The three faces of American Jews and Israel


“The lack of engagement of North American Jews with Israel” is a problem, Rabbi Misha Zinkow at Temple Israel in Columbus, Ohio, told the New York Times.  It was “a trend that he sees expanding among younger Jews.”  This seems to be a shocking statement considering the fact that in the last month there has been a massive AIPAC conference attended by tens of thousands, that Jewish Voice for Peace is bragging of having 9,000 members and 200,000 supporters and that J Street has just held a well attended conference.  In 2014 Taglit Birthright reached its 400,000th participant who went on a ten day trip to the Jewish state.  “Lack of engagement”?  This is the most engaged generation of Jews ever in existence.  Never in history have so many Jews been to a single place in so little time.  If someone had told you that 400,000 Jews in 1850 went to Jerusalem it would have been considered a mass messianic manifestation of unprecedented scale.  Even in the time of the Temple when the Roman engineers had helped Herod build a civilized road system, did so many Jews ever make their way in so little time back and forth?

Maybe what Jews need is some disengagement?  Too much of a dose of Israel may be doing them some harm; too many debates, too many arguments, too much struggling and wrestling.  Maybe a more healthy relationship would involve less.  Consider the fact that no other minority community has such an active relationship with its purported homeland.  Do Armenians have a multi-mllion dollar “new Armenia fund” that actively lobbies to turn Armenia into a mode progressive state for “all its citizens”?  Do Irish-Americans have dozens of conferences devoted to the needs of Ireland, from pro-Ireland lobbies, to anti-Ireland boycott groups?  In just a one year period the sheer weight and number of conferences on Israel is immense; the Saban Forum, The President’s Conference, the General Assembly, World Zionist Organization Congress, Saban Forum, IDC conference, Limmud conferences, the We Believe in Israel conference in the UK (1,500 attendees), the Haaretz peace conference, Times of Israel conference, The Jerusalem Post Conference.

There is probably more jet fuel used to shuttle Israelis back and forth to speak at various conferences than is used for conferences relating to any other country in the world.  And most of it is directed at the diaspora; few if any of these events have Hebrew sessions; English is the lingua franca.

The recent Israeli election has brought into the spotlight the country’s future and current policies.  Unsurprisingly the usual suspects come out of the woodwork to commentate and prognosticate on Israel’s eventual decline and fall.  “They have chosen the path of apartheid,” claimed former New York Jewish Week writer James Besser.  The White House claimed Israel must “end it’s 50 year occupation.”   Have we heard this before, or is this new?  Every few years someone comes forward to say Israel has finally reached apartheid.  Whether it is a Haaretz editorial or Shulamit Aloni, there is always an apartheid story.  The US administration has a cycle of grieving over the “dead” peace process, it is like the seven stages of grief.  But it comes and goes, right?

Graffiti in Jerusalem; some people feel the Israel elections were a big middle-finger to the world (Seth J. Frantzman)

Graffiti in Jerusalem; some people feel the Israel elections were a big middle-finger to the world (Seth J. Frantzman)

Zionism: The New American Judaism

Once upon a time in the era of Nahum Goldman and Abba Hillel Silver, there was a concept of a bifurcated Jewry in which two equal parts existed.  One had its seat in America and the other in Israel.  American Jewry was American first, it was not very religious, it was not only highly assimilated but it also played a key role in American endeavors.  It was less a minority group, than a key part of the US fabric.  It was powerful, influential and disinterested in moving to Israel.  It had embraced values such as separation of church and state, and civil rights.  It was heavily democratic, leftist and involved in social causes.

This was a Jewry that had earned its place at the table and was only one generation away from destitute penury.  But Israel worked its way into the hearts of this American Jewry.  After all, the two had been connected.  Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Louis Brandeis, they all took part in the Zionist debates.  Naftali Herz Imbar, the author of Israel’s declaration of Independence died in New York, as did Zeev Jabotinsky.  Israel Zangwill and Golda Meir all had their American experiences.  If later the myth of Zionism was that it had dug itself out of the barren desert and that it was primarily a European movement would emerge, it was only because of a convenient forgetting of how much America was central to the Zionist endeavor and the Zionist history.

