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The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities held in Nashville earlier this week was ostensibly all about the malaise of American Jewry, not about Israel. The 3,000 delegates who converged on the capital of country music were primarily preoccupied with their unaffiliated co-religionists who were not there and will probably never attend such a gathering - mostly young professionals who have detached themselves from the organized Jewish community. As if this studied disengagement from institutionalized Jewry can be neatly divorced from Israel and how it is purveyed by the American Jewish establishment.
This new crisis in American Jewry has more to do with Israel than the formal leadership cares to acknowledge. Many American Jews, especially the new, highly-educated generation, cannot glibly concur with the stated positions of those who purportedly speak in their name. They find little solace in communal life unconnected to central issues on the national and global agenda. Discouraged from voicing their opinions, they prefer to opt out in growing numbers. Unless the muzzle on Israel-related issues is removed, this situation may become permanent, severely affecting the vibrancy of Jewish life - in Israel as well as the US.
THE AMERICAN Jewish establishment has redefined the nature of its support for Israel in recent years. Never enthusiastic about the Oslo process, after its collapse its key spokespeople jettisoned any serious discussion of accommodation, preferring to underline the ongoing threats posed by Islamic extremism (Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran). Their position toward the impending Annapolis process has been, at best, lukewarm.
Indeed, organized US Jewry, with some notable exceptions, has leaned far to the right of the bulk of its constituency. Polls have consistently shown significant levels of support for a Palestinian state among American Jews (reaching 54 percent at the height of the Second Lebanon War, according to the American Jewish Committee's annual survey last year). Backing for current US efforts to reignite negotiations to achieve this objective appears even higher.
The visible gap between American Jews and many of the organizations that claim to represent them is evident in three major areas. First, American Jewish discourse - not to speak of that of the general public - has highlighted issues related to the conflict at the expense of other aspects of the Israeli experience. Many American Jews know little, if anything, about the main domestic issues facing Israel today. While they may have read about corruption in the corridors of power, they are not conversant with the constitutional debate in the country. They are familiar with the monopoly of Orthodoxy, but ignore its ramifications for human and civil rights. They are vaguely aware that Israel is now a fully developed state, although they have not grappled with the implications of its alarming socioeconomic gaps. The growing divide between Jews and Arabs within the country seems far away. In short, some of the very gripping challenges which make Israel real are simply not discussed.
SECOND, THE coalitions formed to promote Israeli interests are alien to many American Jews. The close connection with neo-conservatives in Washington (including a disproportionate number of Jews), has seriously distanced the majority, which is liberal in orientation and consistently supports the Democratic Party. The alliance with the Moral Majority is off-putting to many. And the emergence of watchdog groups monitoring the press, campus life and even the voluntary sector leaves little room for any nuance. The issue is not whether Israel is always right or always wrong, as much of present debate suggests, but rather how to deal constructively with a myriad of complex problems on which opinions legitimately diverge.
And third, a curious self-imposed uniformity has developed in American Jewish circles. A new type of Jewish political correctness precludes dissent on the official interpretation of everything from Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer's study of the Jewish lobby or Jimmy Carter's book on the conflict to tenure decisions in academe. Progressive voices have few organized outlets (notably the Reform Movement, the New Israel Fund, the Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom). These have been mostly excluded from the formal Jewish establishment.
It is hardly surprising, then, that so many younger Jews have retreated from their institutional representatives. The trend toward privatization of Jewish life in the US, so skillfully depicted by Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman in their recent study (Beyond Distancing), highlights different notions of identity, community and attachment to Israel than the solidarity usually associated with the older generation. This detachment has many sources, not least of which is the prohibition on criticizing Israel.
Breaking this taboo is essential for the health of US Jewry and for Israel. American Jews are quintessentially democratic; American Jewish approaches to Israel are not. Open debate allows individuals to align their deeply held values with their Jewish identity and feel comfortable with the results. It also reflects the diversity which is so much a part of the Jewish scene in the US. The many opinions on Israel and Israeli government policy cannot be distilled into a single voice. Such unanimity does not exist in Israel and can hardly be countenanced elsewhere. A real discussion can both invigorate and engage; its absence is stultifying.
Israel can only gain from such a reframing. Multiple Jewish voices reengaged with Israeli concerns can contribute enormously to defining Israel's longer-term interests and placing current policies in perspective. They can help fortify the country's democratic foundations. And, ultimately, they can sustain the increasingly tenuous connection between Israel and world Jewry so apparent in Nashville.
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