Recalling a 1965 visit to Israel as a youngster, leading scholar of American Jewish history and Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna feels that one of the blessings of his life has been to observe the transformation of the country in general and Jerusalem in particular.

With vivid memories of the Jordanian border seemingly at every few steps and what it felt like to have Jordanian soldiers pointing guns at such close range, he was also struck by how many people knew each other in those days and how much respect emanated from layman to educator.


As he is about to complete his most recent year-long stay in Jerusalem, this time as senior scholar at the Mandel Leadership Institute, the 2009 inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences says he is uplifted by his latest experience but concerned about the future of Jerusalem and Diaspora relations.

“With Israel and America together making up more than 80 percent of world Jewry, it’s very important that they understand one another,” says Sarna, whose 2004 book American Judaism: A History has won six awards, including the Jewish Book Council’s Jewish Book of the Year Award.

“American Jews take courses in Israel studies in many universities, and American Jews in colleges learn more about Israel than they did before. I’m not sure if there has been a comparable growth in the understanding of American Jewry on the part of Israelis. I’m glad when I’m here to do my part in trying to explain the American Jewish community to audiences.”

On the subject of Jerusalem itself, Sarna is passionate about the age-old Jewish connection but sensitive to the fact that Jews are not its only residents. Though Israel may have given Arabs from Jerusalem’s eastern neighborhoods citizenship after 1967, now 43 years later he notes that it’s impossible to say they are treated equally. If Israel wants to keep Jerusalem undivided, he says, that situation must change.

Sarna also believes that while Jerusalem is meant to be a beacon of light to the nations, it may want to look to American Jewry for inspiration in bridging the religious-secular divide and disagreements among Judaism’s different streams.

Do you think American Jews are looking at Jerusalem the same way they did 20 years ago or have their attitudes and perceptions changed?

It’s very important not to lump 5.2 million American Jews together. Sure, there are young Jews born long after the Six Day War who think differently about Jerusalem and don’t remember what it was like divided. They don’t like hearing negative things about Israel, and they are somewhat embarrassed by what they do see, hear and read. As a result, some of them would like to see peace at almost any cost – even at the cost of parts of Jerusalem.

But let’s take a look at the spectrum. The Orthodox community is growing, and among young Jews it may be as much as 25% of the entire contingent. The community is very positive about Jerusalem, as many have studied here and have relatives both here and in the West Bank – what they would call Judea and Samaria – and feel very strongly about retaining those areas.

Moving to the Left, you have people who are excited about Israel, and then you have people who are deeply interested and almost obsessed with Israel but highly critical. They are the American equivalents of people who read Haaretz, and many are on the American Left. I think it is much easier for them to learn about the liberal critiques of Israel than it used to be because they can read Haaretz in English online. 

This group of critics is well informed about Israel, they visit and care a great deal about the Jewish state. They also have friends here. The news they share may be about the demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah and their antipathy toward the government and what they perceive as a wicked regime, which embarrasses them. But they still care a lot about Israel’s future, even if others may consider them misguided.

Then there are other American Jews, especially children of intermarried couples, who are completely disengaged. In some cases they know Israel wouldn’t recognize them as Jewish, so why, they say, should they care about it? Catholics are not so obsessed with Rome, they observe, so why should they be obsessed with a homeland? That group, I think, is growing in numbers.

In short, American Jewry is diverse. Each of those groups requires a different strategy and a different response, and I think it’s unfortunate to lump them all together. It is true that in an organization like J-Street you have some people who are truly opposed to the very existence of the State of Israel and others who love the State of Israel but simply disagree with its politics and would be devastated if it were harmed. There’s a substantial amount of tension in J-Street between those two views. 

Overall, when looking at the current American Jewish community, its spectrum of views now mirrors the exact spectrum here in Israel: The critics in America are no different in tone and content from the critics one reads in the Israeli press. The reason is that the Internet has obliterated the distinction between what is meant for internal consumption and what is for external use.

Every US president since the 1995 Embassy Act has turned down moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, citing national security reasons. Does this affect American Jewish attitudes toward Israel’s capital?