Over time Israel has come to be the dominant center of Zionism.  American Jews are asked all the time to debate Israel, to focus on Israel, to look at Israel, to engage with Israel, to struggle and wrestle with Israel, read about Israel.  The semblance of even a modicum of equality is gone. In essence American Judaism has added Zionism and Israel as one of its key components, some even argue that the only way to preserve American Jews from assimilation is through connection to Israel.  No one, of course, asks Israeli Jews to engage with America.  Israel is the center, American Jewry is one of the larger Jewish planets that revolves around it.  That’s not to insult American Jewish engagement with Israel, it is to state a fact of how the debate and discussion takes place.  When Stav Shaffir goes to speak to the Jewish masses at J Street she is a hero, a rock star, an Israeli rock star.  She is the new face of “occupy Zionism.”  Does she want to learn from American Jews?  Does she think American Jewish values can be exported to Israel?  Or is it more about preaching to American Jews, who without question accept the dogma, about the greatness of her ideology and her Israel?

From the young motivated left, embodied more by J Street and Shaffir, to the more stodgy institutional right, the path leading to Israel is a one-way street.  When Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks to the US Congress or speaks to Jewish groups, he gets resounding applause.  He tells them how to look at Israel and which policy to support.  When he says Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state, that becomes the talking point the next day.  When he says Iran is the greatest threat, those Jewish groups that support Israel go into action and talk about Iran.  It isn’t a conspiracy, that somehow Israel pulls the strings of all these Jewish groups and institutions, it is just that they are Israel-centered.  What is good for Israel, in the eyes of Israeli leaders, is what is necessary to support.

Such is the nature of the Israel-American Jewish relationship that it has caused organizations to break-up, all because of Israel. The Hillel and Open Hillel controversy is all over Israel and whether Palestinian or pro-Palestinian or BDS speakers should be present.

Liberal Zionism: Neo-colonial instincts or true American values

Liberal Zionism is a sort of contradiction in terms according to its critics, and yet it has a huge number of devotees among a small sub-section of intellectual and thoughtful Jewish Americans who are interested in Israel, or “passionately engaged” as the code-word often has it.  The primary message of this ideology is that Israel’s actions reflect badly on their sensibilities in America.

The main agenda of Liberal Zionists in recent years is to resurrect 1950s Israel.  Paul Krugman wrote recently in the New York Times, that the good Israel of the 1950s, was “once upon a time, Israel was a country of egalitarian ideals.”  For this group, the modern Israel is illiberal and bordering on being post-democratic or an apartheid state.  They view themselves as fighting for the soul of Zionism to return it to its utopian mythological roots.

A gay pride parade in Jerusalem (Seth J. Frantzman)

A gay pride parade in Jerusalem (Seth J. Frantzman)

They pose themselves as a powerful diaspora imbued with the good values, and on a crusade to rescue Israel from itself.  Peter Beinart’s recent article argued it was time for the Diaspora to resist the current Israeli government.  Ostensibly Beinart’s “journey” from being pro-Israel to critical of Israel is part of the larger journey of the Liberal Zionists.  But their only real journey is a feeling they are not in power in Israel and they know what is best for Israel, without actually having to live there.  Ostensibly this is a “liberal” group who base their values on American liberal values, as Beinart says “why check your liberalism at Zionism’s door?”  But in truth liberal Zionism is insular and ethno-centric.  Beinart himself, accusing Netanyahu of being racist for saying “Arabs are voting in droves”, boiled down a debate to “the word ‘peace’ was used only five times. And three of those mentions came from the Arab candidate.”  The Arab candidate?  Doesn’t he have a name?   In the US if there was a debate would one describe one candidate as “the Jewish candidate”?

What Liberal Zionism posits is that Israel should reflect US Jewish values.  What those values are is not clear.  For instance while those values clearly oppose the occupation, it isn’t clear if they oppose the occupation of the Golan Heights.  While American Jews surely opposed the draft in the US, it isn’t clear these “liberals” oppose conscription in Israel.  Do the “liberals” who would never allow a community in the US to be “Christian-only” oppose acceptance committees in Israel in which some 1,000 communities are “Jewish-only”?  They oppose segregated education in the US, but do they oppose it in Israel.  They don’t like church and state being combined in the US, but in Israel the tend to support merely the inclusion of more reform rabbis, not the advent of civil marriage.

