The common destiny of Israeli and American Jews

We live in one of the most felicitous times in Jewish history. Together, we can usher in a genuine Golden Age.

america israel 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
america israel 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
As someone born and raised in the United States, I get to represent the land of my forefathers to the land of my father.
I have the best job in the world, though sometimes it’s tough.
I have to describe the monumental challenges facing Israel on a daily basis: The tens of thousands of terrorist rockets aimed at our homes. The entire Middle East roiling around us while the Iranian centrifuges continue to spin.
I explain how Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, his government, and the Israel Defense Forces are grappling with these threats and defending the people of Israel. But I also get to talk about the multiple miracles occurring in Israel today: The fact that Israel is one of the healthiest, happiest and most educated societies in the world. Half of our universities are in the top 100 globally.
We reclaim a greater percentage of our water than any other country, conserve one of the largest shares of our territory for nature and are the only Middle Eastern country with a growing and thriving Christian population.
ON COLLEGE campuses, in churches, on TV talk shows, I get to introduce Americans to the Israel I know and cherish. Not the Israel of conflict, but the Israel of gorgeous beaches, fabulous food, progressive gay rights and non-stop innovation. But you know all that. I don’t have to tell you.
And today, I have the opportunity not merely to speak, but to converse. I want to share with you my concerns about our future. I want to talk about us, Israeli and American Jews, where we are and how we can move forward. I want to envisage our common destiny.
We live at an utterly extraordinary time in Jewish history – I have to pinch myself sometimes. For the first time in 2,000 years, Jews throughout the world are free.
More amazingly, the vast majority of Jews live in two places where being Jewish is, well, cool. In Israel and in North America, we revel in our Jewish creativity.
We ply the limits of Jewish vitality and test our Jewish concepts in the free market of ideas.
Not ever, not even in Talmudic times, since Sura and Pumbeditha, have two centers of Jewish life proved so dynamic. When I grew up in this country, there was scarcely a Jewish day school. Now there are more than 800 nationally – 20 of them right here in the Greater Baltimore Area.
I travel to synagogues throughout the country, I hear young people reading from the Torah in fluent, confident Hebrew. I attended a Conservative Hebrew school and at my Bar Mitzvah read the Torah in transliteration.
There are nearly 1,000 Hillel chapters and Jewish fraternities and sororities on North American campuses, over 150 Jewish summer overnight camps, and countless adult education programs.You’ve got the JCC, the JDC and JDate.
We, the Jewish communities of Israel and America, are living in a Golden Age. But are we experiencing that Golden Age together? Are we celebrating this moment as a single people, or are we in danger of becoming divided? Can we talk candidly about the issues that threaten to separate us: Issues relating to security, to the peace process, and the relationship between religion and the state. Can we discuss whether we should serve our own people first or serve all of humanity – klal yisrael or tikkun olam.
Most fundamentally, can our two diverse and flourishing communities learn to rejoice in our individual successes and help shoulder one another’s burdens? How can we not only co-exist but co-flourish? That question is hardly new. The American Jewish experience defied so many Diaspora assumptions.
Jewish immigrants to America did encounter quotas and anti-Semitism. But unlike the Jews of Europe and the Middle East, American Jews could achieve anything – they could become doctors, lawyers, heads of industries, movie stars.
Perhaps that is why so few of those immigrants were attracted to Zionism. The first Zionist activist in New York, the poet Emma Lazarus, garnered only a handful of followers. And on the eve of World War I, out of the more than two and a half million Jews, a mere 10,000 were Zionists, and less than 50 of them made aliya. Indeed, most of the major American Jewish organizations were either indifferent or opposed to Zionism. They had found the solution, de Goldineh Medineh, the Jewish utopia – America.
Which is precisely why European Zionists preferred not to deal with America.
The globe-trotting Theodor Herzl never visited here. And of the 200 delegates to the first Zionist Congress in 1897, only four were from the United States. Much of that changed with World War II and the Holocaust.
