A correct emphasis

The mid-term elections were a blow to most American Jews. A community known for its quest for social justice, including the state-funded variety, has woken up to a new reality.

November 8, 2010 02:03
3 minute read.
Netanyahu meets Biden

Netanyahu and Biden in New Orleans 311. (photo credit: GPO)

The nature of relations between Israel and the American Jewish community is always high on the agenda at the Jewish Federation of North America’s annual General Assembly. And this year is no different.

Conversion policy in Israel and its impact on Diaspora Jewry is the subject of one panel at the GA, which opened on Sunday. Others are being devoted to combating the delegitimization of Israel on college campuses and in the media. The Israeli economy and the troubling phenomenon of income inequality will also be discussed, as will the importance of ensuring equality for Arab Israelis.

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In all, no fewer than a dozen different panels will deal with Israel or Diaspora-Israel ties during the five-day assembly. And Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been meeting on the sidelines of the assembly with Vice President Joe Biden in an attempt to renew negotiations with the Palestinians.

Notwithstanding the centrality of Israel in the GA’s itinerary, however, this coming year is likely to be one of introspection and increased focus on domestic issues for American Jewry. And this may come at the expense of American Jewry’s ties with Israel.

The mid-term elections were a blow to most American Jews. A community known for its quest for social justice, including the state-funded variety, has woken up to a new reality.

Exasperation with excessive government spending and high unemployment rates of 10 percent – not including the many thousands of unemployed who have given up looking for work altogether and are therefore unrecorded in the figures – has spawned a major grassroots movement, the Tea Party, short on deep political thought but showing a resonant singleness of purpose in its push for budget cuts.

In recent years numerous Jewish social activists, including those belonging to the Jewish federation system, have fought for state and federal budget layouts to broaden the social safety net and to expand benefits for the needy, whether Jewish or not.

According to a J Street poll, two-thirds of Jewish voters last week chose Democratic candidates. This is less than the 78 percent Jewish vote garnered by Democratic President Barack Obama in 2008, but disproportionately higher than the national average in the midterm election. With the Tea Party-inspired Republican majority in the House, the Jewish community will be prompted to reexamine its domestic obligations. And private Jewish philanthropy, which is still weak, will not even come close to offsetting the expected government cuts.

In addition, Jewish institutions throughout the US are reassessing security arrangements following last month’s mail-bomb threat, ostensibly directed against two unnamed Jewish institutions in Chicago. Unlike the Seattle Jewish Federation shooting of six people, which was seen as a lone-wolf attack, the new threat is coming from Al-Qaida, an international terror network that appears to be targeting US Jewish facilities. About 200 Jewish community representatives took part in a conference call with the FBI last week to discuss the threats.

Jewish voters’ priorities were underlined in a recent poll conducted by Jim Gerstein for J Street in the state of Pennsylvania. When they were asked about the two issues “most important for you in deciding your vote in the Senate race this year,” the economy scored first with 53%, health care was second at 35%, education third at 15%.

Israel was eighth, at 8%.

IT IS only natural for American Jews to focus on domestic issues, especially when the economy is weak and the threat of Muslim terror is once again very real.

But throughout modern Israel’s short history there has always been a symbiotic relationship between the Jewish state and the Diaspora. While the State of Israel embodies a more particularistic expression of Jewish nationhood based on territory and political sovereignty led by a Jewish majority, the Diaspora represents a more abstract, universalistic Judaism, engaged directly with non-Jews and tending to emphasize the spiritual and religious aspects of what it means to be Jewish.

Both dimensions of Jewishness are essential to the successful future of the Jewish people. Amid all their domestic challenges, formidable though they may be, it is appropriate and necessary that American Jewish leaders are also emphasizing the importance of their relationship with Israel as they convene in New Orleans this week.

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