Healing Jewish rifts in the ‘three weeks’

Widening gap between Israel and the Diaspora.

young americans idf 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
young americans idf 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jewish tradition of fasting and adopting certain mourning rites during the three weeks that stretch between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha Be’Av is meant to spark introspection and reflection. It was the Jewish people’s divisiveness and infighting that precipitated the end of Jewish sovereignty and the beginning of exile – events commemorated during this period. Sadly, some of the same internecine tensions exist today, including in conflicts between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, haredim and other streams of the Jewish community, Left and Right.
As though Jewish dissent within Israel were not enough, there are also widening gulfs between Israel and the Diaspora, and notably American Jews, the largest Diaspora community. A 2007 study by sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, for instance, noted a marked decline, at all ages, in the level of American Jewish identification with Israel and a rise in discomfort with the idea of a Jewish state. A 2008 study by sociologists Leonard Saxe and Theodore Sasson documented that younger, non-Orthodox, American Jews were less identified with Israel, a fact that has been true for some time.
The worrying rise in intermarriage in the Diaspora is one cause. Intermarried Jews and their children tend to have looser ties to Judaism and Israel. Wider public opinions for or against Israel also have a major impact on Jewish opinion.
In a controversial essay that appeared in the New York Review of Books in May, writer Peter Beinart argued that the widening divide between Israel and America’s young, non-Orthodox Jewry was a direct result of Israeli policies, which Beinart harshly criticized.
Beinart’s explanation was not new. In fact, over three years ago, Cohen and Kelman rejected “widely held beliefs” that American Jews’ left-liberal political identity was responsible for a fall in support for Israel. A more likely explanation is that American Jewry is simply increasingly indifferent to Israel – which would be worse. Better to grapple with engaged criticism like Beinart’s than face disconnected apathy.
Though Beinart was right to point out that Israeli and American Jews hold sharply different political sensibilities, he was wrong to imply that these discrepancies point to American Jewry’s moral superiority. They are, rather, a result of deep historical and cultural differences as well as the unique challenges faced by Israel.
American Jews enjoyed unprecedented economic prosperity, successful cultural integration and readily internalized liberal democratic ideals granted them by America’s founding fathers. Israelis, in contrast, are refugees or their descendants, many of whom came from countries lacking a democratic tradition, and who opted, out of either choice or circumstance, to embrace Zionism’s nation-state solution to “the Jewish question.” Israel’s fledgling democracy has developed under the existential threat posed by a violently militant Palestinian nationalist movement, while integrating a significant Arab minority that unsurprisingly identifies more with the surrounding Arab majority than with Zionism – as well as over a million immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, devoid of a liberal democratic culture. Remarkably, throughout all this, Israel has managed to maintain an irreverent, muckraking press, a highly activist judiciary and a parliament that provides Arab Israelis with equal political representation.
STILL, THE gulf between Israeli and American Jews remains. Thankfully, steps are being taken to bridge it.
Just last week the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, meeting in Jerusalem, unanimously approved a new, broader mission that will focus on strengthening Diaspora Jewry’s ties with Israel.
Interestingly, one of the most effective ways of achieving this goal is by facilitating a visit to Israel, like the ones provided by Taglit-Birthright or MASA.
By simply meeting with Israelis and seeing up close their unique challenges, American Jews gain a better understanding and return home with closer ties to Israel, whether or not they agree with the policies of the government of the day.
During the “three weeks,” when history teaches of the terrible price paid for a lack of Jewish solidarity, one could not wish for a better outcome.