A narrative has been building over the last few years – amplified in the media – that American Jews, especially young and liberal American Jews, are turning from Israel.
According to this narrative, Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, its construction in the settlements, its rightward political and religious lurch – and now the policies and rhetoric of the hard-right government – have turned off large swaths of American Jews who cannot identify with, defend or even support the Jewish state.
The country is too nationalistic, too religious, too militaristic, too particularistic. Its values have changed. Its people have changed. It is not your grandmother’s Israel.
The tale of Israel as a heroic endeavor that has redeemed the Jewish people and, within a century, altered the trajectory of Jewish history has become lost on large parts of the Jewish people. This has happened as the numbers of those with personal experience of the Holocaust – either survivors or their children – decline, and as generations grow up with no familiarity with Israel before it was the economic and military power that it is today and with little memory of the existential threats the country faced before the Six Day War and during the Yom Kippur War.
In certain cases, some American Jews have turned into some of the Jewish state’s loudest and harshest critics. The names of prominent Jewish politicians, intellectuals, journalists and celebrities who bash Israel are well-known.
They may represent a distinct minority, but their voices are amplified within the media for a simple reason: A Jew who supports Israel is not news; what is news is a Jew who says that Birthright lied to them, that the history they learned of Israel in Hebrew school was false, that the State of Israel is illegitimate and that the Israelis are interlopers in Palestine oppressing the indigenous people.
Therefore, when dozens of rabbinical students affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements signed a letter that denounced Israel during Operation Guardian of the Walls in 2021, and when a Conservative rabbi declared earlier this year that his synagogue will no longer say the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel, that receives a great deal of attention and feeds the perception that significant parts of American Jewry have lost their affinity with the Jewish state.
"Re-charging Reform Judaism"
Against this background, a conference held last week in New York, attended by hundreds of Reform rabbis, cantors, educators, administrators and synagogue lay leaders was a breath of fresh air.
Called “Re-CHARGING Reform Judaism,” it was initiated by New York’s influential Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, who has been at the forefront of Reform leaders working to prevent a stream hostile to Israel from becoming the movement’s dominant roaring river.
In his opening address, Hirsch made clear his opposition to certain elements within the current government but pointed out that the process of distancing from Israel was gathering steam many years before the last elections.
“I worry – deeply – that increasing numbers of liberal young adults, including those entering Reform leadership, express indifference to Israel, or worse: opposition not to the policies of Israeli governments, but to the very legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise and the Jewish state,” he said.
“I worry – deeply – that increasing numbers of liberal young adults, including those entering Reform leadership, express indifference to Israel, or worse: opposition not to the policies of Israeli governments, but to the very legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise and the Jewish state.”Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch
“To turn against Israel; to join our ideological opponents and political enemies in castigating Zionism, is a sign of Jewish illness, an atrophying of our intellectual and emotional commitment to our people. Israel is the Jewish people’s supreme creation of our age.”
Israel, as we know quite well, is far from perfect and is full of faults. But one does not turn from one’s brother because of imperfection or abundant flaws. Rather one still feels that kinship, warts and all.
Thankfully, the top leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements remains staunchly supportive of the Jewish state, but the trends Hirsch identifies are troubling and they warrant attention – and action.
The future of the Jewish people depends on the continued vitality of the powerful bond between Jews around the world and the Jewish state. We applaud efforts, by Hirsch and others, to ensure that the stewards of American Jewish life remain deeply attached to Israel and that they continue to share their love of the Jewish state with Jewish communities, congregations and individuals across America.