Over the past several weeks, numerous American friends, colleagues and family members have asked me what, if anything, they should do as Israel finds itself being torn apart from within following a government initiative to reform our judicial system.
My first response is that I am glad the question is being asked, as I view it as a clear signal of care, sympathy and involvement. Unfortunately, a large number of Diaspora Jews, especially in the US, are at best no longer interested in Israel and, worse, some have even adopted anti-Israel attitudes. Several factors have contributed to the indifference and negative feelings: a drift away from religious affiliation, political polarization and intermarriage, among others.
Religiously, Israeli law favors Orthodoxy over other streams of Judaism, particularly damaging the Reform movement, the largest stream of American Judaism. Politically, most American Jews identify as Democrats and are steadfast supporters of their party, putting them at odds with Israel’s ruling governments throughout most of the last decade. Add to that a barrage of BDS propaganda young Jews are exposed to on college campuses across America, and you have a recipe for pushing young Jews further and further away from identifying with Israel.
According to the most recent Pew Survey on Jewish Americans (2020), seven out of 10 Americans who identify as Jews have never visited Israel even once in their lifetime. Affordability was not a factor as this is a group that actually travels quite often – to Paris, Rome or Cancun, etc., preferring such destinations over their ancient homeland.
Therefore, the first part of my answer to the question posed above is get involved! There are many ways to do this. Stay up to date on what’s happening in Israel and initiate discussions with family, at your JCC, synagogue or other community gatherings. Proactively befriend Israelis and openly dialogue with them. Don’t hesitate to raise tough questions and even criticize moves that bother you.
And if you haven’t visited Israel, by all means, please come to experience our country in person. For those who have already been, we invite you to visit again as often as you can. Remember, Israel’s Law of Return states that any Jew in the world can immigrate to Israel at any time and become a citizen. So even if you don’t live here, you should always feel at home.
THE SECOND part of my answer is addressed to my fellow Israelis. It is as much our responsibility to maintain an open dialogue with Diaspora Jewry, especially with the largest Jewish community outside of Israel – American Jewry – as it is theirs. Without their support, Israel would not have been the country we know today, perhaps it would not have existed at all. We can’t continue to ask them for donations and then ignore them when they call. They are part of our extended family, and we should welcome and promote deep and meaningful relations on an ongoing basis.
Furthermore, this relationship requires reciprocity to be successful. Just as we expect them to care about us, we in Israel must care about them, understand their challenges and try to help as best as we can. We should not consider the fact that as many are drifting away from us, it is just their problem. Quite the contrary – it is our problem as well, and we need to continually explore new and innovative ways to help our fellow Jews maintain their Jewish identity and affiliation with the State of Israel.
Open dialogue is necessary, but it’s not enough. There can and should be more that Jews in America can do when faced with Israeli dilemmas and strife. That being said, I do not believe American Jews should try to force their opinion on those living in Israel.
There is a fine line between expressing opinion, criticizing, arguing, attempting to convince, etc., and taking action that is hurtful to Israel, such as threatening to stop investing here, calling on others to put pressure on Israel, and other actions that will negatively affect us. To get to that level of engagement, one is invited to make aliyah, become a citizen and influence the way Israel governs itself from within.
So what can an American Jew who really cares about Israel do beyond staying involved? Plenty, and here are some examples.
Let your voice be heard in Israel through letters, phone calls, social media, etc. There are people who will listen, and some may even change their perspective after hearing your opinion.
Look for “common ground” or consensus issues you feel comfortable with and try to promote them. Try to understand both sides of the issue as best as you can and act as a mediator or facilitator for Israelis who find themselves shouting at one another from opposite sides of the aisle.
Polarization is not just an American phenomenon – it hit Israel just as badly. People often tend to “climb up high to their respective tree-tops and drop their ladders.” Perhaps you can offer some virtual ladders to calm a heated debate.
Actively support one or more Israeli organizations whose charter and goals are such that you can identify with. Contribute your time, energy or financial resources to help them achieve their goals.
Be alert to attempts by Israel-bashers (there are a growing number in the US), who take advantage of any internal strife in Israel to portray it as “the demon” they always argue it is. Fight them with any legal tools at your disposal.
Arguing has always been part of our heritage and culture. It’s been part of our societal DNA from the time of Moses, through Talmudic arguments and all the way to modern Israel. Sometimes these arguments lead to heated emotions and quarrels, but eventually we find ways to agree with one another.
Most importantly, don’t lose your belief in Israel as a Jewish and democratic country, one that will continue to prosper and develop for the betterment of all its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, today and in the future. In the spirit of the Passover holiday, I invite both communities to maintain our strong ties and keep the fire burning.
The writer is a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, where he served until recently as the executive vice president and director-general, and a respected consultant to numerous American and Israeli government agencies, and financial, defense and information technology companies.