THE UNITED States and Israel are currently home to the two largest Jewish communities, but it appears that in recent years these communities have increasingly drifted apart in values and world views, narratives and identities, interests and agendas. This trend reflects natural generational evolution, but this past year’s events – including the Israeli government’s warm embrace of Donald Trump, a controversial President who was opposed by most US Jews, the rise in antisemitism in the United States, Israel’s government reneging on the Western Wall agreement and the religious conversion bill – have heightened the challenges to the relationship between Israel and the US Jewish community. This said, the defense relations and cooperation between Israel and the US remains intense, to the benefit of both.
The Jerusalem Report sat down with experts at the Institute for National Security Studies to talk about what defines and fuels this symbiotic relationship in a stimulating round table discussion. Members of the panel included Distinguished Visiting Fellow and former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro; Senior Research Fellow Brig. (res) Assaf Orion; Research Fellow Dr. Michal Hatuel-Radoshitzky; and Research Fellow Lt.-Col. (res.) Shahar Eilam.
Below are highlights from that conversation which comes as a backdrop to a joint initiative INSS is conducting with the Ruderman Family Foundation. The research program, called “the American Jewish Community and Israel’s National Security,” explores the dynamic between the two communities and attempts to foster understanding as to the different aspects of this relationship , as well as to their unfolding trends, not only in terms of security, but in terms of Israel’s foundational values and identity and of America’s long-term commitment to Israel.How do each of you characterize the relationship between the US Jewish community and Israel; and what are the factors that influence this relationship?
I define it as a relationship between the two largest and two of the most significant and influential parts of the Jewish people as a whole. It’s been a very powerful, mutually reinforcing relationship for much of the last century – certainly all of Israel’s existence – bound by some very powerful common memories, including tragedies, like the Shoah. A very powerful sense of the importance of the establishment and strengthening of the State of Israel; both for its own sake and what it contributes to the Jewish people outside of Israel.
For most of that period – and we hope it’s still the case – there is a mutually supportive relationship where American Jews have felt invested in being allies and partners and contributors to Israel’s security and its prosperity and the strong relationship between Israel and the United States. And Israelis have seen value in engaging with that community in making them feel connected and honored and welcomed as part of the broader Jewish people that Israel feels connected to worldwide. I think historically that has very much defined it.ORION:
We are essentially two parts of one people bound by a story, a book, an identity, shared values and perhaps destiny in certain ways. Israel is a common heart and a binding cord between us both; an origin and an identity organ; as a symbol, a spiritual and physical home, a source of yearning, a destiny and a national homeland. Certainly, our bond includes interesting encounters between nationhood and peoplehood, as different layers of our respective identities. As with any relationship, ours can’t adapt to challenges without some serious work on those relationships, because as times are changing we need to strongly engage with each other, and get to really know each other. As both Israel and US Jews go through changes, as our grandparents and parents pass the baton to us and to our kids, we all need to adjust to the new realities, to our current roles, discussing our differences, our hopes and concerns, our expectations from each other and our disappointments as well. From the strategic perspective, each community’s perceived power and influence spill over and reflects on the other.EILAM:
We should remember that each community is a huge success story in its own way. The major successes, as well as joint legacy, memories and challenges, were the anchors and inspiration for developing the relations between the two communities: the establishment of Israel, the strengthening of Israel and its special relations with the US, the joint campaign for enabling Soviet Jewry emigration from the USSR, etc. For many years, the internal successes of each community were actually contributing to the mutual relations between them. Each success story has its own internal challenges, which as Assaf mentioned, center on internal identity issues – which in the long run also shape challenges between the two communities. We shouldn’t only look at superficial developments in the relations, but we should aim to understand that first and foremost some of the problems are basically internal factors that challenge each community separately.How do the different Jewish denominations and streams in the US relate to Israel? HATUEL-RADOSHITZKY:
We’re seeing a gradual process in which the Jewish communities in America and in Israel seem to be drifting apart. The main schism centers on two issues: one is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the other is issues of pluralism and faith. In relating to differences pertaining to the conflict – worth noting is that most Jewish Americans are traditionally liberal and known to vote for Democratic presidential candidates. This trend is opposed to what we’re seeing in Israel where the population appears to be shifting in more conservative directions and voting for leaders with more hardline stances on conflict-related issues. In looking at issues of faith and pluralism – most Jewish Americans are Conservative, Reform or define themselves in other ways with only a minority of Jewish Americans defining themselves as Orthodox. In Israel, religious affairs are controlled by the Orthodox Rabbinate and thus recent developments regarding the Kotel and issues of conversion were perceived by most Jewish Americans as particularly dismissive of their identity, values and strong bond to Israel.What are the stories of how American Jewry has contributed to Israel’s success from a security perspective? SHAPIRO:
It’s hard to separate the strength and depth and durability of the US-Israel bilateral relationship – in all of its manifestations: The strong political and diplomatic support; especially the incredible security partnership; and the protection of Israel against campaigns of delegitimization and BDS from the very wide and deep support for Israel from the American Jewish community. Fortunately, it’s not only the American Jewish community; there are many other parts of American society who also identify with Israel and want Israel to be supported and considered a close ally of the United States.
