As the annual season of Jewish reflection arrives with Rosh Hashanah tonight at sundown, in thinking about the past year I keep on returning to the divide between American and Israeli Jews. It is a subject I have mined in the past, but one to which I cannot help return. Despite everything that has happened during this Jewish calendar year, from Donald Trump’s election to UN Security Resolution 2334 to the investigations into Prime Minister Netanyahu, I suspect that the rift between American Jews and Israel that widened this year into a real crisis will ultimately be the most impactful marker of 5777. I do not have one main point or argument that I want to get across on this topic, but rather have a number of interrelated observations that will hopefully provide some food for thought over the High Holidays.
First, the crisis that was precipitated by the cancellation of the Western Wall compromise highlighted the religious gap between American Jews and Israeli Jews, and the ways in which religious pluralism is a real dividing line between the world’s two largest Jewish communities. For many American Jews, the fact that Israel does not officially recognize any form of Judaism other than Orthodox Judaism is an ongoing affront to their belief system, which is why such a seemingly small issue as a mixed gender prayer platform was an enormous deal.
But the fact that it was religious practice that led to the blow-up should not obscure the fact that the gap between American Jews and Israeli Jews is about so much more than how one observes Judaism. There is a political chasm as well that goes beyond Israeli-Palestinian issues or even the Iran deal. The fundamental worldviews and political preferences of the majority of American Jews and the majority of Israeli Jews are at odds. Most American Jews express disbelief that Israelis keep on electing right-wing coalitions that return Netanyahu to power, and cannot comprehend the support and appreciation that Israelis display for Trump. On the other side, most Israelis are aghast that American Jews support politicians whom they view as being insufficiently supportive of Israel, and resent American Jews lecturing Israel about what is in its own best interests. In some ways, the twin uproars over the Western Wall agreement and rejection of non-Orthodox conversions have made it easier to gloss over the fact that there are political and philosophical schisms that are just as gaping as the currently all-consuming religious pluralism rift.
This leads to my second observation, which is that the issues standing between American and Israeli Jews are not only ones of practice and philosophy, but of basic empathy and understanding. It is misleading to posit that Israeli Jews look down upon Conservative and Reform American Jews because they have rejected their Jewish practice; or that American Jews have studied Israeli political and governmental priorities and assessed them as being out of whack or bordering on anti-democratic populism run amok. Israelis do not have the ability to reject non-Orthodox traditions and practices because they have no experience with them and barely know the first thing about it. Orthodox Judaism has a stranglehold on Israeli religious life to such a large extent that secular Israelis’ religious practices and life cycle events fall under the Orthodox umbrella as well, whether or not they even wish to engage with Judaism as a religion. They do not understand the basics of American-style Conservative and Reform Judaism because it is as foreign to them as Hinduism is to most American Jews, so it is something that is easy to disparage and criticize out of a startling level of ignorance. Similarly, most American Jews do not know the first thing about the Israeli experience or the Israeli political system, and many of their criticisms come out of an innocent but tragic ignorance of the basics of what actually goes on in Israel. I’d be curious to know how many American Jews know what percentage of Israelis voted for Likud – and by proxy, Netanyahu directly – in the last election, or the margin of Knesset seats that the right-wing bloc holds over the left-wing bloc. American Jews of all political stripes glorify the IDF, but because of the absence of a representative similar experience here cannot grasp the way in which compulsory military service and a legacy of routine terrorism shapes many Israelis’ political outlook. It does not mean that criticisms of Israel’s politics are misplaced, only that there is not nearly enough of a reckoning of how Israel’s unique challenges and Israelis’ unique experiences shape Israel’s state and society.
