The Jewish people have grown apart - opinion

At the time of the birth of Israel, most Israelis and American Jews were literally sisters, brothers and cousins. Today, very few American Jews know anyone in Israel.

 PARTICIPANTS CELEBRATE at an annual Birthright event, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center in 2014. If US Jews need a free trip to convince them to travel to Israel, the future of the community is catastrophic, says the writer.  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post)
PARTICIPANTS CELEBRATE at an annual Birthright event, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center in 2014. If US Jews need a free trip to convince them to travel to Israel, the future of the community is catastrophic, says the writer.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post)

The new Israeli government being formed is not a threat to Israel’s relationship with the Jewish-American Diaspora. Actually, there is no possible Israeli government that could pose such a threat. It does not matter at all if that government is right-wing, left-wing or an extreme form of either. The reason is simple: what does not exist cannot be broken.

Indeed, there is a relatively small, vocal and activist minority in the American Jewish Community that engages with Israel, fundraises for the Jewish state and visits the Holy Land on a regular basis. Yet the vast overwhelming majority of the Americans who consider themselves Jewish are not engaged with Israel in any shape or form.

Numerous polls over the last decade have conclusively confirmed that American Jews don’t think of Israel as their priority. Most of them are not interested in the subject at all. And as time goes by, and as those very polls confirm, the American Jews’ interest in Israel slowly fades. In some instances, as it happens to be with the younger generation, that attitude starts to border on hostility.

This is news only to an avid NPR listener. Any American Jew even slightly involved with his co-religionists does not need to study the polls.

This dire state of the American Jewish community is not a sudden and unexpected event. It is a culmination of a decades-long process of neglect and complete abandonment of Jewish education itself and anything particularly Jewish in Jewish education. There are at least two generations of Jews in the US who have had either zero Jewish upbringing or an upbringing with very little Jewish content.

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

Judaism like any religion consists of particularist and universal parts. In American Judaism (minus the Orthodox) the universal part has completely obliterated its specific national component. Generations of American Jews have grown up thinking that being a Jew is to spread Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).

For the vast majority of them being Jewish is not much different than being vegetarian. Actually, some claim that being vegetarian does mean being Jewish. Judaism in America has become a country club with the members still attending and paying monthly dues for the only reason their families have been lifelong members. It is not a commitment of faith or conviction, but of inertia.

Loss of religious commitment is only part of the problem

The loss of religious commitment is just part of the problem. One may even argue the least consequential one. Zionism as a political ideology and as a consequence Israel as a Jewish state are based on the belief that Jews are not a loosely tied religious community. Both believe Jews are a nation.

The idea of peoplehood is central to Zionism and Jewish revival of the last two centuries. Israel’s raison d’etre is the ingathering of the exiles. It was established as such and is not the place where believers travel to strengthen and preserve one’s faith. Even most Orthodox Jews don’t view Israel in such a way. It is a home where members of the large family irrespective of their religious zeal go to find solace and peace.

For the vast majority of American Jews, Israel is not a home in any meaningful sense of the word. It is a remote, strange, violent and difficult-to-understand country with people who practice the same brand of vegetarianism. They do get concerned with the news from the Middle East. Those concerns are not for the members of the family but for fellow vegetarians in a weird place far, far away. That family connection did exist generations ago.

At the time of the birth of Israel, most Israelis and American Jews were literally sisters, brothers and cousins. They or their parents hailed from the same cities, towns and shtetls of Eastern and Central Europe. Today, very few American Jews know anyone in Israel. Very few of them even visited the country.

The Birthright program is a success story. It is also a living tragedy of the Jewish People. If American Jews, one of the most successful and affluent groups in America, need a free trip to convince the members of the tribe to travel to Israel, then the future of the community is catastrophic. There is no family if one needs a bribe to meet one’s relatives.

It is true that some active members of the American Jewish community got upset by the formation of the current government in Israel. Most of them don’t represent anyone but themselves or fossilized once proud organizations, such as the ADL, currently involved in blatant partisanship on the side of the far left.

Some were looking for a pretext or an excuse to finally part with Israel. Being a state, Israel would sooner or later present the opportunity regardless of the current government. Yet the folks who care, such as Miriam Adelson and many, many like her and her late husband, will still give their money and their time will criticize and will make a difference because for them as for those of us, who are part of the people of Israel, the governments are temporal but the state and the people are eternal.

The writer lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.