The elephant in the Diaspora-Israel Jewish ‘crisis’: Wealth and understanding

The real elephant in the room is that Israelis are poorer than their Diaspora counterparts and this colors how communities see the issues.

American and Israeli flags (photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
American and Israeli flags
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
Recently a well-known American rabbi and Jewish leader flew to Israel to take part in a protest about the Kotel, the Western Wall. Then he flew home. For most Israelis this grandstanding goes largely unnoticed, even though it gets coverage in the English language press. To the consternation of some activists in the Diaspora, particularly in the United States, there is lack of attention among Israelis. Israelis don’t care about us, they say on social media. We are told that the communities are drifting part as the “abyss” widens between US and Israeli Jews.
We are presented with a self-fulfilling narrative about Israel-Diaspora relations. The most vocal activists in the Diaspora, mostly from the “liberal Zionist” tradition, tell American Jews that they cannot identify with Israel unless Israel mimics their values. Israel doesn’t mimic their values, so then they say there is a “crisis,” and that if Israel does not change then they will drift away.
For most Israelis this discussion goes on without them being included. This is because for the Diaspora Jews activists who have profited off the “crisis” for years there is no interest in including Israeli voices or taking into account the lived experience of Israelis.
The values that are preached in the US; tolerance, diversity, listening to the other, are rarely applied to Israel by Diaspora activists. Rarely are Israelis accorded the respect that voices in America would accord people of color in America or people from Iraq, Afghanistan or Nepal. When it comes to Israel, Israelis are portrayed as a monolith. Often the whole country is seen as a right-wing stereotype. The “good Israel” is said to have existed only in the 1950s and 1960s and today’s Israel is one of occupation and religious extremism.
When discussing Israel some in the Diaspora say that the younger generations relate to Israel more negatively because of “the occupation.”
But this same young generation, when asked about another country, say Mexico or Iran, makes a distinction between the regime and the people. Regardless of what Mexico’s government does, no one on a college campus in the US would allow it to color their view of Mexican people. Only with Israel do they say that they can’t relate to an entire country and its people because of the policies of the government.
This is because activists have neatly packaged this idea that the relationship with Israel is one of obsessing over government policies, rather than seeing the mosaic of Israel as a group of people with different views and backgrounds.
This conversation largely misses the reality of everyday life in Israel. It doesn’t listen to the complexity of people in the country and their lives and struggles. They are seen as a cookie-cutter caricature, stereotyped without having any input.
You can tell the degree to which these voices in the Diaspora are disconnected by the way they talk. One young man told a writer he was familiar with Israel because he had lived there for a short period. He said he understood the “fear” Israelis have of terrorism.
Fear? In my experience, “fear” is not a word I associate with most Israelis. Terrorism is a concern, but people don’t walk around fearful. To the contrary, it is a country where many civilians will confront terrorism rather than run from it. Americans on college campuses probably have more fear of terrorism than Israelis.
When people say they know Israel because they went there briefly it is worth asking them who they met in Israel, where they lived, which part of Israel they experienced. If they experienced the wealthiest one percent, they didn’t really get to know Israel.
The reason for this is because a few commentators and leaders have sought to dominate the conversation and sell the Diaspora community a narrative in order to increase their hold over that community. One suspects that for average young members of the Diaspora the constant “sky is falling” narrative they are presented about Israel is of little interest.
Given the chance, they would be interested in learning about Israelis. Instead they get a pastiche of Israel and Israeliness: Gay pride parades, occupation, kibbutzim, stories of the “demographics” of the ultra-Orthodox.
Many of the mostly male “leaders” and commentators in the Diaspora community are responsible for spreading misinformation about Israel because of their own background and stereotypes. Some were born in the 1950s or 1960s and grew up wanting Israel to be the mini-America they dreamed it could be.
They thought it would become a liberal paradise like their home because they associated almost exclusively with the wealthy and privileged in Israel.
Their life in Israel consisted of staying at nice hotels or spending some time on a kibbutz. So they thought the whole of Israel resembled a bucolic suburb of Tel Aviv. They didn’t want to get to know middle and lower class Israelis because they couldn’t identify with them and imagined they didn’t have much role in the politics of the country. They hoped that the “other Israel” they had nothing in common with would disappear. But it didn’t disappear.
It grew more influential and their inability to communicate with it has led to them characterizing the relationship with Israel as one of “crisis.” This is a kind of paternalistic and almost neo-colonial narrative that posits that some Americans must remake Israel in their image and that Israel can fulfill their desires to see it as a “light unto the nations.” For them Israel is not a real place, but a vision, where people who don’t fit the model are seen as a problem.
