10 years after: From apathy to antipathy

10 years ago this month, I published an op-ed article in The Jerusalem Post whose theme was my feeling of alienation from the pending celebration of my Chicago high school’s 40th class reunion.

By ARDIE GELDMAN
June 19, 2019 21:57
THINGS HAVE changed in America.

THINGS HAVE changed in America. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Exactly 10 years ago this month, I published an op-ed article in The Jerusalem Post whose theme was my feeling of alienation from the pending celebration of my Chicago public high school’s 40th class reunion, an event from which I opted out. In it I noted how highly acculturated were the Jewish students who constituted approximately 75% of the graduating class.

“A significant number, around half is not inconceivable, later married non-Jews at least once. In fact, they live without any practical attachment to Judaism,” was my comment on the condition of their religiosity.

But as an American Jew who chose to make aliyah, I was equally disturbed by what I also saw as their minimal interest in the well-being of Israel. Although lacking hard data, my observation was based on a distinct memory. I could clearly recall then, as I do now, how our school’s victory in the Chicago citywide high school baseball championship two years earlier in June 1967, was the only thing that seemed to matter to our mostly Jewish class. Israel’s potential demise turned miraculous victory in the Six Day War went practically unnoticed. In the ensuing decades, through intermittent contacts, I understood that in this regard nothing had changed.

Next month in Chicago my graduating class will be celebrating its 50th reunion. Again I have chosen not to be present. What has occurred during these 10 years? Apart from the obvious – namely the likelihood of additional divorces and the inevitable fact that as a reflection of our age cohort, a number of my classmates have since died – there is evidence that the relative indifference toward Israel I noted in 2009 has only increased, and then some. For many, apathy has become antipathy.

WHAT MAY explain this development?

Facebook serves as a portal to people’s interests, attitudes and beliefs. During the eight years of the Obama administration, many classmates to whose Facebook posts I have access were ecstatic about the election of the first African-American US president. Need it be noted that practically all of my Jewish high school classmates are liberal Democrats? And it was this president – whom they adulated as adults possibly even more than they did JFK in our youth – who was so openly and strongly critical of the policies and actions of the State of Israel. Furthermore, Obama’s unhidden caustic personal relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was often reported by the media and lasted throughout the former’s eight-year term.

It was during the Obama administration, more than under any previous US president, that an increasing number of American Jews, including I am certain many of my high school classmates, began to view the State of Israel with a jaundiced eye. Not that most of my Jewish classmates dwelled much upon the subject of Israel during these years. However, it is a reasonable assumption that, as they were most likely among the 78% in 2008 and 69% in 2012 of American Jews who voted for Obama, their views on the Jewish state began to align with their president’s.

In fact, some of the more difficult personal exchanges I had with former classmates during this period reflected their feelings of cognitive dissonance. For decades, if they took the time to think about the State of Israel, they understood and accepted its need for a strong and effective defense – not only against hostile Middle East Muslim countries but in more recent years particularly against Palestinian terrorism. Could Israel now be wrong? “The president, our president, claims that Israel isn’t doing enough for peace.” It was with the advent of the Obama administration that formal surveys began to record a diminution of American Jewish support for Israel.

Eight years later came the American Jewish nightmare. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. The shrieking and histrionics by my classmates that I registered on Facebook and elsewhere seemed to me to be wholly disproportionate to the effect this man’s election would have on their lives. But, again, my Jewish classmates are liberal Democrats, an identity that I and others recognize as having become more essential to their definition of self than being Jewish. Some argue that being a liberal Democrat is the essence of Judaism.

Whereas Obama’s consistent criticism of Israel’s policies and his undisguised disdain for Netanyahu contributed to the distancing of American Jews from Israel, there is no doubt that the singular friendship between Trump, the State of Israel and Netanyahu has exacerbated this process. This is a reflection of the ethos that “any friend of Trump, namely Netanyahu, is no friend of mine.” In addition, observers of Israeli-American Jewish relations agree that Netanyahu has, in his own right, alienated many American Jews by not supporting the positions of the non-Orthodox denominations on the issues of conversion, marriage and egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

In the seminal 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of US Jews: A Portrait of Jewish Americans, which included reporting of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel, the data revealed that only 30% of all Jews are “very attached” to Israel, while another 39% are “somewhat attached.” In a survey commissioned by the American Jewish Committee and released last month, more than 25% of American Jews stated that Israel is unimportant to their Jewish future, while only 16% have ever set foot here. And the younger the age group, the weaker the feeling of attachment. These findings compare unfavorably with similar surveys taken 20 years ago and earlier.

Critics on the Left, like American Peter Beinart, blame the statements and policies of the Netanyahu government and Israel’s political and religious Right for the widening gap between American Jews – particularly those under age 30 – and the Jewish state. Others, like American-Israeli author Daniel Gordis, disagree. He contends that this distancing is the inevitable outcome of an internal, ongoing process of acculturation and assimilation.

During the decade since my previous class reunion, the angst I then described over the general condition of Jewish life in America has only sharpened. To this I now add my deep sorrow over the unprecedented alienation and disaffection of a growing number of American Jews from the world’s only sovereign Jewish state, a successful society of incredible spirit, achievements and promise – far from perfect but getting better every day. If you will it, it is still not too late for the class of ’69 to join us.

The writer lives in Efrat and is the director of iTalkIsrael.

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