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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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