How long will American Jewry continue to stand by Israel?

Diverging paths?

An AIPAC attendee sports a US-Israel themed suit (photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)
An AIPAC attendee sports a US-Israel themed suit
(photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)
We are living in an altered world endeavoring to cope with COVID-19, yet we are hopeful that this abnormality will pass sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, we are less optimistic about the trends within Diaspora Jewry that affect Israel.
Of the estimated 14.7 million Jews in the world today, 6.7 million reside in Israel; 5.7 million are in the United States; and 2.3 million live in the rest of the world. Clearly American Jewry is important to Israel. Since Israel’s rebirth in 1948 we have looked to America for support. We neither wanted nor expected American troops to physically fight our wars, but we rely on the US to supply us with advanced military equipment ensuring our military qualitative edge. This was in question recently when we learned that the price for normalization with the United Arab Emirates was the sale of cutting-edge F35 fighter planes to the United Arab Emirates.
Hitherto – irrespective of whether it was the Democratic or Republican Party that governed – Israel could depend on US support. Israel appreciates President Donald Trump’s actions, such as moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel, and facilitating normalization between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. Nevertheless with a new president about to take office, Israel’s apparent partisan approach during these past four years could be cause for concern.
President-elect Joe Biden, judging from his past actions and words, has an understanding of Israel. In common with former presidents, he recognizes that Israel is a strategic partner in a volatile Middle East; a partnership of equal significance to both the US and Israel. Yet when we see the electoral success of what is known as “the Squad” we have every right to be concerned. These four Democratic Party congresswomen, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib – consistent Israel bashers – increased their electoral margins in the recent election. With the exception of Pressley, all are strong supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (against Israel) movement. Ocasio-Cortez has made it clear that she and her colleagues expect to be given leadership roles within the Democratic Party.
Negativity toward Israel is not limited to some Democratic Party members; Trump-appointed senior US defense official Douglas Macgregor recently stated that American politicians became “very very rich” by supporting Israel. He added that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has used “enormous quantities of money over many years to cultivate an influence in power in Congress.” His statement was condemned by AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League as blatant antisemitism.
AIPAC has played an active role in encouraging bipartisan support for Israel within Congress. Its annual conference attracts leadership from both sides of the house. Its strength relies on the support of American Jewry. The big question is how long American Jewry will continue to stand by Israel.
The majority of American Jews belong to the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism. At the recent World Zionist Congress they seemed to have disappeared from any leadership role. Is it because they feel the WZO no longer represents them? Is it because they feel that we in Israel appear to do everything to alienate their branches of Judaism? The promise of a section of the Western Wall being prepared specifically for their religious needs has not materialized. Is it because we have a chief rabbinate that does not recognize these Jews as Jews?
TOMORROW’S AMERICAN leadership – both national and Jewish – emanates from today’s students on campus; should we not be concerned that the majority of Jewish students are unaware of how Israel came into being? Coupled with the reality that for many the Holocaust is dim history (readers of my column will recall a previous article where I quoted that 65% of under-40s are functionally ignorant of the Holocaust.) The lack of awareness of Israel’s historic reality contributes toward a receptiveness to the Palestinian narrative rather than the Israeli one.
The 2015 Joint People Policy Institute (JPPI) paper “The Challenge of Peoplehood” by Shmuel Rosner and Inbal Hakman addresses the urgency of strengthening the attachment of young American Jews to Israel at a time of distancing. It concludes, “It is impossible to separate theories about young Jews’ attachment to Israel from data indicating a decline in the general level of engagement with Judaism among young American Jews... The Jewish People’s main interest should be the enhancement of young Jews’ attachment to their Jewishness, in the hope – based on data – that a strong Jewishness is also the key to engagement with and attachment to Israel.”
Having noted the above, the Jewish Agency’s Taglit/Birthright project offering those between 18 and 30 the opportunity of a first-time free 10-day visit to Israel has proven successful. A high proportion of the participants return home with a newly born sense of being Jewish enabled by connecting with Israel.
A further question is whether participants of “experience Israel” schemes have the prospect to meet their Israeli counterparts. A big gap remains between young people in the Diaspora and Israeli youth. The 18-year-old Israeli enters the IDF where, after the first few weeks of training, he/she is taken to a place of historic significance where each has to commit part of (and endanger) his/her life for the State of Israel; conversely the Diaspora counterpart’s big decision is selecting a university. Surely bringing together Diaspora and Israeli youngsters would help each to understand the other.
Hope lies with organizations such as StandWithUs. The Magazine spoke with Michael Dickson, SWU’s Israel executive director, who said, “Zionists are not born – they need to be educated.” Each year the organization trains hundreds of US college students with the skills and confidence to lead on campus; build pro-Israel coalitions and meet the challenges they face. SWU recognized some time ago that the process must begin at the high school level – it is already too late at the university. As a result, the organization has been successful in training thousands of middle and high school students to become leaders capable of influencing others.
Diaspora communities that have failed to imbue the younger generation with a love of Israel and strong Jewish identity are turning to Israel for help. Israel sends Jewish Agency shlichim abroad to educate and enhance Jewish identity and an understanding of the real Israel. In addition Israel must ensure that more young people have the opportunity to personally discover Israel – the one Jewish state.
Some years ago I participated in a gathering of WIZO members from all over the world. The conference was addressed by Yossi Beilin, who shocked his audience when he said, “Don’t send us your money; send us your children.” How right he was then and how right he remains.
The writer is public relations chairwoman of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.