of Jewish online magazine Tablet, said the sense of crisis Beinart spoke about in his book was overblown and “did not exist.”

While Jewish Americans often disagreed with their Israeli brethren, she said, it was “easy to talk oneself out of a good relationship.” She urged “a lowering of the temperature of the discussion.”

Pierre Besnainou, a French Jew and former leader of the European Jewish Congress, found himself in the middle of a very Jewish-American debate.

He used his time to remind the audience there were Jews outside Israel and the US and urged Israel to invest directly in education in France, which has the third-largest Jewish community in the world.

But the focus of the debate soon returned to the US. Speaking last, Wieseltier delivered an elegant, impassioned and at times also humorous speech. He rebutted Foxman’s “unconditional love,” saying he found “conditional love” to be better.

“No unconditional love – this is infantilizing,” he said. “My love for Israel is unconditional, but it is also conditional. I can still justify my conditional love when I look overall at what Israel has done with state power.”

Giving a brief history of the Jews in America, he said that for too long they had lived “vicariously,” either through the tragedy of European Jews in the Holocaust or the triumph of the creation of a Jewish homeland in Israel. That, however, could not last.

“Finally the moment of truth for American Jews is arriving,” he said.

Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner, who moderated the debate, said he was impressed by the civility of the exchange. But, he added, after apologizing in advance for his “Israeli bluntness,” that none of the speakers offered much in terms of pragmatic solutions to the problems they raised.

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