Savir's Corner: American Jewry and Israel

The myths around remaining Jewish are related to religion and to relations with the non-Jews of America.

jewish americans 311 (photo credit: BLOOMBERG)
jewish americans 311
(photo credit: BLOOMBERG)
In the early ’90s, I was Israel’s representative to the American Jewish community as Israel’s consul-general in New York. During my years of tenure, I discovered the Jewish American world, with its complexity, diversity, creativity and problems, as well as its intense connections and relations with Israel. I developed a strong empathy for my fellow Jews, be it to the avant-garde liberals in Greenwich Village or the Lubavitcher haredim in Brooklyn.
I understood, through the multitude of relations and events, the significance of Jewish Diaspora, as opposed to a sovereign Jewish state that I represented. I understood, then as now, that the real Jewish challenge is to remain Jewish, that the principle question was not if your parents were Jewish, but if your children will remain so. In this there is an important role for Israel.
I also witnessed how much the Jewish community of America was, and still is, an important player in the critical strategic alliance between Israel and the United States. Within these two paradigms – remaining Jewish and contributing to Israel’s well-being – many complexities arise, far beyond the general mythology surrounding these issues.
The myths around remaining Jewish are related to religion and to relations with the non-Jews of America. The more synagogue – prayer, communal life and activity – the better your chances to remain – as defined with some self-glorification – a “good Jew.” The less contact with the environment of non-Jewish life, be it acquaintances, organizations or holy days – the less the chances for assimilation. The myth regarding relations with Israel is that the more one supports nationalistic positions regarding security, Jerusalem, Arab rejectionism – the more “Jewish” one is.
Yet reality is far more complex. There are more than five million Jews in the United States, mostly in New York, California and Florida, with the greatest possible diversity in terms of origin, religious affiliation, integration in America, political positions and relations to Israel. The mythology and generalizations are created by a lively organizational community and by the attitude of local, national and umbrella organizations. It is organized Jewry that speaks to us, to the administration and to the press.
But there, like here, Jewish life is much more anarchic and complex than the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, AIPAC or the Israeli government would like us to believe. Five million Jews are impossible to define given their dispersal in such a big continent, a mosaic of diverse pieces. What can and should be defined are the challenges confronting American Jewry on the one side, and with Israel on the other, a historically important relationship.
As far as the American Jewry goes, the main challenges are in my view maintaining their Jewishness and being part of the general Jewish heritage, culture and religion. Jews in America are highly organized and creative within their community – the synagogues, the schools, the main religious institutions of Orthodoxy, Conservatism and Reform, the community center, the Jewish Federations, an endless number of organizations such as Hadassah or the American Jewish Committee or Jewish Boy Scouts, etc. The more they participate in such organizations and their activities, as such, the greater the link of Jewish identification to Jewish identity. This is even more true for Jewish education at Jewish schools, Sunday schools and institutions of higher education such as Brandeis or Yeshiva universities.
Jews are not considered Jewish in America because of legislation like in Israel with our Law of Return. It is a great advantage to be Jewish, just due to your family ties, because of what you feel or say. Yet for the same reasons, assimilation, mainly by an almost 50 percent rate of intermarriage, is easy but not rampant.
The key lies with the young generation – their education, their links to the organized community and their ties to Israel. There are as many organizations for the young as for their parents. More important in my mind is learning the Hebrew language and visiting Israel. Yet there is a problem with the centrality of Israel in Jewish life, as reflected in the public opinion polls, such as in the recent survey (late February 2012) by the Public Religion Research Institute.
When asked to prioritize their core values, Jewish Americans rate first socioeconomic equality (46%), more than double those who rate Israel first (only 20%), and 17% rate religious observance first. The same is reflected when American Jews are asked to rank their issues of priority for the coming presidential election – first is the economy (51% rate it as a priority), then social gaps (15%), healthcare and the budget deficit (10% each), only 4% rate Israel as a priority issue for these elections. In the same poll, as well as in others, Jews in America came across as liberal and democrat, with relatively dovish positions on Israel-related policy issues. Sixty-two percent of Jewish potential voters favor Obama, 30% a Republican (very close to how they voted in the 2008 elections). Fifty-three percent of Jewish Americans favor a Palestinian state.
This is not the perception that you get when you watch the AIPAC conference (undoubtedly the most effective lobby in the United States). When we watched Bibi’s “looks like a duck” speech, we understood that American Jewry looks like AIPAC. But this is only on television.
For Israel, there are important repercussions to analyzing myth and reality in Jewish America. First and foremost, we have to understand that the Jewish community in the US, with all its relative clout, is a minority, struggling to uphold Jewish identity, something to which we should aspire to contribute.
The fact that we are a sovereign Jewish country does not give us the right to be condescending to our Jewish brethren in the Exile, nor should we look up to the rich, successful “Jewish uncle.” Our relationship generally flows according to schizophrenic attitudes – preaching to the Gola Jews about our centrality and “schnorring” from them for any possible Israeli endeavor or institution. We should rather, in a more egalitarian relation, call on our brothers and sisters to invest here – in attitude and in the economy.
In our political relations with Washington, the organized US community is certainly a player – but the relationship should be a direct one between Jerusalem and Washington, not a triangular one that risks putting many Jews to a test of double loyalty. In this, it is important to understand that Israel in the American electoral process is a key factor only for a small minority of Jews, generally those who are ready to “fight til our last drop of blood.”
Most American Jews are liberal Democrats. The most important challenge before us, when it comes to American Jewry, is to understand that, as a sovereign state, it is more important what we can do for American Jewry and not vice versa. We should be open-minded to their predicaments, attractive to their young, and involve them in the Israeli experience, society and culture and in our aspirations for peace.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords