An American perspective

Look to American Jewry for inspiration in bridging the religious-secular divide, historian Prof. Jonathan Sarna tells ‘In Jerusalem’ upon finishing a year in the city

Jonathan sarna 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jonathan sarna 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Recalling a 1965 visit to Israel as a youngster, leading scholar of American Jewish history and Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna feels that one of the blessings of his life has been to observe the transformation of the country in general and Jerusalem in particular.
With vivid memories of the Jordanian border seemingly at every few steps and what it felt like to have Jordanian soldiers pointing guns at such close range, he was also struck by how many people knew each other in those days and how much respect emanated from layman to educator.
As he is about to complete his most recent year-long stay in Jerusalem,this time as senior scholar at the Mandel Leadership Institute, the2009 inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences says he isuplifted by his latest experience but concerned about the future ofJerusalem and Diaspora relations.
“With Israel and America together making up more than 80 percent ofworld Jewry, it’s very important that they understand one another,”says Sarna, whose 2004 book American Judaism: AHistory has won six awards, including the Jewish BookCouncil’s Jewish Book of the Year Award.
“American Jews take courses in Israel studies in many universities, andAmerican Jews in colleges learn more about Israel than they did before.I’m not sure if there has been a comparable growth in the understandingof American Jewry on the part of Israelis. I’m glad when I’m here to domy part in trying to explain the American Jewish community toaudiences.”
On the subject of Jerusalem itself, Sarna is passionate about theage-old Jewish connection but sensitive to the fact that Jews are notits only residents. Though Israel may have given Arabs from Jerusalem’seastern neighborhoods citizenship after 1967, now 43 years later henotes that it’s impossible to say they are treated equally. If Israelwants to keep Jerusalem undivided, he says, that situation must change.
Sarna also believes that while Jerusalem is meant to be a beacon oflight to the nations, it may want to look to American Jewry forinspiration in bridging the religious-secular divide and disagreementsamong Judaism’s different streams.
Do you think American Jews are looking at Jerusalem the same way theydid 20 years ago or have their attitudes and perceptions changed?
It’s very important not to lump 5.2 million American Jews together.Sure, there are young Jews born long after the Six Day War who thinkdifferently about Jerusalem and don’t remember what it was likedivided. They don’t like hearing negative things about Israel, and theyare somewhat embarrassed by what they do see, hear and read. As aresult, some of them would like to see peace at almost any cost – evenat the cost of parts of Jerusalem.
But let’s take a look at the spectrum. The Orthodox community isgrowing, and among young Jews it may be as much as 25% of the entirecontingent. The community is very positive about Jerusalem, as manyhave studied here and have relatives both here and in the West Bank –what they would call Judea and Samaria – and feel very strongly aboutretaining those areas.
Moving to the Left, you have people who are excited about Israel, andthen you have people who are deeply interested and almost obsessed withIsrael but highly critical. They are the American equivalents of peoplewho read Haaretz, and many are on the American Left.I think it is much easier for them to learn about the liberal critiquesof Israel than it used to be because they can readHaaretz in English online. 
This group of critics is well informed about Israel, they visit andcare a great deal about the Jewish state. They also have friends here.The news they share may be about the demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrahand their antipathy toward the government and what they perceive as awicked regime, which embarrasses them. But they still care a lot aboutIsrael’s future, even if others may consider them misguided.
Then there are other American Jews, especially children of intermarriedcouples, who are completely disengaged. In some cases they know Israelwouldn’t recognize them as Jewish, so why, they say, should they careabout it? Catholics are not so obsessed with Rome, they observe, so whyshould they be obsessed with a homeland? That group, I think, isgrowing in numbers.
In short, American Jewry is diverse. Each of those groups requires adifferent strategy and a different response, and I think it’sunfortunate to lump them all together. It is true that in anorganization like J-Street you have some people who are truly opposedto the very existence of the State of Israel and others who love theState of Israel but simply disagree with its politics and would bedevastated if it were harmed. There’s a substantial amount of tensionin J-Street between those two views. 
Overall, when looking at the current American Jewish community, itsspectrum of views now mirrors the exact spectrum here in Israel: Thecritics in America are no different in tone and content from thecritics one reads in the Israeli press. The reason is that the Internethas obliterated the distinction between what is meant for internalconsumption and what is for external use.