Assyrian Americans don’t live the life Assyrians do in Iraq. Irish Americans are different from Irish people in Ireland. Armenian Americans don’t face the financial struggles of Armenians in Armenia. The list could go on and on, including Turkish Americans, Iranian Americans and Vietnamese Americans. Only when it comes to the Jewish Diaspora is there some bizarre assumption that they should share the values of or have many commonalities with a Jewish state.
When Israel’s deputy foreign minister spoke out about these differences she was upbraided by the prime minister for her undiplomatic language. But tough love from Israelis is something Americans need to hear. For years Israelis have been lectured that if Israel doesn’t do X or Y then Americans will “drift away” or “boycott” the country.
When Israelis don’t behave one way they are told that funding will be cut off, they are threatened and critiqued. The narrative is that Israel needs the “tough love” and that “real friends criticize.” But for some in the Diaspora this is a one-way street. Any critique in the opposite direction is met with screams of offense. They say that Israelis don’t take time to get to know the rich and vibrant American community. True, Israelis know very little about that life. But do Americans know a lot about the rich and vibrant life of people in Israel? Do they know about life in Kiryat Yam or Metulla or Beersheva or Gush Etzion or Ashkelon? Or do they just know about life in Rehavia, the German Colony, the beach in Tel Aviv, and some kibbutz? It may not be fair to ask them to explore all this, but then why should they expect Israelis to know a lot about their lives? Much of the “crisis” between Israel and the Diaspora is manufactured for headlines. We hear about “betrayal” and Israel is “divorcing the Diaspora,” or “Netanyahu to millions of Jews: We don’t really want you,” or “Netanyahu to American Jews: Drop dead,” or “Netanyahu to Liberal American Jews: Drop dead.” You’d think newspapers would at least be somewhat original with headlines.
In a Pew survey only 43% of American Jews said “caring about Israel” was essential to being Jewish and only 43% had even been to Israel. 31% said they were not attached to Israel.
How can there be a “divorce” or a “chasm” when millions of American Jews don’t go to Israel and don’t particularly care about it in the first place? What we don’t hear much about is what average Diaspora Jews think and how they differ from Israeli Jews. A Pew survey in 2013 among US Jews and one conducted in 2014 among Israeli Jews show major differences.
Asked about what is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish, only 27% of Israeli Jews said “working for justice/equality,” while 56% of American Jews agreed. For 35% of Israeli Jews observing Jewish law was essential, while only 19% of American Jews thought so.
For American Jews remembering the Holocaust is very important (73%) while for Israelis it is less so (65%). Around 30% of American Jews do not identify with a Jewish denomination and this increases to 41% among people under 30. Unsurprisingly only 15% of US Jews think that being Jewish is about the religion as opposed to “ancestry/culture.” In the US the intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews is an astounding 71%.
The community in the US is wealthy, with 42% making more than $100,000 a year and 58% graduating college. Israelis are also well educated with 46% obtaining a college degree according to the OECD. However the average net monthly income in Israel is only $4,741, according to 2014 statistics. Real earnings are far less – around two thirds of Israelis make less than $2,800 a month.
Although the data in Israel reflects earnings for Jews and Arabs, the reality is that whereas 16% of American Jews earn less than $2,500 a month, around 50% of their Israeli counterparts earn similar amounts. In short, the real elephant in the room is that Israelis are poor.
We don’t talk about wealth and class when discussing the Kotel crisis or other supposed issues that affect the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
But wealth and belief in God play a big role. Despite the stories woven by commentators and “leaders,” the real difference between these communities is that one is primarily poor and more religious and married to other Jews, while the other is increasingly not religious at all, not married to Jews, and wealthy.
The Kotel crisis is only a minor symbol of this. Do most American Jews really care about the Kotel? If we did a survey and asked what the Kotel is and why it is or is not “holy,” we would probably get a diverse group of answers.
What we need to talk about is class. Class is the big divider between the Diaspora and Israel.
The reality of life here is not just things like army service or terrorism. The true reality of life here is that for many Israelis it is a struggle to make a living wage. They don’t have time to be concerned about an egalitarian prayer section; they’re worried about paying the rent.
When you tell them that some Americans flew in for a bar mitzva that cost more than most Israelis will make in several years, it is a bit difficult to get them angry and offended about the lack of a space at the Kotel to hold the event. The media exaggerates when they try to make the crisis about the “occupation” or the Kotel. There is no crisis. There are simply two very different communities with different values and different views on religion and different ways of life. Comparing Israel to the US Jewish Diaspora is like comparing West Virginia to the US Jewish Diaspora. You wouldn’t be surprised if someone told you that the state of West Virginia was quite different. Israel, like West Virginia, is very different. The best way to deal with that isn’t to overcome the difference, but to respect it, accept it, and maybe get to know it.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman