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According to a new study released yesterday at a Knesset committee, our educational system all but ignores the second largest community of Jews in the world, American Jewry. To make matters worse, American Jews are increasingly displaying a reciprocal ignorance of, or at least apathy toward, Israel.
The study, titled "Teaching About American Jewry in Israeli Education," was conducted by Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv for the American Jewish Committee. It found that only 13.6 percent of Israeli teachers reported that there was any teaching about American Jewry in their schools in the last three years.
Even when the Ministry of Education included related topics in matriculation exams, teachers reported that appropriate materials had not been developed to help them teach this subject.
The situation is hardly better with respect to American Jewry's connection to Israel. Another recent AJC-sponsored survey, of young American Jewish adults, found that only about one third said caring about Israel was an important part of their Jewish identity.
In a wider survey taken in 2000, supporting Israel was ranked 11th in a series of 15 significant values for American Jews.
Rabbi Edward Rettig, who was among the initiators of the AJC's study released yesterday, claimed that the findings represented "a strategic threat for Israel." Indeed, the mutual ignorance between the two largest Jewish communities, which together comprise about 80% of the Jewish world, needs to be addressed. Whether seen as a threat or a missed opportunity, this drifting apart has happened, ironically, at a time when both communities need each other most, and have more to offer each other.
The relationship that existed during the early decades of the state, characterized by intense American Jewish support for Israel and by our dependence on that support, was bound to change.
In some respects, that relationship has matured and evolved, as it should have. What is disturbing, however, is that this necessary evolution is far from complete, and has been characterized more by dissipating intensity than by the adoption of new forms that could greatly benefit and strengthen the Jewish world.
There are encouraging exceptions to this trend. The birthright israel program, which recently celebrated its 100,000 participant, has been the most dramatic example of what can be done to employ an encounter with Israel to bolster American Jewish identity and rekindle the Israel-Diaspora relationship. The Jewish Agency's spin-off program, Masa, which tries to attract young Diaspora Jews to year-long programs in Israel, is also a promising development - to the extent it builds upon and does not compete with birthright's fundamental goal of bringing every young Jew on their first intense encounter with to Israel.
The success of birthright shows that such encounters work and need to be expanded in both directions. There is no substitute for personal contact between young American Jews and Israelis, both in Israel and the United States.
Israel shows Americans Jews what it means to live in a Jewish state with the responsibilities and opportunities of being in the majority. And Israelis need to be exposed to the Diaspora experience of not being able to take a Jewish environment for granted, and of religious pluralism that offers choices between the poles of extreme secularism and observance that often dominate - however mistakenly - the image of Jewish practice in Israel.
Though Israelis are proud that we have become the largest Jewish community in the world and that we are still growing, this success cannot alone address the demographic challenge of the Jewish people. Globally, our numbers remain tiny and they are shrinking, with no real sign that current trends are about to reverse.
In this context, Israel cannot ignore its responsibilities for the survival and revival of the Jewish people as a whole. Even if Israel's own survival did not depend on this, accomplishing the purpose of our founding does. The Diaspora is an integral part of the Jewish experience; Israeli students should not only be taught about it in their schools, but should personally interact with their foreign peers, thereby expanding the horizons of those on both sides of the encounter.
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