Every US president since the 1995 Embassy Act has turned down movingthe US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, citing national securityreasons. Does this affect American Jewish attitudes toward Israel’scapital?
Again, there are certainly American Jews who are very unhappy withAmerica’s unwillingness to move the embassy and have backed efforts toforce a shift in policy. Overall, though, I think American Jews arehappiest when they’re in sync with both Israel and with America – whenall are on the same page.
Whenever there are fights between the countries, American Jews become uncomfortable.
It is analogous to the average husband who is happiest when his wifeand his mother get along and is very uncomfortable when they start tofight with each other. When the US government says that it can’t openan embassy in Jerusalem and Israelis insist that Jerusalem is theircountry’s capital, that is one of those grave differences between one’s“wife” and one’s “mother” that make American Jews uncomfortable.
There are American Jews, especially in academia, who think thatJerusalem should be internationalized, that everyone should shareJerusalem. I do not think that is a broadly felt view, and I think thatthose with long memories like me remember how Jewish sites in Jerusalemwere treated when Jerusalem was in Arab hands and remember the citydivided. From my perspective, it is unthinkable that Jerusalem shouldever again be divided. Instead, it should be universally recognized asIsrael’s capital, and my hope is that one day there will be peace andthat will happen.
So what is the solution for Jerusalem?
Obviously Jerusalem will be the most difficult piece of anynegotiation. Looking back historically, I think we will say that it wasdeeply unfortunate that although the Arabs were made citizens ofJerusalem in 1967, Israel did not truly equalize the Arab and Jewishcommunities, giving them equal city services, equal educationalbenefits and so forth. Disparities became more apparent after [mayor]Teddy Kollek than before, and we will yet pay a heavy price for this.
Once Jerusalem became part of Israel, all its citizens should have beentreated alike, and to the extent that they weren’t I can understand theunhappiness of Jerusalem’s Arabs. The solution to that unhappiness,however, is neither internationalization nor division. The solution isto treat the Arab minority as equals. Indeed, Arab citizens should betreated as equals in every Israeli city.
Anti-Israel propaganda has risen tremendously on campus where Israelispeakers have been forced off podiums.
Can Jewish students still feelsafe?
I think most of us in the 1960s and 1970s were very proud that socialdiscrimination and anti-Jewish quotas on campus had ended and AmericanJews could choose whatever college they wanted to go to based on itsquality, course of study and where they could get in. We thought thedays of asking questions such as whether a college accepted Jews or ifJews would feel comfortable at a certain campus had ended. 
Today, though, parents must ask hard questions before sending theirchildren off to college. The truth is that on some campuses, the linebetween anti-Israel sentiments and anti-Semitic ones is really ameaningless line and Jewish students feel persecuted.
However, I do not think that every time you hear a criticism of aparticular pro-Israel speaker, all Jews on campus are at risk. Sadly,the media often give vast attention to a small minority, which wascertainly the case at Brandeis University this May where a small noisyminority opposed [Israeli] Ambassador Michael Oren. The majorityoverwhelmingly petitioned and voted that he should come. In the end, hewas warmly applauded.
Things are admittedly altogether different at some other colleges whereJewish students literally feel threatened with bodily harm. We knowthat on some campuses, much of the trouble comes from outsideagitators, some of them funded by foreign countries. It is disgracefulthat there are college campuses that have not worked harder toguarantee free speech and that no harm comes to Jews and supporters ofIsrael.
In some cases, Middle East studies departments are active centers ofanti-Israel sentiment, even going so far as not truly accepting Israelas part of the Middle East. There has been great improvement in recentyears due to the funding of Israel studies on campuses; but I thinkthat while it is perfectly reasonable for college to be a place wherethere is debate, and even reasonable for it to be a place where thereare demonstrations, it is totally unreasonable to drown out speakersand make it impossible for them to be heard. The American Jewishcommunity has been working in various ways to change conditions at someof these dangerous campuses, and I lament deeply that some collegeadministrations have been unwilling to crack down on that kind ofbehavior. Donors should take notice, and there ought to beconsequences.
Regarding Palestinian denial of the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, isthere any fear of this filtering down and people believing it?
I think there are professors who introduce this material into theirclassrooms. Many of them are unable to read a word of Hebrew and arecompletely ignorant of history. This is really not one of those claimsthat deserve much attention. The notion that Jews have no link toJerusalem is about as obscene as the statement that the Holocaustdidn’t happen. Holocaust denial should be of concern to all of us; andJewish Jerusalem denial, which is of the same order, should be of deepconcern as well.