Zionist leaders such as David Ben-Gurion realized that America would dominate the post-war world.
American Jews, for their part, vowed that our people would never again be powerless, and that the emergence of a sovereign Jewish state strengthened their American Jewish identity. Consequently, American and Israeli Jews joined in the struggle for Israeli independence.
Then, in 1950, Israeli prime minister David Ben- Gurion had a correspondence with American Jewish leader – and noted Baltimore philanthropist – Jacob Blaustein. Ben-Gurion pledged never to question the loyalty of American Jews to America. In return, Blaustein promised American Jewish help in forging a secure and robust Jewish state. And the agreement pretty much worked.
Israelis mostly refrained from calling for a mass aliya of American Jews. Indeed, in many of the Israel Experience programs for Americans, Israeli counselors were forbidden to press for aliya. American Jews, for their part, gave selflessly to Israeli universities, communities and hospitals. They put support for Israel squarely on the political maps of both the United States and Canada.
Israel’s alliance with both countries has burgeoned into the world’s deepest and most multi-faceted – thanks in no small part to North American Jewry.
But in recent years, something has happened. We, Israel and American Jewry, have changed. Israel’s security situation has grown vastly more complex.
Once, our enemies wore uniforms and met us on the field of battle. Instead, terrorists [now] shoot at our children while hiding behind their children, numbers of whom are tragically killed. And the battlefield is now on American campuses, in the media, even in supermarkets where Israeli products have been boycotted.
Where once we could see the Arab planes and tanks attacking us, now we cannot see the Iranian nuclear program designed to destroy us. In place of Middle Eastern dictators, there are rebellions that many Americans associated with Lexington and Concord but [which] for many Israelis evoked Mogadishu and Benghazi.
THE PEACE process has changed. In place of handshakes on the White House lawn, even moderate Palestinian leaders today glorify terrorists. They deny the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, and declare statehood without making peace. There is Hamas, which now rules Gaza and whose covenant calls not only for Israel’s destruction but for the murder of Jews everywhere – a genocidal organization.
Twenty years ago, the Israeli government did not support the creation of a Palestinian state, though a majority of Israelis believed peace was possible.
Today, the official policy of the Netanyahu government is the two-state solution but the majority of Israelis doubt whether the Palestinians can achieve it. Still, rarely a day goes by without commentators – many of them American Jews – claiming that we’re not doing enough for peace.
They focus on the settlements, which take up less than two percent of the West Bank. They seem to forget the 21 settlements we uprooted in Gaza in the hope of advancing peace, and the many thousands of rocket attacks we received instead.
They often forget the generous Israeli peace offers rejected by the Palestinians, or the thousand Israelis killed by suicide bombs. Of course, America is a democracy – like Israel – and everyone has the right to criticize. No, we’re not perfect – just read the Israeli press. We’re just startled, sometimes, when the criticism is ill-informed and overwhelming.
Israeli society is changing.
There are more religiously observant Israelis today, larger minority populations, and more young people who feel more Israeli than Jewish – who see themselves not as am yisrael but rather as ha’am hayisraeli.
Yes, Israel is the start-up nation, but the flip side of our technological success is a wider social gap between haves and haves-less. As the only industrialized country bordering Africa, Israel has also become deluged with illegal immigrants seeking work.We have many more problems, but we also sense that fewer people understand us, including some American Jews.
CHANGES, MEANWHILE, have also occurred among American Jews. The horror of 9/11, the trauma of two wars, the economic crisis – all have left deep scars. Politics have become polarized. I once tried to meet American Jewish Democrats and Republicans in the same room. Once.
Many Jews, like other Americans, want to focus on their domestic challenges before dealing with those elsewhere [in the] world. More and more, Israel is in danger of being seen not as a real country with real people confronting real-life problems, but as an issue; as a society either to be idealized or demonized or simply ignored.
