Israeli-Diaspora gap widened by ignorance, experts argue at JFNA GA

"Until we see as many Israelis come to America and learn about American Jewry we will have a problem. We need a reverse Birthright," says Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna.

Moderator Rebecca Caspi speaks to Jonathan Sarna and Shmuel Rosner at the JFNA 2017 General Assembly (photo credit: KELLY HARTOG)
Moderator Rebecca Caspi speaks to Jonathan Sarna and Shmuel Rosner at the JFNA 2017 General Assembly
(photo credit: KELLY HARTOG)
LOS ANGELES – In a session at the Jewish Federations of the North American General Assembly in Los Angeles on Sunday, attendees were asked to take part in a series of interactive surveys via their phones about how well they thought they knew Israel.
One of the questions was, “In a recent Pew study, about 51% of American Jews identified as politically liberal in an American context. What percent of Israeli Jews place themselves on the left of the Israeli political spectrum?” Of the four choices on the list, only a very small percentage of the 100 or so people in the room picked the correct answer: 8%.
Moderator Rebecca Caspi, senior vice president of global operations and director of the Israel office of JFNA, used this question as a jumping- off point for panelists Jonathan Sarna, professor of American and Jewish History at Brandeis University, and Shmuel Rosner, senior political editor of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, to discuss Israelis’ and American Jews’ differing points of view on Israel and its priorities.
Responding to a question about why North American Jews are so disappointed in Israel today, Sarna said it harks back to how Zionism was sold to the American Jewish community before the establishment of the state. “It was a projection of how America ought to have been. It was going to be a social commonwealth.”
However, Sarna said, as time went on, Americans discovered Israel wasn’t a Utopia or the 51st state.
“They realized that Israel doesn’t subscribe to some of the same universal liberal ideas, or agree with some of the minority rights ideas of American Jews,” and as such, they’re now disappointed.
Rosner argued that Americans feel that they have the luxury of being disappointed with Israel only because life is so good today.
“When things were not as easy as they are today, when we were too busy building a state, forming relations and trying to overcome challenges, we didn’t really have the time to be disappointed,” he said.
Asked if North American Jewry’s disappointment registered with Israelis, Rosner said it does with some people, but “they don’t quite grasp what the fuss is all about.” He also said he doesn’t see any reason why people should be specifically disappointed in Israel.
Sarna pushed back, saying, “I think it’s quite shocking that Israelis know so little about American Jewry.” He said Israel is taught at every major American university, but it’s hard to get a minyan of teachers of American Jewry in Israel.
“To teach about the largest Diaspora community is very important,” Sarna argued. “Until we see as many Israelis come to America and learn about American Jewry, we will have a problem. We need a reverse Birthright. North America and Israel are interdependent, and we need to learn about one another.”
Rosner said he believes Israelis know so little about North American Jewry because the history of Zionism was a history “built on negation of the Diaspora for many years.” He said until Israel became successful, it was not in the interest of the leaders of the state to teach students about other options for Jewish living.
And while he said that it is a shame that so few Israelis know so little about American Jewry, Rosner said, “I have so many complaints to share about the Israeli educational system; I’m not so sure the top priority of Israelis would be to improve their knowledge of American Jewry.”
However, Sarna hammered home why it should be a top priority.
“We would be deluding ourselves if we ignore the fact that for a generation of young American Jews, they believe Israel should be judged on how it treats the Palestinians,” Sarna said. It’s an issue that needs to be resolved, especially when the Palestinian community and its supporters “have done too good a job in persuading people that [the Israeli treatment of] Palestinians is the equivalent of the treatment of blacks and other minorities in [America].”
He added that this is a central problem for Jews who don’t remember 1948 or the Holocaust or even 1967. “For those Jews, [the Palestinian issue] is the central reason they are disappointed. We can’t ignore that. We need to devote more attention to that issue and how it plays out in North America.”