Elie Wiesel recently wrote in The New York Timesthat Jerusalem is above politics. Former MK and Meretz chairman YossiSarid disagreed. What are your thoughts?
Elie Wiesel is writing as a prophetic figure, and don’t we all wishthat Jerusalem would be above politics! Don’t we all wish for aJerusalem that would be a model for the world of tolerance andreligious coexistence! Obviously it’s not there yet.
I think to the extent that Jerusalem becomes the exclusive domain ofcertain kinds of Jews rather than all Jews and all its citizens, thatis deeply unfortunate. In my view, a great mistake was made when theWestern Wall was given over to a religious ministry. All kinds of Jewsshould be welcomed at the Wall, including those who believe that Jewsshould worship as families, as well as those who believe in segregatingthe sexes. Those involved in alienating Jews from Jerusalem and itssacred sites are in some ways guilty of helping to create the currentsituation.
The Jerusalem Yossi Sarid was talking about was today’s Jerusalem,where many secular Jews feel uncomfortable living and in some casesdon’t like to visit and where they feel that all sorts of evil anddiscriminatory things have been done.
Elie Wiesel, by contrast, was talking about a Jerusalem not as it isbut as it might be: a Jerusalem that is above politics, a Jerusalemthat is holy, a Jerusalem that inspires all who live here and visithere. We’re rather far from Elie Wiesel’s vision, but I admire thatvision and I can well understand why many Jews, as well as non-Jews,and even President [Barack] Obama, are drawn to Elie Wiesel’s visionmore than Yossi Sarid’s.
How has the American Jewish education system failed or achieved its goals regarding the Jewish connection to Jerusalem?
We have in the US a serious problem in Israel education. Much of thematerial was created in a post-1967 era where there was a sense thatall Jews support Israel and, frankly, not very much was said aboutPalestinians or alternative narratives.
The problem in non-Orthodox schools is that today young people arereading criticisms of Israel on the Internet or in newspapers or seeingit on television, and most Jewish educators have no idea how to teachthe subject.
Teachers find their students disagreeing with the textbooks; and whenteachers are uncomfortable teaching or believe their lessons won’tsucceed, the tendency is to teach something else. Hence, the focus hasshifted to American Jewish history, which is less controversial withmuch less attention being paid to Israel. It is certainly a problemthat many young people learn about Israel only from the newspapers andtelevision rather than from Israel as it really is.
Just as we want young Jews to understand the Holocaust and not bedissuaded by those who say the Holocaust didn’t happen or who use theHolocaust for polemical purposes, so we want young Jews to understandtheir age-old connection to Jerusalem. After all, much of the Tanach[Bible] and the Siddur do not make sense unless you have someappreciation of what Jerusalem is, what it means, why Jews feel the waythey do about it.
What is American Judaism’s role and place in Jerusalem?
To my mind, the great lesson of America is that religion thrives whenreligion and state are constitutionally separated. That’s really one ofAmerica’s greatest lessons to the world and why America is the mostreligious of all First World countries.
In my view, Jerusalem ought to be a place where all varieties ofJudaism – those I like, those I don’t like – are treated equally andall religions are validated. That’s part of the responsibility ofholding sovereignty in Jerusalem. Israel should promote it as a placewhere there is a truly free market in religion and let the marketdecide.
The impact of American Judaism on Jerusalem, I think, is to teach thatJudaism thrives best where the state is not involved with religion andwhere every synagogue has to appeal to its own members for support. Ina pluralistic setting, that is the only way to ensure full religiousdiversity, while the role of government is to preserve that free marketand ensure that nobody is using violence to distort the market in anyway.
American Judaism, which I study, has thrived under those conditions;and even if one is critical of American Judaism, one comes away withthe understanding that, like capitalism, church-state separation may bethe worst system in the world except for all the others.
My own view is that separating religion from state would create astronger community, a more religious community, and a community fromwhich far fewer Jews would feel alienated. Let the free market whichhas done so much for Israel’s economic realm be introduced into thereligious realm with full appreciation for what free market principlesin religion can accomplish. At that point, Elie Wiesel’s vision mighttruly be realized and Jerusalem would become what the prophets wantedit to be.