Israeli and American Jews: Living in Old-New Land versus the New World

A new Knesset caucus, encouraged by the Ruderman Family Foundation, hopes to strengthen ties between American and Israeli Jews. The caucus chair, MK Nachman Shai, recently admitted he was surprised to learn how important the Women of the Wall issue was to American Jews when most Israelis see it as marginal. Such revelations – and the underlying reasons – are important – for both communities. Here is what I would say if invited to testify before this caucus:
An old American Jewish joke describes four travelling salesmen in the 1950s playing poker on a train. They decide to introduce themselves. “My name’s Mr. Cowan,” the first one says. “My name’s Mr. Cape,” the second one says. I’m “Mr. Kay,” the third one says. “My name’s Cohen too,” says the fourth.
When I first met my Harvard roommates, I had the same experience. Looking at their three names, I anticipated joining a diverse group from different ethnicities and religions. They later told me that when they saw the name “Troy,” they expected to room with a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) or a Greek. Our first lunch together, three of us confessed our Polish-Russian-Jewish roots and namectomies (my people were Troyansky). Our fourth roommate, of German-Jewish origins, still had a Teutonic name.
The Israeli version would be seeking one politician who retains his grandfather’s name. Not Benjamin Netanyahu whose father was born Benzion Mileikowsky. Not Yair Lapid whose father was born Tomislav Lampel. And not Shimon Peres, born Szymon Perski, cousin to Betty Joan Perske, who later changed her name to Lauren Bacall long before she married Humphrey Bogart.
We are a lot alike. Most American and Israeli Jews remain close to the immigrant experience, knowing which ancestors established themselves in their new “Promised Land.” The name games reflect the “uprooted’s” broader identity challenge, redefining yourself, adjusting to a new world, experiencing foreignness while seeking acculturation and acceptance. Of course, American Jews were fitting into a dominant culture, while the new Israelis were creating a new Jew in their ancient homeland.
Israeli and American Jews are lucky. Our families hopped aboard the freedom train from oppressive, anti-Semitic, impoverished countries to free, welcoming, and prospering lands. Both the US and Israel belong to the exclusive global club of functioning democracies, thriving economies, stable societies – with the two among the most immigrant-friendly democracies. None of these common experiences, shared values, joint blessings should be taken for granted – nor should they obscure any disconnects.
For starters, the natural patriotism that evolves so naturally from each success story leads to dueling
takes on what is The Promised Land.  Americans – including my most radical American history colleagues – assume that history flows naturally from the Old World to the New, from the cloistered ghettoes of Europe (and now the rest of the world) to The Promised Land’s great cosmopolitan potentialities.  Conversely, the Zionist vision sees Jews redeemed from Exile by flowing into The Real Original Promised Israel, Israel.
These dueling Promised Lands prize different freedoms most. The American Jewish narrative – with more of the community further from the immediate immigrant experience – embraces the post-Sixties ideal that was implanted on the original Founding vision, prioritizing freedom from constraints. In our grandparents’ zeal to assimilate – a word sparking ambivalence among American Jewish leaders – they changed their names as in the joke, shrank their noses, lost their accents. Becoming American also frequently entailed abandoning tradition. Many – not all – saw Jewish rituals, values, teachings as constraining.
Most of us, myself and my Harvard roommates included, love parading around as real Americans, not defined by our particularism, except when we choose. As Americans we embrace the individualist ideal, cherishing our freedom from constraints to flourish personally and professionally.
The Israeli narrative – for a much younger country with many more recent immigrants – more emphasizes the freedom from oppression – especially the crushing, sometimes lethal, anti-Semitism of Europe, the Arab lands, the former Soviet Union, and Ethiopia. Although Israel is becoming increasingly individualistic and Americanized, most Israelis still cherish the freedom to build a collective, and a Jewish collective at that. Relishing the opportunity to develop a democratic Jewish state includes appreciating the thickness of Jewish tradition to develop Altneuland – old new land, as opposed to America’s New World.
From these fundamental contrasts, even within a shared framework, other flashpoints flow. The Women of the Wall issue has enraged so many American Jews partially, to be fair, because liberal rabbis and reporters have highlighted it, partially because so many more American Jews than Israeli Jews are Conservative or Reform, and partially because it has been framed as tradition at its worst:  heavyhanded, medieval, disrespectful to 50 percent of the population, and seemingly state-supported too.  It also perpetuates the stereotype, popularized by the New York Times, the delegitimizers, and many internal American Jewish critics, of Israel as increasingly rightwing, theocratic, oppressive – despite dramatic evidence to the contrary.
American Jewish anger at Israel helps validate their Promised Land as better – freer, more sensitive, better suited for Jews and individuals to flourish. The parallel Israeli distortion comes from the Israeli media’s disproportionate obsession with anti-Semitism in the US. Exaggerating American anti-Semitism validates the Israeli Promised Land as better – freer, safer, better suited for Jews and individuals to flourish.
Difference need not generate tension. Those of us who try building bridges between American and Israeli Jews as mutual partners understand that each community has strengths and weaknesses. Israeli society – even Israeli Judaism – would benefit from more American-style freedom and individualism. American Jews – even the United States itself – would benefit from more Israeli-style thickness and traditionalism. Our goal should be to keep each community flourishing, proud of its unique identity, while benefitting from healthier, more open, more sophisticated mutual exchanges and understandings.  
Gil Troy is  a Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow.  His latest book, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was recently published by Oxford University Press.Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!