Mostly what the recent Liberal Zionist ethos boils down to is a feeling their views are not being respected or listened to.  There is a soft neo-colonial element to this that posits they know, paternalistically, what is best.  And if Israel misbehaves, it must be corrected.  Their relationship with Palestinians tends to eschew any real contact.  For instance Liberal Zionists will often want to have a debate at a central US Jewish institution, such as at the 92nd Street Y where two or more US Jews will debate what is best for the Palestinians.  Jeremy Ben-Ami, David Remnick.  This is largely an internal Jewish-only discussion.  Jewish Voice for Peace, Jewish volunteerism, Jewish debates, Jewish engagement.  It is mostly directed at the “soul” of Zionism or Israel.  It is a kind of crusade or reformation; and it has nothing to do with Palestinians.  It is about making Israel better, not improving Palestinian lives per se.

Elisheva Goldberg’s piece at The Forward is sort of emblematic.  She says that Netanyahu’s victory “It means more troubling conversations about Zionism for campus Hillels.”  She argues that the Jewish response should be things like, “The first pilot delegation of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence came to the territories last month to do tree replanting on the Nassar family farm.”

It is interesting that she connects the struggle with the old struggle for African-American civil rights. “Symbolically, American Jews have a powerful history of standing in solidarity in other struggles.”  That is true, but the question is whether American Jews have to always have everything they do labelled as “Jewish”; whether it is “Jews for Justice” or “Jewish Voice.”  In some ways the emphasis on Jewish in each endeavor moves the credit away from the group being helped and puts it onto the “Jewish” members, so that they feel more superior and empowered as “Jews.”  They talk about “tikkun olam” and “saving the world.”  The Palestinians are objects in the struggle, not equal partners.  That’s why debates on “indigenous rights” for Negev bedouin are often between two different Jewish experts, rarely involving a bedouin.  Liberal Zionism sometimes supplants Palestinian voices so that what is best for them becomes a debate between “liberal Zionism” and “pro-Israel Zionism” between Hillel and Open Hillel, Breaking the Silence and Stand With Us.

That doesn’t mean that J Street or some of these groups don’t sometimes seem to challenge this dialectic.  Noam Sheizaf tried to break the stupor with his challenging of some of the racism inherent in Israel inside the Green Line.  But Lisa Goldman‘s disturbing article on how Haaretz editor in chief Aluf Benn admitted that the Israeli media doesn’t care what Arabs think of the election and how Stav Shaffir seemed non-plussed by an question by an Arab from the Gulf, should raise alarms.

“The Mizrahim are to blame: The Israelification of American Jewish discussion

One of the strongest pieces of evidence of US Jewish engagement with Israel is the degree to which English language commentary on Israel, primarily by US Jews who have moved to Israel or have a strong connection to it, has internalized the Israeli conception of their own state.  The big evidence of this is the concept of “Ashkenazi-Mizrahi” relations.  Most American Jews never heard of Mizrahim before they became attuned to Israel.  Then, once attuned, they tend to gravitate towards the elite Israeli view of Mizrahim as a “problem.”

Larry Derfner’s +972 article is of particular interest on this level.  A former Israel correspondent for US News and World Report and former feature writer for The Jerusalem Post, he writes “what is an Ashkenazi Leftist to do“?  ignoring the fact that Likud voters come from wealthy areas like Rehavia, and from very Ashkenazi right wing communities over the Green Line, he claimed “I want to stress that I am referring only to poor, generally under-educated Mizrahim who make up the base of Likud supporters.” He claimed that “Israeli leftists…are disproportionately Ashkenazi.” Furthermore “If we lash out at Mizrahi Likudniks, we’re racists, which we don’t want to be, and if we blame them for their own racism, then we’re not good leftists.” Mizrahim are racist.  “The overwhelming majority of the Mizrahi poor hate weakness, even worse than the average Israeli does….Israeli leftists say we have to treat the poor Mizrahim as equals.”  He wondered “So why are poor Mizrahim right wing and often racist?”  He concluded, “Finally, don’t turn your backs on the Mizrahim poor. They’re not all fascists by any means, and the ones who are have children, and those children need our solidarity.”

