American Jewry: A view from the air

Between us and the Jewish community in America the bond is tighter, first because it’s a relatively young Diaspora community, about 120 years old.

Pro israel demonstration (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pro israel demonstration
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Over the past few weeks, five members of Knesset, myself included, toured three major Jewish Federations in the United States. With the help of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Federations of North America we tried to get an “aerial view” on the issues and problems, the “challenges” as the Americans would say, of American Jewry.
Behind this initiative is the Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish People, which I head along with MK (and soon to be minister) Tzachi Hanegbi, the chairman of the coalition, and which has a membership consisting of many other MKs. It is in fact the largest caucus in the Knesset.
The interface between MKs in Israel and the Jewish world is loose at best. The obvious connection of previous generations, based on deep roots and a direct personal attachment, has gotten weaker. The generations born in Israel experience the Diaspora as a secondary issue; they learn and read about it, but don’t relate to it. Even the topic of anti-Semitism, which accompanies every Jew born in this world, while very important is mostly theoretical for those born in Israel.
Between us and the Jewish community in America the bond is tighter, first because it’s a relatively young Diaspora community, about 120 years old.
Most Jews arrived to the United States in the late 19th century and first quarter of the 20th century.
Second, because of how well this community has integrated in the US, and its political-cultural-economic- social success, unprecedented in comparison to any other Jewish community in history.
The Jewish community in the US has accompanied Israel in all of its important moments. It has played an important role in the struggle for the founding of the state, pushed and leveraged the American leadership to support the young state, assured as well as it could political, security and financial support and has been the connecting bridge between the US and Israel since the latter was founded.
And here are three current insights from my short trip: The Jewish community in America is going through huge demographic changes, mainly via “interfaith” marriages. Sixty-one percent of Jewish marriages in the US in this generation are between Jews and non- Jews. That is of course an astounding figure, with far-reaching consequences. It reflects on both the communities themselves, which are shrinking away, and on their relationship with Israel. (A curious detail is that a Jewish connection exists in the families of all three presidential candidates. Trump’s daughter has converted and is married to a Jew, Hillary and Bill Clinton’s daughter is married to a Jew, while Bernie Sanders is of course himself Jewish.) The challenge of these communities is to try and keep these mixed couples, and to bring the non-Jewish spouse into the community, and especially to instill Jewish education in their children. The result is that a third of American Jewish children do grow up as Jews, a third as Christians and a third unaffiliated. We heard of the special and creative efforts being made to give these couples a connection to the community in an attempt not to lose them. These communities see this issue as being of the utmost importance.
Add to that the understanding that all denominations, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, must work together to preserve the community as a whole. Even seeing with my very eyes, I could hardly believe it.
What is considered impossible here is a major aspect of American-Jewish culture. The minority cannot afford to split its resources. That is where you sit and talk.
Another development is the distancing of the young generation from Israel. The deciding moments of Israel’s history, like wars or the founding of the state, are growing further away. Young Jews in universities are exposed to harsh criticism of Israel.
Many wonder about the reality in which Israel has controlled another people for over 50 years, and the atmosphere around them is far from supportive due to Israel’s standing and activity. Their sympathy with Israel is not automatic, it requires giving answers and dealing with a young, concerned, interested and skeptical generation.
it goes without mentioning that these American campuses are where the future leadership of the general public and of the Jewish community is to be found.
This is the point in their lives where the seeds of their future attitudes toward Israel are being sown. In these new front lines on campuses now stand among others young Israelis, which the Jewish Agency sends in order to coordinate pro-Israel activity and to monitor and neutralize the effect of organizations hostile to Israel.
The keyword here is “boycott.” The Jewish communities fear what is taking place on these campuses and have enlisted in this fight.
And a third and last comment, regarding the Jewish community’s attitude toward Israel. I was astounded to hear from many leaders that for the first time Israel is not a unifying element but a dividing one.
The reason is the fight against the nuclear agreement with Iran and the steps that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to stop it, mainly his speech befor Congress. Netanyahu inserted Israel into the internal politics of America. US Jews were forced to define their loyalty, choosing between their president and the Israeli prime minister. That is the dilemma they have always avoided. The intercontinental bridge cannot bear this load, and nearly fell apart.
The Knesset will dedicate this week a long day to American Jewry. There will be committee hearings, a Knesset assembly, a special exhibition and a ceremony the prime minister, American ambassador to Israel and representatives from the American Jewish community will participate in. But this is not just a moment of appreciation and giving thanks. We must also discuss the questions surrounding the magic triangle of Israel-America Jewry-United States. As the song goes, we don’t have another country – but we also don’t have another American Jewish community.
The author, an MK, chairs the Caucus for Strengthening the Jewish World and the Caucus for Israel-US Relations in the Knesset, and is the initiator of the day marking the heritage and contribution of the American-Jewish community to the Yishuv and the State of Israel, which will take place in the Knesset on Wednesday, May 25, 2016.