I think it would be hard to imagine that the relationship have would reached the strength and depth it has without that strong base of support from that pillar of the American Jewish community.
So talking about the American military assistance that Israel receives – including recently about the missile defense programs and the F-35. When we’re talking about the US having Israel’s back in international forums where it is singled out for criticism and I would even extend it to US support for trying to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace. It’s not always without controversy, but something that clearly Israeli governments have wanted the United States to be a partner in trying to achieve. I think these are all examples of ways that the American Jewish communities effort to keep these issues on the agenda and hold their own elected officials accountable to them have helped to sustain and strengthen the relationship.HATUEL-RADOSHITZKY:
The ties between the two states are obviously very deep and go way back and it may be problematic to separate, quantify, categorize and label the Jewish component of it. Worth noting, however, is that the relationship is mutual and that it serves the strategic interests of both parties.
If we look at the military cooperation for example, the United States perceives Israel as a stabilizing factor in the Middle East and it is thus an American interest that Israel retains its qualitative military edge. We’re seeing a lot of cooperation between the defense and intelligence communities of both states, and these close working relations undoubtedly emanate from shared goals and strategic interests.
Another aspect of it, is the homeland security front where we see ample cooperation between Israel’s Homefront Command and America’s National Guard in joint exercises, exchanging best practices and research and development (R&D) in the technological realm. Here too, Israel has much knowledge and experience to share - particularly in developing and cultivating national resilience and in integrating citizens to actively contribute and mobilize in emergency situations.
I think we should keep in mind that at least part of the contribution is not necessarily one-sided from them to us and not just an instrumental factor but rather a much deeper issue with long-term implications on the future of both communities. Usually we talk or hear a lot about philanthropy projects – the huge amount of money that comes from there in support of many projects here. We should keep in mind that this also contributes to American Jewry’s relations and linkage to Israel, which is an important identity component for them; so in some sense it may be as important for them and their own needs there, as it is to us here. This is one example. Another is to look at Birthright (Taglit) – which is also an example that looks like something that should help mainly American Jewry, but there are around 100,000 Israelis that have already participated in Taglit – most of them are IDF soldiers and officers. For many of them it is their first and only opportunity to meet American Jews and in many cases to establish their connections with Jews abroad. So, we should look at some of the contribution issues, which go both ways and shape the future of relations between the two communities.When you talk to Israeli experts, colleagues and peers, are they aware of the dynamic?
: The Israeli defense leadership is undoubtedly aware of the multifaceted aspects of the close Israel- US relations, and the pertinence of this relationship to Israel. Our research finds that Israeli defense leaders are far less aware of the American Jewish community’s characteristics, connection to Israel and role in contributing to the Jewish state which for some American Jews is a defining value. We also found that Israel’s political echelon and establishment fundamentally perceives Israel as the center of the Jewish world - diverging, in this parameter, from the Jewish community in America which tends to perceive the Jewish people as comprised of two centers: one in Israel and one in the US. In line with the Israeli-centric perception we saw that in more cases than one, despite familiarity with the issues at hand, policy decisions in Israel are made according to internal political considerations. Thus, a lack of “awareness of the dynamic” (as phrased in the question) cannot explain Israeli policy decisions which run counter to the needs and values of Jewish Americans.Why do we start to notice patterns of misunderstanding or hurt feelings; from where does this stem? SHAPIRO:
You can see that these specific issues are somewhat symptomatic of the trends and evolutions of the communities. So, Israel, by most measures is becoming more religious and a right-of-center country, the American Jewish community, there are trends of intermarriage and assimilation, which are making it a challenge to keep the next generation of Jews connected both to the Jewish community generally and Jewish institutions that have been the traditional base of the community and to Israel as well.
And so, against that background when you have issues of specific disagreement it’s even harder to necessarily bridge that gap. Many Israelis were troubled that many American Jews who were supportive of President Obama were also supportive of the Iran deal that the majority of Israelis viewed as a bad deal and something that would be harmful to Israel’s security. Many American Jews, as was mentioned, are concerned about the seeming stalemate on the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and the role that settlements play – although not only settlements obviously there’s blame to go on both sides – and the risk that poses to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, which touches some of the core values that American Jews associate with Israel and associate with some of their own identity as Americans and as Jews.
