The Jews in the Land of Promise and in the Promised Land

Savir's Corner: President Shimon Peres once said that the whole issue of “Who is a Jew” should not only center on what our parents were, but even more so on if our children will remain Jewish.

President Shimon Peres in holiday greeting 370 (photo credit: Screenshot)
President Shimon Peres in holiday greeting 370
(photo credit: Screenshot)
New York, the Waldorf Astoria hotel ballroom, 350 guests, mostly middle-aged, wearing tuxedos and long, expensive dresses. At the podium, a keynote speaker: The chairman of a UJA chapter with a CV decorated with great philanthropic activities for Jewish communities in America and for their poor relations in Israel.
“Brothers and sisters, these are again difficult times for us in the Jewish community – we face difficult challenges of dangerous assimilation amongst our young, of suffering of our elderly, of anti-Semitic outbursts all over America, of an unprecedented delegitimization of our beloved State of Israel, of 22 dangerous Arab countries threatening the one small Jewish state with fanatic Islamic fundamentalism. And we say ‘Never again!’ (standing ovation).
“There is only one weapon we have to withstand these onslaughts: Jewish unity! I therefore call on all of you to donate to the new UJA Unity Fund. Long live the great United States of America, long live our beloved State of Israel, and long live our guest of honor, the one and only Moshe Knetzweiler, who launched with his generosity the UJA Unity Fund.”
A standing ovation once again and then hefty portions of boiled chicken, endless photo opportunities and effective fund-raising for dessert.
That same night, on the other end of Manhattan, a group of liberal intellectuals get together near New York University to discuss civil rights in America.
They are gathered in an old Bleecker Street loft, most of them in their 30s, seated on comfortable sofas, sipping white wine and listening to a young Reform rabbi from a synagogue on the Upper West Side, Shula Middel: “New York has become intolerant. I have Jewish neighbors who are terrified when they see young African-Americans on ‘their’ street, not to speak of going to Harlem.
"In Brooklyn the other day, there were violent clashes between Yeshiva boys and African-Americans playing basketball – some kind of war over turf. The rabbis and the black leaders came out with terrifying statements. Have we forgotten that in the civil rights movement blacks and Jews marched together? Today I hear racist talk, also in our midst. Have we lost our moral heritage? We have to rescue our Jewish heritage and moral code.”
Polite applause. Those present decided to create a dialogue group, between young Jewish and African-American students at NYU.
The American Jewish community, though big (6.5 million strong) and powerful politically and economically, is struggling to preserve in different ways its Jewish identity.
I became acquainted with this impressive Jewish community during my tenure as Israeli consul-general in New York in the early ’90s – an experience that contributed to my own Jewish identity.
In Israel, there are myths and misperceptions about American Jews. Most of us believe that Israel is the centerpiece of Jewish American life, that the choice is between strong national identification with Israel or assimilation into the gentile world, that American Jews are nationalistic in their outlook about Israel and support hawkish positions on peace in the Middle East. The reality, based on studies and research, is much more complex.
Most Jews in the Land of Promise want themselves and their children to remain Jewish, despite a 50-percent intermarriage rate. In their view, education and communal life are key to this (half of intermarried couples give their children Jewish education).
Communal life – the Jewish Community Center – is central as many educational, recreational, religious and organizational activities are created around it. There is also a vibrant Jewish cultural life, from Broadway to Hollywood, from East Coast intellectuals and writers to West Coast film producers.
It’s a culture that blends with the general American culture, often in very prominent ways – from Arthur Miller to Steven Spielberg.
Jews generally enjoy – in contrast with the myth of rampant anti-Semitism in America – tolerance from other parts of the American mosaic. In December every store and TV station wishes the public both Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukka. Many Jews are themselves living the American dream. This is not to say that Israel – as the one Jewish state – is not important to most American Jews. It is important, but less central than we are asked to believe.
Their Jewishness is more defined by America than by Israel, otherwise they would move here.
Jews in America are to a large degree liberals, probably the most liberal-leaning religious group.
They had a prominent role in the civil rights movement in the ’60s and thereafter in the American feminist movement. This is not surprising for an immigrant population, of which more than 60% enjoy a college education and 45% report an annual income of over $100,000. The largest Jewish presence is in New York and California, 38% of American Jews are Reform, 33% are Conservative and 22% Orthodox. Reform rabbis – men and women – perform, as a matter of routine, same-sex marriage.