His article will be read by thousands of intellectual American Jews who consider themselves left and they will internalize his worldview.  It is a very scary characterization and there is an avalanche of articles in English about this topic.  Uri Misgav at Haaretz claimed that Israel’s “democratic left” must “make a supreme effort to absorb Mizrahi Jews, kippah wearers, Arabs…” while Tali Heruti-Sover claimed “after all, the dark religious will have a woman only when Mizrahim stop voting for Mizrahim.”

Some American Jews seem to fear Mizrahi or traditional Jews just because of how they look (Seth J. Frantzman)

Some American Jews seem to fear Mizrahi or traditional Jews just because of how they look (Seth J. Frantzman)

The big word in Israel in 2015 is “tribalism.”  One of the most popular Israeli writers in the US is Ari Shavit, who often uses the word “white tribe” to describe the “left” wing voters.  Tomer Persico notes “Mizrachi (Sephardic) thinkers, artists and political activists who voted for Shas did so only out of identity awareness…tribal empowerment.”

There is an adoption of a self-fulfilling narrative now among some American Jews or those writing for an American Jewish audience that the presence of “Mizrahim” in Israel means they cannot identify with Israel.  Daniel Gordis wrote at Bloomberg that “Mizrachim now account for half of Israel’s population, and that percentage is slowly growing. Thus, values that are important to many American Jews — openness to non-Orthodox varieties of Judaism,giving women greater access to places of religious worship, softening Israel’s footprint in the West Bank — will matter much less to an increasing number of Israelis.” The Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen wrote something similar in his book Is Israel Good for the Jews?  “Who will defend Israel when it’s national character is no longer that of the European exile, the fighting intellectual, rifle in one hand and volume of Kierkegaard in the other? What will happen when Jews from Islamic lands, already nearly 50 percent of the population, become a healthy majority and change the face Israel presents to the world, particularly America.”

It’s worth pausing and analyzing this ethnic bogeyman being presented.  First of all, the Israel of the 1950s, that put Arabs under military curfew, expelled Arabs from their lands and committed many human rights violations, was made up of this mythological man with “Kierkegaard in one hand.” Who conquered the West Bank in 1967, or had no interest in allowing hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Golan to return?  Who are the majority of Jewish settlers living over the Green Line?  Not Jews from Islamic lands, but many of them actually American Jews.  Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 1.34.47 PM

Why is it that American Jews are presented as being unable to identify with a country that looks slightly different or has different origins?  The same American Jews who, in the US, value diversity and multi-culturalism, and embrace African-Americans and Hispanics, or Palestinians, cannot embrace Jews in Israel who are from Islamic countries?  Why is it assumed just because they came from Iraq and not Poland they have different values?  Isn’t a person’s values what they make of them?  Jews from Eastern Europe, the ostjuden had different values than German Jews in the 1890s, but today one wouldn’t know the different.  The whole concept of America has tended to posit that no matter what wretched situation one came from, as long as they are yearning to breath free, they can re-invent themselves.  That is inscribed on the statue of liberty, it was written by an American Jew.

The “Mizrahi” scapegoat is the latest in a litany of self-fulfilling prophetic reasons why American Jews are said to be drifting apart from Israel.  But it is a perplexing narrative for a self-described “left”.  The latest iteration of this was Guy Spigelman’s outburst in Haaretz pondering how his “Zionism” was out of touch with Israeli Zionism.   He claims that for 21 years he lived in Israel but now fears his place may not be here.  In a spiteful, angry, contempt-ridden article he claimed that after voting and volunteering for Zionist Union, the 30% of voters who voted Likud let him down because his party, which got 20% of the vote, won’t form the next government.  “As we tried to come to terms with the shock of what happened, a few Tel Aviv residents in their frustration declared that they would no longer donate to the poor in the south or the north: ‘They voted for Bibi, let them suffer.’ And I have to say, I can understand this gut reaction.”  This was an extraordinary reaction, arguing that the poor, which is often a euphemism for “Mizrahim” don’t deserve support.  Spigelman who is the CEO of PresenTense, an NGO that he claims helps “small business entrepreneurship amongst all of Israel’s diverse populationsasserts that “I spend most of my life dedicated to closing socio-economic gaps.”  But he’s had enough he claimed, “Why should we feel extra responsibility for the education, health and welfare of all Israelis? The new government will keep spending billions of shekels in the territories, and won’t have enough money to help poorer Israelis – and now I am expected to feel guilty if I don’t pick up the bill?”

