Diaspora Jews, Israeli Jews divided over Israel - opinion

As more American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel, more Israeli Jews believe American Jews have lost their way and won't be Jewish in a generation from intermarriage.

American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)

As we find ourselves on the eve of another election here in America, those of us who believe that a strong US-Israel relationship must remain bipartisan are engaging in our biannual exercise of trying to keep Israel from becoming a political football. But frankly, buffering the constant attempts to politicize Israel has become exhausting.

On the one hand, conservative groups like the evangelical organization Christians United For Israel and right-wing politicians like Donald Trump have unabashedly embraced Israel. However, for the majority of American Jews, this is leading to a cognitive dissonance because while they embrace their Zionism, they must check their other beliefs at the door, including abortion rights, prayer in school, gun control and LGBTQ rights.

On the other hand, liberal movements like The Women’s March and Black Lives Matter have attempted to attach the Palestinian cause to their agendas, which causes severe cognitive dissonance for liberal Jews, who bristle at the thought that they could possibly agree with the former president on any issue. These Jews feel that to enter certain progressive circles, they are forced to check their Zionism at the door.

American Jewish organizations too scared to talk about Israel 

The polarization has become so extreme that for nearly two decades, many Jewish organizations in America simply refuse to touch the topic of Israel at all. They’re worried that if they bring a speaker who leans too far left, their conservative donors will walk away; and if they bring a speaker that leans too far right, their liberal base will protest and leave. So, they’re just not talking about Israel at all.

Israel and US flags (credit: INGIMAGE)Israel and US flags (credit: INGIMAGE)

One synagogue I was a member of would not bring any speaker to discuss the topic, fearing it was too controversial, yet they brought a speaker who talked about why brit milah – the ancient and holy Jewish tradition of circumcising eight-day-old boys – should be outlawed.

But it’s not just a disagreement among American Jews; American and Israeli Jews are also disengaging with each other. According to the Pew Study of American Jews in 2020, among Jews ages 50 and older, 51% say that caring about Israel is essential to what being Jewish means to them… and just 10% say that caring about Israel is not important to them. By contrast, among Jewish adults under 30, 35% say that caring about Israel is essential and 27% say it’s not important to what being Jewish means to them.

Meanwhile, as more American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel, more Israeli Jews believe American Jews have lost their way and won’t even be Jewish in a generation due to intermarriage, assimilation and antisemitism.

According to another poll, cited by The Jerusalem Post, “Just 37% of Israeli Jews feel personal responsibility toward Diaspora Jews who have chosen not to make aliyah to Israel, but 58% agree that the State of Israel is responsible for continued Jewish existence in the Diaspora.”

Recent election results not helping

THE RECENT Israeli election results are not helping with this relationship. However, while some believe that Israel’s rightward drift politically has made American Jews, who are overwhelmingly more liberal, pull away from Israel over the last two decades, I agree with Daniel Gordis when he writes in his book, We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel, “Although most observers… believe that the fraught relationship is due to what Israel does, a closer look at the Jewish communities in Israel and the United States suggests that [this really] has to do with what Israel is.”

The truth is, both here in the US among conservative and liberal Jews, and also between Israeli and American Jewry, we are simply talking past each other. In fact, we are only talking to ourselves and have stopped listening to each other altogether. And like in any relationship, when you stop listening, the end might not far away.

If we don’t alleviate this friction – between right-wing and left-wing American Jews, between religious and secular, and between American and Israeli Jews – then future generations of Jews could simply walk away from each other. And that would be the real, long-lasting tragedy.

The Zionist thought leaders Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy make this point poetically in their book Never Alone, writing, “True, we sometimes seem to be one people divided by one religion. And sometimes we seem to be one people divided by one state. But we remain one people.”

We are one people. That’s why it is time to find a new way of relating to each other. As part of the Z3 Project, we have been working on a new paradigm for Diaspora-Israel relations, based on recognizing that we are in the third era of Zionism: Zionism 3.0.

In this new era, three central principles will lay the foundation for allowing us to move forward as One People:

1. Unity, Not Uniformity: we must to honor our differences and not let them divide us, while working toward the oneness of the Jewish People.

2. Engaging As Equal Partners: we must abandon our hubris and work together, Israeli and Diaspora Jews, to build our common future collectively.

3. Diversity Of Voices: we must convene Zionists of differing backgrounds and perspectives from across the political and religious spectrum to be part of this effort.

While there is no easy path, I believe that it is time to pave that road, the third road, that will lead the Jewish people into the 21st century together as one.

The writer is the founder of the Z3 Project. The essay was adapted from the writer’s “Why Do Jewish? A Manifesto for 21st Century Jewish Peoplehood,” published by Gefen Publishing in Fall 2021.