Jews therefore traditionally vote in very high numbers for the Democratic Party, with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama receiving up to 80% of the Jewish vote and Obama also highly favored by Jews in the upcoming elections. They traditionally hold moderate positions on Middle East peace, with a vast majority supporting a two-state solution. They have a strong bond with Israel, as the one Jewish state, but when it comes to American elections, Israel-related policies are only the fourth-most important consideration for choosing the next president, after domestic issues.
Yet they support Israel, donate to it, visit it (although over 50% have not) and some also invest in it. American Jews are very interested in a good relationship between Washington and Jerusalem – the opposite, they fear, as when Jonathan Pollard was arrested, could bring their “double loyalty” into question.
The false mythology of Israelis about American Jews being more Orthodox, conservative and nationalistic on Israel than they really are, stems from us looking more at the expressions of institutional US Jewish life vis-à-vis Israel, than at Jewish life itself.
Israelis believe that AIPAC or the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is what American Jewry is all about. These organizations, which have historically rendered great service to Israel, are by and large more Orthodox, conservative and hawkish than the Jewish community they claim to represent.
While most American Jews have views on Israel and peace in the Middle East that reflect the Clinton and Obama visions, AIPAC does not – when it comes to a two-state solution, settlements and Jerusalem. In the Conference of Presidents there is an over-representation of Orthodox and right-leaning organizations and individuals.
American Jews also have deep misconceptions about Israel. They see it as a much more needy society than we really are, a function of the constant fund-raising efforts for impoverished Israeli townships, neighborhoods and the educational system.
The constant Israeli “shnor” has not exactly created a sense of an economically self-reliant society.
American Jews generally see our very existence as more threatened than it really is, result of a constant hasbara (public diplomacy) campaign about the existential threat that the Muslim world poses to us, often using Holocaust-related perceptions.
American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel culturally, with Israel becoming more of a Sephardi society and more integrated in the Middle East. They also see us as more hawkish than we are, due to the long supremacy of the Likud, while Israeli public opinion, although still supporting the Likud, has moved more to the Center on the issues of territory and a two-state solution, which have become virtually consensus among us.
This clash of misperceptions between the two most-important Jewish countries in the world is detrimental to a vital relationship for both sides. As the sovereign State of Israel, I believe it is up to us to restore this relationship within the Jewish family – to transform it into a relationship more between people than between leaderships, in the following ways: • First and foremost, there needs to be an understanding that the relationship between Israel and the American Jewry is vital to both sides in preserving our Jewishness, values and well-being.
• There needs to be greater learning about each other. Israeli youth hardly know anything about American Jews and see in them a wealthy overseas “uncle.” The Israeli government sees American Jews in a purely utilitarian manner, in terms of potential clout and donations. Both need to learn what the American community is really all about through an ongoing dialogue and, for the youth, through the education systems.
• American Jews, especially the young, should visit Israel more frequently and for longer periods.
• American Jews should internalize that Israel is central to Jewish life, as a world without Israel would be very different for them.
• An important part of remaining close is language. Israel and the Jewish Agency should dispatch many more Hebrew teachers to American Jewish day schools and Sunday schools. Speaking Hebrew will contribute to the Jewish identity of the community and to its ties with Israel.
• Israel should attract more Jewish American investment into the Israeli economy, mainly in the hi-tech area. The constant emphasis on donations makes us look poor and needy, and hardly a center of Jewish life.
• Israel should encourage open debate about Israel and the situation in the Middle East. Israel’s traditional paternalistic attitude of “you don’t live here, you don’t have the right to express your views” paralyzes all interest in what is going on here.
• In general the more attractive a country we are in terms of our achievements, values and place among the nations, the more attractive we will be to American Jews.
This relationship highlights the importance of preserving Jewishness in the 21st century. President Shimon Peres once said that the whole issue of “Who is a Jew” should not only center on what our parents were, but even more so on if our children will remain Jewish.
For American Jews it is a matter of education and of the relationship to Israel. For us it is our ability to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, and not as a binational state. And for both it is about an open, value-based relationship between the Jews in the Promised Land and the Jews in the Land of Promise.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.