These changes have impacted our relationship – I’ve witnessed it up close. The last thing I thought I’d ever have to do on this job was to try to change the minds of an incoming class of rabbinical students opposed spending their required year in Israel.
I never imagined that my request to display posters against the Iranian nuclear program outside of synagogues would go largely unheeded or, in the case of one rabbi, rejected as too risky for his congregation.
At the same time, I never pictured myself calling Israeli leaders in the middle of the night urging them to remove YouTube clips designed to convince Israelis living in this country to come home.
Those videos, I explained, however unintentionally, questioned whether Jews could remain Jewish in America.
Over the past four years, I’ve seen how too often we no longer speak with one another but past one another. I’ve dealt with topics that American Jews view through the prisms of religious freedom and women’s rights and Israelis through the lenses of sovereignty, law and public safety.
I’ve dealt with the illegal immigration from Africa, which Israelis see as threatening to their economic and social fabric and some American Jews see as troubling to their conscience.
I find myself wondering, can we strive to view such issues from one another’s perspective? Can we talk with – and not past – each other? I believe the answer is yes. But to succeed we must reexamine some of our fundamental assumptions.
We must revisit the Ben-Gurion-Blaustein agreement.
Clearly, the relationship is far too nuanced – and the world too complex – for the simple formula of “you respect my American allegiance and I’ll support you from afar.”
As programs such as Birthright have demonstrated, Israel plays a pivotal role in strengthening American Jewish identity. Hundreds of thousands of young Jews have tapped into the joys of being Jewish, the pride of being part of our remarkable people, and the attachment to our ancestral land. Israel Experience programs have also deepened the sense of Jewish belonging among the tens of thousands of Israeli young people who have accompanied them.
AMERICAN JEWS have always backed the US aid so vital to Israel’s security, but thousands of young American Jews have not only supported Israel politically, they’ve served in its armed forces, some of them as “lone soldiers.” Many thousands more have strengthened Israel by working in our industries, studying at our universities and volunteering in needy communities.
Israeli young people, in turn, serve as shlichim to American Jewish communities and campuses. I visited a hospital in Cincinnati where young Israeli doctors are pioneering new methods of pediatric surgery. All three of my children have volunteered in American Jewish camps.
In growing numbers, Israelis are inspired by American Jewish pluralism and are seeking to test it in a sovereign Jewish context. The relationship between Israel and American Jewry has become more symbiotic, more organic and more critical to our common survival, both physically and spiritually, as Jews.
Accordingly, Israelis must acknowledge the American Jewish experience as legitimate, permanent, and as a source of enrichment for Israeli Jewry.
American Jews must respect Israel as a polity comprised of human beings who have to make life and death decisions and who, more than anyone, bear the consequences of those decisions. We must participate in more programs such as the Federation’s Reverse Mifgash, that bring together Israeli and American Jewish youth, or the Hartman Institute’s i-Engage, which seeks to establish a new value-based covenant between Israeli and American Jews.
We must seek to do Tikkun Olam not as isolated communities but as Am Yisrael, through organizations such as IsraAID, where Israeli and Americans Jews join in helping disaster victims worldwide.
Before criticizing, we must pause to clarify, to understand, and, above all, to listen.
I – we – live in one of the most felicitous times in Jewish history. We’re blessed with the opportunity to foster a closer and more vibrant kinship. A kinship based not solely on crisis and need but on common interests and care – on peoplehood. We have the opportunity to confront challenges and celebrate our accomplishments not as Israeli or American Jews, but simply as Jews.
We must take advantage of this totally unique moment to sit and speak with one another frankly, intelligently, caringly. We can be a transformative Jewish generation. We can form even stronger bonds that span all distances and blossom from our ideals. Together, we can usher in a genuine Golden Age – an age of unity and of empathy, and, yes, of love.
The writer is the Israeli ambassador to the United States. This text is based on a speech he gave to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly on November 13.