Again, there are certainly American Jews who are very unhappy with America’s unwillingness to move the embassy and have backed efforts to force a shift in policy. Overall, though, I think American Jews are happiest when they’re in sync with both Israel and with America – when all are on the same page.

Whenever there are fights between the countries, American Jews become uncomfortable.

It is analogous to the average husband who is happiest when his wife and his mother get along and is very uncomfortable when they start to fight with each other. When the US government says that it can’t open an embassy in Jerusalem and Israelis insist that Jerusalem is their country’s capital, that is one of those grave differences between one’s “wife” and one’s “mother” that make American Jews uncomfortable.

There are American Jews, especially in academia, who think that Jerusalem should be internationalized, that everyone should share Jerusalem. I do not think that is a broadly felt view, and I think that those with long memories like me remember how Jewish sites in Jerusalem were treated when Jerusalem was in Arab hands and remember the city divided. From my perspective, it is unthinkable that Jerusalem should ever again be divided. Instead, it should be universally recognized as Israel’s capital, and my hope is that one day there will be peace and that will happen.

So what is the solution for Jerusalem?

Obviously Jerusalem will be the most difficult piece of any negotiation. Looking back historically, I think we will say that it was deeply unfortunate that although the Arabs were made citizens of Jerusalem in 1967, Israel did not truly equalize the Arab and Jewish communities, giving them equal city services, equal educational benefits and so forth. Disparities became more apparent after [mayor] Teddy Kollek than before, and we will yet pay a heavy price for this.

Once Jerusalem became part of Israel, all its citizens should have been treated alike, and to the extent that they weren’t I can understand the unhappiness of Jerusalem’s Arabs. The solution to that unhappiness, however, is neither internationalization nor division. The solution is to treat the Arab minority as equals. Indeed, Arab citizens should be treated as equals in every Israeli city.

Anti-Israel propaganda has risen tremendously on campus where Israeli speakers have been forced off podiums. Can Jewish students still feel safe?

I think most of us in the 1960s and 1970s were very proud that social discrimination and anti-Jewish quotas on campus had ended and American Jews could choose whatever college they wanted to go to based on its quality, course of study and where they could get in. We thought the days of asking questions such as whether a college accepted Jews or if Jews would feel comfortable at a certain campus had ended. 

Today, though, parents must ask hard questions before sending their children off to college. The truth is that on some campuses, the line between anti-Israel sentiments and anti-Semitic ones is really a meaningless line and Jewish students feel persecuted.

However, I do not think that every time you hear a criticism of a particular pro-Israel speaker, all Jews on campus are at risk. Sadly, the media often give vast attention to a small minority, which was certainly the case at Brandeis University this May where a small noisy minority opposed [Israeli] Ambassador Michael Oren. The majority overwhelmingly petitioned and voted that he should come. In the end, he was warmly applauded.

Things are admittedly altogether different at some other colleges where Jewish students literally feel threatened with bodily harm. We know that on some campuses, much of the trouble comes from outside agitators, some of them funded by foreign countries. It is disgraceful that there are college campuses that have not worked harder to guarantee free speech and that no harm comes to Jews and supporters of Israel.

In some cases, Middle East studies departments are active centers of anti-Israel sentiment, even going so far as not truly accepting Israel as part of the Middle East. There has been great improvement in recent years due to the funding of Israel studies on campuses; but I think that while it is perfectly reasonable for college to be a place where there is debate, and even reasonable for it to be a place where there are demonstrations, it is totally unreasonable to drown out speakers and make it impossible for them to be heard. The American Jewish community has been working in various ways to change conditions at some of these dangerous campuses, and I lament deeply that some college administrations have been unwilling to crack down on that kind of behavior. Donors should take notice, and there ought to be consequences.

Regarding Palestinian denial of the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, is there any fear of this filtering down and people believing it?

I think there are professors who introduce this material into their classrooms. Many of them are unable to read a word of Hebrew and are completely ignorant of history. This is really not one of those claims that deserve much attention. The notion that Jews have no link to Jerusalem is about as obscene as the statement that the Holocaust didn’t happen. Holocaust denial should be of concern to all of us; and Jewish Jerusalem denial, which is of the same order, should be of deep concern as well.