An excerpt from the Spigelman piece (screenshot)

An excerpt from the Spigelman piece (screenshot)

So he claims that Israelis must prove themselves to him; “you want the almost 1 million citizens who voted for Zionist Union and Meretz, whose form of Zionism and Judaism don’t align with yours, to not disengage from the rest of Israel? Prove to me that we are not outside the fence – because that is how it feels at the moment.”

Prove yourself to me.  That’s the other side of the American Jewish relationship with Israel.  Paired with the view of Israel as a country half full of “Islamic” Jews who look different, not to mention Arabs, the country is seen as a failed state, deserving of abandonment.  Ironically it isn’t just being abandoned because its policies might be bad or values different, but because it is racially different.

Three faces and three contradictions

There is a dogmatic slavish devotion to Israel among some.  A feeling that Israel must be colonized and turned into mini-America by other, and a spiteful contempt for Israel’s ethnic complexion by others.  None of these are healthy relationships.  One should never be devoted entirely to something like a cult, putting its interests first and never interjecting.  One should not want to colonize something and turn it into a miniature version of oneself.  And worst of all one should never dislike something just because of the country of origin of its citizens or their racial or religious differences.

Where is the level headed connection to Israel?  American Jews don’t hate Iranians just because Iranians are different or their country’s leaders are fanatics.  In general other groups in the US, whether it is Cuban-Americans or Iraqi-Americans or Chinese-Americans don’t have a dislike for the citizens of their original home countries, even if they dislike the government.  One would find it odd also if they had a slavish devotion to the policies of the countries they feel connected to.  And one would find it even odder if a Cuban American told you “I can’t identify with Cuba, too many Cubans are dark skinned.”  If someone told you, “I won’t donate to charities in Mexico anymore, they voted for a party I disagree with,” people would wonder “but isn’t poverty apolitical?  Why would you punish the child of someone just because you disagree politically with the single mother?”

But none of the logics underpinning other things seem to jive when one gets into discussions about Israel.  The fact is that there is a healthy relationship with Israel among the majority of America’s five million Jews.  There are many people who feel some limited affinity for the land of Israel and like the diversity of Israel.  They don’t appreciate Israel’s policies, but they blame the government.  It’s a healthy relationship they also have with America.  Unfortunately the loud voices, the “three faces” dominate the debate too much.  Each face has things we can learn from it.  But it would be good to see less of them and encourage less rancor and hate and fanaticism, and instead encourage diversity and dialogue.

Interest in Israel has become too divisive and is leading to balkanization.  It shouldn’t be like that.

For starters American Jews should consider three points:
1) Don’t blindly support Israel’s actions.
2) Don’t have a debate about what is best for Palestinians and not include a Palestinian.
3) Don’t hate Israelis because of their ethnicity or because some of them have different values or politics.

2 responses to “The three faces of American Jews and Israel

  1. Here is the problem, I think: American Ashkenazim identify with Europeans/Whites, instead of the Levant. Probably because America has such a wide racial spectrum, A Levantine/Euro mixed person like an Ashkenazi Jew will be comparatively “whiter” than, say, a West African.

    Anyway, I think that this can be changed by Ashkenazi re-awakening and realizing that their ancestry comes from the Levant, not sure how this would be done, though. We need to remove any sense of “white” or “European” identification in Ashkenazim. Do American Blacks identify as White? No, but they are genetically mixed with Europeans also.

    All Jews were originally Mizrahim. Ashkenazim must submit to Mizrahi culture, and wear traditional clothing (if they are haredi).

    And btw, Arab/Palestinians don’t matter, they mostly want to massacre us, and those that don’t still want to steal our clay. Don’t care about their opinions or reason with them. They have been orchestrating anti-Jew massacres since the Farhud and earlier.

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