New York, the Waldorf Astoria hotel ballroom, 350 guests, mostly middle-aged,
wearing tuxedos and long, expensive dresses. At the podium, a keynote speaker:
The chairman of a UJA chapter with a CV decorated with great philanthropic
activities for Jewish communities in America and for their poor relations in
“Brothers and sisters, these are again difficult times for us in
the Jewish community – we face difficult challenges of dangerous assimilation
amongst our young, of suffering of our elderly, of anti-Semitic outbursts all
over America, of an unprecedented delegitimization of our beloved State of
Israel, of 22 dangerous Arab countries threatening the one small Jewish state
with fanatic Islamic fundamentalism. And we say ‘Never again!’ (standing
“There is only one weapon we have to withstand these
onslaughts: Jewish unity! I therefore call on all of you to donate to the new
UJA Unity Fund. Long live the great United States of America, long live
our beloved State of Israel, and long live our guest of honor, the one and only
Moshe Knetzweiler, who launched with his generosity the UJA Unity
A standing ovation once again and then hefty portions of boiled
chicken, endless photo opportunities and effective fund-raising for
That same night, on the other end of Manhattan, a group of
liberal intellectuals get together near New York University to discuss civil
rights in America.
They are gathered in an old Bleecker Street loft, most
of them in their 30s, seated on comfortable sofas, sipping white wine and
listening to a young Reform rabbi from a synagogue on the Upper West Side, Shula
Middel: “New York has become intolerant. I have Jewish neighbors who are
terrified when they see young African-Americans on ‘their’ street, not to speak
of going to Harlem.
"In Brooklyn the other day, there were violent clashes
between Yeshiva boys and African-Americans playing basketball – some kind of war
over turf. The rabbis and the black leaders came out with terrifying statements.
Have we forgotten that in the civil rights movement blacks and Jews marched
together? Today I hear racist talk, also in our midst. Have we lost our
moral heritage? We have to rescue our Jewish heritage and moral
Polite applause. Those present decided to create a dialogue group,
between young Jewish and African-American students at NYU.
Jewish community, though big (6.5 million strong) and powerful politically and
economically, is struggling to preserve in different ways its Jewish
I became acquainted with this impressive Jewish community
during my tenure as Israeli consul-general in New York in the early ’90s – an
experience that contributed to my own Jewish identity.
In Israel, there
are myths and misperceptions about American Jews. Most of us believe that Israel
is the centerpiece of Jewish American life, that the choice is between strong
national identification with Israel or assimilation into the gentile world, that
American Jews are nationalistic in their outlook about Israel and support
hawkish positions on peace in the Middle East. The reality, based on studies and
research, is much more complex.
Most Jews in the Land of Promise want
themselves and their children to remain Jewish, despite a 50-percent
intermarriage rate. In their view, education and communal life are key to this
(half of intermarried couples give their children Jewish
Communal life – the Jewish Community Center – is central as
many educational, recreational, religious and organizational activities are
created around it. There is also a vibrant Jewish cultural life, from Broadway
to Hollywood, from East Coast intellectuals and writers to West Coast film
It’s a culture that blends with the general American culture,
often in very prominent ways – from Arthur Miller to Steven
Jews generally enjoy – in contrast with the myth of rampant
anti-Semitism in America – tolerance from other parts of the American mosaic. In
December every store and TV station wishes the public both Merry Christmas and
Happy Hanukka. Many Jews are themselves living the American dream. This is not
to say that Israel – as the one Jewish state – is not important to most American
Jews. It is important, but less central than we are asked to
Their Jewishness is more defined by America than by Israel,
otherwise they would move here.
Jews in America are to a large degree
liberals, probably the most liberal-leaning religious group.
They had a
prominent role in the civil rights movement in the ’60s and thereafter in the
American feminist movement. This is not surprising for an immigrant population,
of which more than 60% enjoy a college education and 45% report an annual income
of over $100,000. The largest Jewish presence is in New York and California, 38%
of American Jews are Reform, 33% are Conservative and 22% Orthodox. Reform
rabbis – men and women – perform, as a matter of routine, same-sex
Jews therefore traditionally vote in very high numbers for the
Democratic Party, with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama receiving up to 80% of the
Jewish vote and Obama also highly favored by Jews in the upcoming elections.