Elie Wiesel recently wrote in The New York Times that Jerusalem is above politics. Former MK and Meretz chairman Yossi Sarid disagreed. What are your thoughts?

Elie Wiesel is writing as a prophetic figure, and don’t we all wish that Jerusalem would be above politics! Don’t we all wish for a Jerusalem that would be a model for the world of tolerance and religious coexistence! Obviously it’s not there yet.

I think to the extent that Jerusalem becomes the exclusive domain of certain kinds of Jews rather than all Jews and all its citizens, that is deeply unfortunate. In my view, a great mistake was made when the Western Wall was given over to a religious ministry. All kinds of Jews should be welcomed at the Wall, including those who believe that Jews should worship as families, as well as those who believe in segregating the sexes. Those involved in alienating Jews from Jerusalem and its sacred sites are in some ways guilty of helping to create the current situation.

The Jerusalem Yossi Sarid was talking about was today’s Jerusalem, where many secular Jews feel uncomfortable living and in some cases don’t like to visit and where they feel that all sorts of evil and discriminatory things have been done.

Elie Wiesel, by contrast, was talking about a Jerusalem not as it is but as it might be: a Jerusalem that is above politics, a Jerusalem that is holy, a Jerusalem that inspires all who live here and visit here. We’re rather far from Elie Wiesel’s vision, but I admire that vision and I can well understand why many Jews, as well as non-Jews, and even President [Barack] Obama, are drawn to Elie Wiesel’s vision more than Yossi Sarid’s.

How has the American Jewish education system failed or achieved its goals regarding the Jewish connection to Jerusalem?

We have in the US a serious problem in Israel education. Much of the material was created in a post-1967 era where there was a sense that all Jews support Israel and, frankly, not very much was said about Palestinians or alternative narratives.

The problem in non-Orthodox schools is that today young people are reading criticisms of Israel on the Internet or in newspapers or seeing it on television, and most Jewish educators have no idea how to teach the subject.

Teachers find their students disagreeing with the textbooks; and when teachers are uncomfortable teaching or believe their lessons won’t succeed, the tendency is to teach something else. Hence, the focus has shifted to American Jewish history, which is less controversial with much less attention being paid to Israel. It is certainly a problem that many young people learn about Israel only from the newspapers and television rather than from Israel as it really is.

Just as we want young Jews to understand the Holocaust and not be dissuaded by those who say the Holocaust didn’t happen or who use the Holocaust for polemical purposes, so we want young Jews to understand their age-old connection to Jerusalem. After all, much of the Tanach [Bible] and the Siddur do not make sense unless you have some appreciation of what Jerusalem is, what it means, why Jews feel the way they do about it.

What is American Judaism’s role and place in Jerusalem?

To my mind, the great lesson of America is that religion thrives when religion and state are constitutionally separated. That’s really one of America’s greatest lessons to the world and why America is the most religious of all First World countries.

In my view, Jerusalem ought to be a place where all varieties of Judaism – those I like, those I don’t like – are treated equally and all religions are validated. That’s part of the responsibility of holding sovereignty in Jerusalem. Israel should promote it as a place where there is a truly free market in religion and let the market decide.

The impact of American Judaism on Jerusalem, I think, is to teach that Judaism thrives best where the state is not involved with religion and where every synagogue has to appeal to its own members for support. In a pluralistic setting, that is the only way to ensure full religious diversity, while the role of government is to preserve that free market and ensure that nobody is using violence to distort the market in any way.

American Judaism, which I study, has thrived under those conditions; and even if one is critical of American Judaism, one comes away with the understanding that, like capitalism, church-state separation may be the worst system in the world except for all the others.

My own view is that separating religion from state would create a stronger community, a more religious community, and a community from which far fewer Jews would feel alienated. Let the free market which has done so much for Israel’s economic realm be introduced into the religious realm with full appreciation for what free market principles in religion can accomplish. At that point, Elie Wiesel’s vision might truly be realized and Jerusalem would become what the prophets wanted it to be.

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