AB Yehoshua 88.
(photo credit: )
One summer in the early 1970s, my best friend made the obligatory summer trip of an American Jewish teenager to Israel. He returned to New Jersey relieved of his virginity but otherwise unimpressed. Over beers and Allman Brothers records, he complained to me about the rancorous debate in the Knesset, the rugby scrum for bus seats, the paratroopers who bedded all the choicest tourist girls, notwithstanding his own night of good luck in the Negev. "It's like a whole country of Sicilians," he concluded, "except they're all Jews."
Maybe Israel could afford the swaggering indifference back then. To a fault, American Jews built their communal identity around support for Israel, as well as memory of the Holocaust. Fund-raising drives and public rallies peaked during the 1967 and 1973 wars, and in the magical years in-between the vision of a kibbutznik state spoke compellingly to the generation of the counter-culture, no matter how simplistic the received image of folk dancing and farm labor actually was.
You would think a deep, abiding, secure, enduring connection between American Jews and Israel remains a given, a certainty, to look at how two of the most significant figures in the Jewish State have chosen lately to spit in the eye of their galut brethren. First the novelist A.B. Yehoshua chose a luminous conference in May marking the centennial of the American Jewish Committee as the occasion to launch one of his familiar jeremiads against the vapidity of the Diaspora. Then, as the World Zionist Congress convened last week, President Moshe Katsav made a public point of refusing to address Rabbi Eric Yoffie, one of the leaders of the Reform movement in the United States, by his clerical title.
Admittedly, none of this dismissive rhetoric is new. The Zionist endeavor depended on the denigration of exilic Jewish life, sometimes deriding the weak, pale, near-sighted ghetto Jew in a stereotype that could have been borrowed from anti-Semitic tracts. David ben-Gurion exulted in telling American Jews there could be no Zionism without aliya, though I have yet to hear of an instance of a check from abroad going uncashed. In this same tradition, Yeshoshua told the AJC conference, "Being an Israeli is my skin, not my jacket. You are changing jackets. You are changing countries like changing jackets." When his comments incited an uproar, Yehoshua pleaded common sense, saying, "If they were goyim, they would understand it right away."
AS FOR Katsav's condescending attitude toward Yoffie, that, too, has venerable roots in Israeli society. Reform Judaism was a product of Enlightenment-era Germany, and the Conservative movement an invention of 20th century of America, while Israel developed neatly into into dati and lo-dati sectors, with not much exposure to the adaptive streams of Judaism. Israel's founding fathers, eager to enlist some Orthodox allies in the secular state and convinced that reason would outlast religion anyway, granted the Orthodox rabbinate hegemony over marriage, conversion, and other aspects of civil society.
But content is bound up with context, and in rehashing old calumnies in new times both Yehoshua and Katsav betrayed either an incredible ignorance of or a foolish indifference to the deteriorating ties between American Jews and Israel.
EXCEPT IN the Orthodox sector, the bond has been waning for at least a generation, and as the secular, leftist American Jews who disproportionately supported Zionism for much of the 20th century die off, the connective tissue will become only more tenuous. It would be hard to imagine a more self-defeating strategy for Israeli leaders than to insult and snub the American Jews who still care - the sort who attended the AJC conference and the WZC meeting.
On its own terms, Yehoshua's critique of Jewish identity in America has merit. The challenge of residing in and enjoying a tolerant polyglot nation while remaining uniquely committed to Israel is one not easily met. Indeed, the high rate of interfaith marriage for American Jews, and with it the birth of a whole caste of half-Jews, attests to the difficulty in reconciling nationality and peoplehood.
While Yoffie has personally held to an admirable, unflinching standard of Zionism, the Reform movement has enabled the dilution of Jewish identity with its acceptance of interfaith marriage. And during the grim summer of 2001, in the wake of the Dolphinarium suicide bombing, Reform authorities in America cravenly cancelled the summer programs in Israel for high school students.
Such points of contention bear debate and vigorous discourse. What Yehoshua and Katsav supplied was something altogether different, a denial of Jewish legitimacy except on their terms. The secular novelist and the Orthodox politician share the same misapprehension: the way to make an American Jew into a Zionist is to scold or shame him into it.
I cannot conceive of a more losing proposition. As the success of birthright israel has demonstrated - much to my own surprise, I must confess - there exists even in drifting, disengaged American Jewry some latent, ineffable yearning for connection to Israel. Being told you are inherently deficient or insufficiently observant is not exactly the way to capitalize on such feelings.
No sensible American Jew pretends to fully grasp the Israeli experience. In this country, without mandatory military service, precious few Jewish parents could comprehend what the kidnapping of one soldier means to mothers and fathers all through Israel. Still, some of us will experience such events as more than a few dribbles of type on the bottom of the CNN screen, and we'd prefer not to be reviled for our trouble.
The Diaspora no longer exists in any meaningful way. The Jewish world has only two addresses that matter anymore, America and Israel. The "American uncle," to use Yossi Beilin's term, may make a useful, cathartic target, an easy object of ridicule. But is life going to be better when someone else becomes the favorite nephew?
The writer, a regular contributor, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of books including Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.