Israel at 75: The changing relations with American Jewry

As nationwide surveys attest, American Jews’ attachment to Israel has remained fairly stable to this day.

 STANDING TOGETHER at the US Capitol in support of Israel, in 2002. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
STANDING TOGETHER at the US Capitol in support of Israel, in 2002.

Israel’s development is strongly tethered to Diaspora Jewry – especially that of the US. Relations between these Jewish communities, the world’s two largest, have been changing over time, partly affected by Israel’s growing security and economic resilience and regime changes and by intergenerational replacement and group-identity trends among American Jews. Despite these and other fluctuations, these relations have been positive and stable overall.

The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was received enthusiastically by many American Jews, notwithstanding some concerns. American Zionist Jews largely favored the idea of an independent Jewish state, which had been gaining momentum for several decades, while other Jews feared that the existence of a Jewish state would expose them to accusations of dual loyalty.

This ambivalence intensified when leaders of the new state expressed the expectation that all Jews in the world would come and live in Israel. Much of this tension among American Jews, however, was alleviated by president Truman’s immediate recognition of Israel, allowing them to support both Israeli and US policies, and the 1950 Ben-Gurion–Blaustein Agreement, which set limits to Israeli intervention in the internal affairs of American Jews as individuals and as members of a community.

Identification with and political and economic support for Israel took a leap forward amid the threat to Israel in May 1967 and the country’s dazzling victory and reunification of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War a month later. Since then, Israel has been pivotal in American Jewish communitarian life and central in American-Jewish religious and ethnic identification – so much so as to attract relatively large numbers of olim (immigrants) from the US for a brief time.

As nationwide surveys attest, American Jews’ attachment to Israel has remained fairly stable to this day, with the percentage of American Jews who have visited Israel growing significantly. Still, the shift in Israel’s political orientation from Left to Right since the late 1970s, continued Israeli control over the West Bank, and non-recognition of the non-Orthodox streams, which occasionally boils into real conflicts over the use of sacred public space (read: the Western Wall) have made American Jews view Israel more and more critically.

American Jews marching in New York with Israeli flags. How can we bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora? (credit: REUTERS)American Jews marching in New York with Israeli flags. How can we bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora? (credit: REUTERS)

For better or worse, despite some reservations, Israel is a visible component of American Jews’ group identity and political and cultural interest. This strong connection rests, historically and contemporarily, on three main foundations that do not necessarily stand alone but are, in fact, interconnected. 

THE FIRST is the Holocaust and the limited ability of American Jews to help Jews in danger, demonstrating the importance of an independent Jewish state that has military power and is open to unrestricted Jewish immigration.

The second foundation is Israel’s centrality as a symbol of ethnic and religious belonging. Israel is an inspiration for a full Jewish life, be it religious or secular, and for the flourishing of Jewish culture and creation – a place where Jewish exiles gather and merge and a source of Jewish pride for its scientific and technological achievements.

The third foundation is antisemitism. Although American Jews are firmly planted in the US, American society in general exhibits prejudice against Jews. Nine in 10 American Jews think there is “a lot” or “some” antisemitism in their country today, and three in four believe the scope of antisemitism has grown in recent years. Under such circumstances, some may view Israel as a shelter.

The attachment to Diaspora Jewry

At the other end, many Israelis (nearly three-quarters according to a recent study by the Jewish People Policy Institute) feel close to other Jews, American Jews included. Interestingly, the stronger these Israelis’ Jewish orientation is – religious or ultra-Orthodox – the more powerful is their attachment to Diaspora Jewry.

Concurrently, however, I wish to argue that they take a narrow view of American Jewry, often through the prism of rigid religious law, denying a place to Jews who are not Orthodox or fail to meet the halachic criteria of Jewishness: Conservative and Reform Jews, those whose Jewish descent is patrilineal only, and non-Jewish grandchildren of Jews.

It is difficult to project the outcome of the current judicial reform in Israel. This is largely a domestic matter that will primarily affect the residents of Israel, although it will harm the country’s image in the eyes of American Jews and the world at large.

However, if the government amends the Law of Return so as to delete the grandchild clause, stops supporting Taglit-Birthright because it accepts Jews’ non-Jewish grandchildren, or toughens the restrictions on the pluralistic denominations in Israel, it will open another front against American Jewry.

Israel will then find itself facing millions of Jews who feel that it does not recognize their Jewishness, does not embrace young people from mixed backgrounds who wish to visit the country and strengthen their Jewish identification, and, most significantly, can no longer be regarded as a shelter for Jews if they will not be allowed to move there with their non-halachic children or grandchildren.

There is no doubt that the Israeli government was surprised by the wide public protest and the reaction of liberal countries against the reform that it is trying to pass in the Knesset. I would like to believe that it will be more careful than it has been thus far and will hesitate to take any steps that could undermine relations between Israel and American Jewry.

In different ways than in the past – and in many new ways – Israel and American Jewry need each other, especially given the uncertainty and instability of the times in which we live.

This is the sixth in a series of eight op-ed articles appearing once a month during Israel’s 75th anniversary year.

The writer is professor and head of the Division of Jewish Demography at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he also holds the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel–Diaspora Relations.