There is even an insularity among Americans who move to Israel and Israelis who move to the U.S. that contributes to this. American Jews who make aliyah frequently live in Anglo communities, travel in circles of friends who all grew up in the U.S., remain culturally American in myriad ways, and sometimes can live in Israel for decades without having to become fluent or even proficient in Hebrew because of the replica of an American neighborhood they have created inside of Israel. Here in the U.S., it is altogether common to see Israelis move into communities or housing developments that are dominated by other Israelis – in my own corner of suburban Maryland, there are “the kibbutz” and “the moshav” – where they socialize only with other Israelis, speak Hebrew everywhere they go, and never get even a flavor of the American Jewish experience unless they send their kids to a Jewish day school. I am not sure that the critical mass of American Jews who live in Israel or Israelis who live in the U.S. experience their adopted countries in a way that gives them greater insight or understanding into the native psyche than their compatriots who remain at home.
Third, it is precisely because of this fundamental lack of understanding of how the other side lives and the completely different set of daily concerns that beset each group that the gap between the two communities is not going to close, despite predictions that demographic changes underway will heal the divide. Members of the current Israeli government have long had a theory that softening support amongst and criticism from liberal American Jews is a historical blip that they only need to wait out for a couple of decades until intermarriage and assimilation leave the engaged American Jewish community more Orthodox and more hawkish. Once this occurs, Israel – the thinking goes – will no longer have to deal with American Jewish criticism over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or even over the rights in Israel of non-Orthodox Jews who are not Israeli citizens. This also relies on the fact that demographics in Israel are changing as well, with religious Zionism ascendant and Orthodox Jews becoming more prominent in all facets of Israeli political and security institutions. On the face of it, a dominant class of Orthodox Jews in the U.S. twinned with a dominant class of Orthodox Jews in Israel will eliminate much of the bad blood that has sprung up between the American and Israeli Jewish communities.
The problem with this theory – leaving aside the fact that it relies on a prediction of non-Orthodox decline in the U.S. that may happen but that has also been erroneously predicted for decades – is that Orthodox Jews in Israel and Orthodox Jews in the U.S. are separated by a lot more than 6,000 miles and the Atlantic Ocean. An op-ed written by an anonymous modern Orthodox father of four from the New York metropolitan area detailing the ways in which the costs of “doing Jewish” have bankrupted him went viral last week, but the aspect that I found most interesting was how uniquely American Orthodox – and not just Orthodox writ large – the piece was. The biggest financial burdens the author listed were day school tuition; the effective cost of living tax that comes with living within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue in the inevitably wealthy suburb of a major American coastal city; Jewish summer camp; and kosher food. While this particular dad can walk into any Orthodox shul in Jerusalem or Modi’in and feel right at home, his life experience will still be completely foreign to the modern Orthodox Israeli dad sitting in the same row. None of those expenses or the financial burden associated with observant and committed Jewish life in the U.S. applies to Orthodox Jews in Israel, and it means that even within Jewish subgroups that cut across the national divide – in this case, Orthodox Jews – there is still an enormous divergence of experiences, concerns, and priorities. This makes simple banalities about bridging the gap between American and Israeli Jews based on common lifestyles and experiences not quite so simple after all.
A couple of months ago, Yehuda Kurtzer wrote the smartest piece I’ve so far read on this subject in explicitly calling for us to “take more seriously the independent evolutions of American and Israeli Jewry, and their corresponding divergence of paths, to reject single polemical theories of causality, and to recognize the need for systemic approaches toward rebuilding the relationship.” Kurtzer’s piece was addressed to Jewish communal and philanthropic leaders while I am thinking about a larger political sphere, but the essential point remains. I don’t know what the precise answer is, but to my mind it is well past the time in which it makes sense to think of American Jews and Israeli Jews as two parts of a unified whole rather than as allied communities that have much in common but are not always going to be – nor should always be – joined at the hip. If 5777 is going to be the low water mark in relations between the two sides rather than the beginning of a new normal, American and Israeli Jews must embark on a joint project that aims to understand each other better, articulates a set of common interests and concerns, and sets and manages expectations in a more realistic and honest way.