And against the same backdrop when the Israeli government. takes decisions that American Jews feel are disrespecting their own Jewish identity and practice of Judaism and their own ability to even connect to Israel, such as the cancellation of the Kotel agreement or the proposed conversion laws. It’s certainly accentuates some trends that might have already existed, which posed challenges to keeping communities as close as they’ve been, and it’s something that leaders on both sides need to be attentive to.What do we do from here to mend ties? HATUEL-RADOSHITZKY:
I would say education. It is very important to educate Israelis here about the United States in general; the bilateral relations, the importance of the strategic ties between the two states and then the contribution of American Jewry therein to these ties.ORION
: Some of it is indeed state and government leadership issues of how to integrate the Diaspora’s positions in dayto- day policy making in Israel – that is an issue of debate: in what measure we should take into account the views and positions of people who do not live here, especially in matters of life and death, and in many domestic issues. But this also sheds a special light on the responsibility of non-governmental leadership, community to community, and people-to-people.
Let our next generations familiarize with each other; connect with each other, interact with each other, meet in summer camps, do an “inverse Taglit” – student exchanges. But we also need common missions and common causes. If we used to have a “Let My People Go” campaign from the Soviet Union, we now have a golden opportunity to pull our efforts together against common threats like delegitimization, BDS, antisemitism and Jewish safety.
Israeli stories need American story-tellers. Doing it together shoulder-to-shoulder means that we should bring our youths together and unite around a common mission. And that is a splendid opportunity to jointly write a new chapter in the great book of our common history.SHAPIRO:
I think that the lion’s share of the responsibility for keeping American Jews connected to Israel falls on the American Jewish community itself. To do the education; to create the opportunities for engagement; to expand programs like Taglit into new areas, whether it’s doing joint projects about the Jewish people or about broader Tikkun-Olam focus, helping American Jews engage with the Israeli hi-tech economy or focus on ways that can contribute to improving Israeli society and helping Israelis improve Israeli society. Those are things that American Jews primarily have to take responsibility for doing in our own community. But to help that succeed and to help to ensure that those American Jews will feel motivated and feel that there is a mutuality of that effort – education on the Israeli side, certainly the demonstration of respect and honoring American Jewish identity in its different manifestations is critically important – even if it’s short of giving American Jews the same say about Israeli government. decisions as Israeli citizens have, is going to be critically important. Certainly avoiding a replay of issues like the Kotel decision and solving that kind of crisis is something that Israel can do to help American Jewish leadership to strengthen the bonds that next generation will feel toward Israel.In the security realm should we expect another very large defense deal, with whichever administration is in charge then? SHAPIRO:
My judgment is that security partnership has its own logic and its own basic support in both countries – it serves the interests of both countries. There is every reason to expect that that kind of partnership will continue. It’s hard to project decades into the future.
Certainly Israel has become a developed economy that doesn’t need the same kinds of assistance that it once did, but I think the security partnership in some very developed and profound form, including assistances is very likely to continue.How do we feel the BDS issues will prevent us from doing this kind of education work from mending ties and waging forward? Is BDS on college campus a reality we are facing?
I wouldn’t give so much credit to the BDS campaign. BDS is certainly a problem, but it is not responsible for driving a wedge between Israeli and American Jews and certainly not for affecting bilateral Israel-US ties. I would argue that the BDS campaign skillfully preys on existing gaps and works to strategically amplify them.ORION:
When we follow our rivals and enemies’ efforts, we see that they are trying to attack our alliance and to drive a wedge between Israel and the diaspora Jews, usually widening gaps and cracks which are already there and are of our own making.
It means that they perceive it as a Jewish and Israeli center of gravity, and they’re aiming at it; part of our counter BDS campaign needs to address this effort and thwart it.
Looking at one of the things we’ve discovered during the last year is that when you look only on the instrumental aspect of the relations it’s missing the long-term implications which are huge. We talked before – looking to the next generation – the future of the Jewish people is mostly going to be shaped by the relations between these two communities.
We can’t look at the issue through one-sided transactional contribution lenses. We should look for the next joint missions. In order to do that, we need to work together; we need to understand and know each other, to think anew and to act anew.
David Brummer contributed to this report.
Dan Shapiro will be participating in the 11th annual international conference of the INSS on January 29-31. Given the high demand, there are no remaining tickets. We invite you to watch the conference live here and on the INSS website, www.inss.org.il
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