They traditionally hold moderate positions on Middle East peace, with a vast
majority supporting a two-state solution. They have a strong bond with Israel,
as the one Jewish state, but when it comes to American elections, Israel-related
policies are only the fourth-most important consideration for choosing the next
president, after domestic issues.
Yet they support Israel, donate to it, visit
it (although over 50% have not) and some also invest in it. American Jews are
very interested in a good relationship between Washington and Jerusalem – the
opposite, they fear, as when Jonathan Pollard was arrested, could bring their
“double loyalty” into question.
The false mythology of Israelis about
American Jews being more Orthodox, conservative and nationalistic on Israel than
they really are, stems from us looking more at the expressions of institutional
US Jewish life vis-à-vis Israel, than at Jewish life itself.
believe that AIPAC or the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations
is what American Jewry is all about. These organizations, which have
historically rendered great service to Israel, are by and large more Orthodox,
conservative and hawkish than the Jewish community they claim to
While most American Jews have views on Israel and peace in the
Middle East that reflect the Clinton and Obama visions, AIPAC does not – when it
comes to a two-state solution, settlements and Jerusalem. In the Conference of
Presidents there is an over-representation of Orthodox and right-leaning
organizations and individuals.
American Jews also have deep
misconceptions about Israel. They see it as a much more needy society than we
really are, a function of the constant fund-raising efforts for impoverished
Israeli townships, neighborhoods and the educational system.
Israeli “shnor” has not exactly created a sense of an economically self-reliant
American Jews generally see our very existence as more
threatened than it really is, result of a constant hasbara (public diplomacy)
campaign about the existential threat that the Muslim world poses to us, often
using Holocaust-related perceptions.
American Jews are distancing
themselves from Israel culturally, with Israel becoming more of a Sephardi
society and more integrated in the Middle East. They also see us as more hawkish
than we are, due to the long supremacy of the Likud, while Israeli public
opinion, although still supporting the Likud, has moved more to the Center on
the issues of territory and a two-state solution, which have become virtually
consensus among us.
This clash of misperceptions between the two
most-important Jewish countries in the world is detrimental to a vital
relationship for both sides. As the sovereign State of Israel, I believe it is
up to us to restore this relationship within the Jewish family – to transform it
into a relationship more between people than between leaderships, in the
following ways: • First and foremost, there needs to be an understanding that
the relationship between Israel and the American Jewry is vital to both sides in
preserving our Jewishness, values and well-being.
• There needs to be
greater learning about each other. Israeli youth hardly know anything about
American Jews and see in them a wealthy overseas “uncle.” The Israeli government
sees American Jews in a purely utilitarian manner, in terms of potential clout
and donations. Both need to learn what the American community is really all
about through an ongoing dialogue and, for the youth, through the education
• American Jews, especially the young, should visit Israel more
frequently and for longer periods.
• American Jews should internalize
that Israel is central to Jewish life, as a world without Israel would be very
different for them.
• An important part of remaining close is
language. Israel and the Jewish Agency should dispatch many more Hebrew
teachers to American Jewish day schools and Sunday schools. Speaking Hebrew will
contribute to the Jewish identity of the community and to its ties with
• Israel should attract more Jewish American investment into the
Israeli economy, mainly in the hi-tech area. The constant emphasis on donations
makes us look poor and needy, and hardly a center of Jewish life.
Israel should encourage open debate about Israel and the situation in the Middle
East. Israel’s traditional paternalistic attitude of “you don’t live here, you
don’t have the right to express your views” paralyzes all interest in what is
going on here.
• In general the more attractive a country we are in terms
of our achievements, values and place among the nations, the more attractive we
will be to American Jews.
This relationship highlights the importance of
preserving Jewishness in the 21st century. President Shimon Peres once said that
the whole issue of “Who is a Jew” should not only center on what our parents
were, but even more so on if our children will remain Jewish.
American Jews it is a matter of education and of the relationship to Israel. For
us it is our ability to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, and not as a
binational state. And for both it is about an open, value-based relationship
between the Jews in the Promised Land and the Jews in the Land of
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served
as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.